Friday, April 17, 2009

Best of 2008 - #3

I'll keep this one simple.

Elise, may your life play out as beautifully as this song. May you grow to be as elegantly simple. And may my love for you always go with you to calm and encourage.


Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Longing for Deliverance

For the first time, I am planning to participate in a Jewish Seder Meal, albeit one that has been slightly altered to fit the Christian tradition as well. I was thus very interested in the most recent Speaking of Faith on National Public Radio: Exodus, Cargo of Hidden Stories, which is a conversation Krista Tippett had with Dr. Avivah Zornberg, a leading scholar on Torah and Talmud.

Throughout the conversation, Tippett and Zornberg explore the meaning behind the story of the Israelite Exodus, and Zornberg utilizes the Jewish tradition of midrash to access several other stories or commentaries on the Jewish Exodus. I was particularly struck by the "mirror story", which was read on the program out of a fifth century Midrashic collection (Tanhuma Pekudei) ...

"You find that when Israel were in harsh labor in Egypt, Pharaoh decreed against them that they should not sleep at home nor have relations with their wives. Said Rabbi Shimeon bar Chalafta, 'What did the daughters of Israel do?' They would go down to draw water from the river, and God would prepare for them little fish in their buckets. And they would sell some of them, and cook some of them, and buy wine with the proceeds, and go to the field and feed their husbands. And when they had eaten and drunk, the women would take the mirrors and look into them with their husbands, and she would say, 'I am more comely than you,' and he would say, 'I am more comely than you.' And as a result, they would accustom themselves to desire, and they were fruitful and multiplied, and God took note of them immediately. Some of our sages said they bore two children at a time, others said they bore 12 at a time, and still others said 600,000. … And all these numbers from the mirrors. … In the merit of those mirrors which they showed their husbands to accustom them to desire, from the midst of the harsh labor, they raised up all the hosts."

This is indeed a striking story - unexpected in its sexuality and confidence (well, the sexuality piece shouldn't be all that surprising if you're familiar with other portions of the Torah). It is a strange thing to comment on given the other realities of the Israelite slavery and persecution: horrible work, intolerable masters, endless ridicule, loss of place and value in society ... to name a few. But, Dr. Zornberg has really taken to this story because it speaks so directly to a fundamental crisis in slavery and oppression: the loss of "desire".

Indeed, in the story of the mirrors one phrase is repeated twice: "accustom themselves to desire." Dr. Zornberg rightly says this is an "extraordinary expression, as if desire is something that simply has disappeared from their repertoire."

That can happen ... the loss of desire. Husbands and wives can become unaccustomed to desire, so overworked and overtaxed by life and stress and the harshness of industry that they grow impotent and un-desiring, passing nights away in quite islands of unfeeling. And it can happen to whole groups: an entire Midwestern city can grow so burdened and heavy-laden with worry, with the failure of industry and the crushing blows of cruel powers from far above and away that they too grow collectively impotent, uninspired and incapable of longing for life. And they too cease to touch and interact with one another in life-giving, pleasing manner.

That is the most henious act of slavery: to kill the desire for life and pleasure, to deaden us in our living, to truly make us less than human. And that is why I agree with Dr. Zornberg that one of the most courageous and excellent things to do in such drudgery is to endeavor "to accustom [ourselves] to desire".

Now, true: this is far different than pleasure for pleasure's sake. Pleasure for pleasure's sake is hiding from the pain, like the depressed factory worker whose life has become so empty that he must find life in some alternate reality, some state of intoxication that only drives him further into his despair and isolation. But, accustoming ourselves to desire is learning again to see life through the spectrum of hope and possibility. It is learning to say clearly to oneself, "while I cannot control the terrible persecution surrounding me and upon me, I can choose my own attitude, and I can choose to exercise my freedom, my humanity. I can refuse to be less than who God made me to be, even if the world forces me to be less."

There is unbelievable strength and vitality in learning to accustom ourselves to desire. It is as potent as sexuality, which is why we must be very ardent, playful and serious when we engage in either desire or sexuality. We must train ourselves to enjoy them both well at the risk of falling prey to the impotency of drudgery.


Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Best of 2008 - #4

Wherever you are, Todd Davis … thank you. Whether you’re traveling down to Culver City to get some props for a shoot or sitting in your home, enjoying a slow day with the sun streaming in, hear this … thank you. Before I took off for the heartland, you gave me a cd of your favorite group: Wilco. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was the album.

It took me a while to dig it out and play it enough to hear what you hear. But, in the year of 2008, I did hear it. Finally, I did. I heard the fusion of ten genres mixed into one story. And, I heard LA again – the limitless diversity, the unending individuality. That’s what it is, that fine city. It’s the incomprehensible mass of culture where everyone is trying and living a sacred individuality.

Jesus, etc. speaks that great paradox: ten genres and one new voice. Where exactly does it fall? Country? Rock? Alternative? None and all. High strings and deep bass open the song. And then where to … to the doped-up jazz lounge, to the smokey-rough-and-tumble country twang, to the Hawaiian sunset sung by a steel guitar. This song is like the alleyway of an apartment building where the tastes of the residents stream forth into the golden air of Los Angeles. And by the end of the song, you’ve got this urban symphony moving in unity into the cool, night air. And this one line falls into my ears: “our love, our love … our love is all we have … our love, our love is all of God’s money. Every one is a burning sun.” The great economy – all of the crossways and byways, all the market places and thirtieth floor corner offices – is nothing compared to the economy of God’s love.

I remember. And I say, again, thank you, Todd.


Monday, April 06, 2009

Best of 2008 - #5

I began to appreciate poetry a great deal more in this past year. I began to see how it can communicate life most effectively. We may hope or believe that our days work themselves out like prose – winding beautifully and sensibly to some conclusion each day. But in my experience the most we walk away with are fragments of memories, bit-piece conversations, a smell here, a scene there. Nothing comes together. Not perfectly. But, poetically – perhaps – there is order and significance. And good poetry can unleash memories from the tangle of moments.

Number five on my list of top 10 songs is poetry that makes “sense” of my world. I probably listened to “Find The River” any number of nights. The silent lights of cars would be cascading around our bedroom, and I would be trying to let go of the day. I would need something serene, and I would need perspective.

Michael Stipe begins to sing a song of personal struggle in a world of beautiful complexity, of agonizing relentlessness. The song itself – haunted by water – is an ebb and flow, a rising and falling tide. And the struggle comes from knowing he’s got to “leave to find my way,” that he must try to escape. Impossible. The tide is coming in, he is straining against the oars. “Nothing is going my way,” he laments over and over.

But, there is hope. The undercurrent of this song is the rising tide of receiving. “No need to leave the water knows.” So by the end of the song when Michael Stipe says one more time, “nothing is going my way,” he is no longer defeated in saying it. He is aware of a larger course in life, and he concludes, “all of this is coming your way.”

In 2008, I began to stop pushing against forces I could not control. And, I found in the surrender new opportunities.

<a href="">R.E.M. - Find The River ( Parallel Video Version )</a>

Friday, April 03, 2009

David Simon, Angst and New Life

David Simon, the journalist, author and writer/producer of the acclaimed show The Wire was in Greencastle last night. He was the invited guest for a conference on the future of journalism (for future journalists), and I went. The two episodes of The Wire I had seen were great works. But really hooked me was David's title for the lecture ... The Audacity of Despair: The Decline of the American Empire and What's In it For You.

I should have known by the title alone that David was going to be rather audacious in his persona, but I half expected an outlandish title with a blaisse conversation. As a pastor, I know it's easier to write bold words than it is to speak or embody them.

Turns out the title was rather innocent compared to David Simon.

The man was refreshingly honest (and openly crass ... so, let me add a warning ... if you do read his books or watch his shows or hear him speak, please do not think I'm endorsing his language or harshness. But I do appreciate his honesty). In fact his honesty was so strong that the whole audience began to skirm in their chairs no more than five minutes after he opened his mouth. He got to us. He got to me.

Now, granted: what he was saying was not something I wanted to hear (I'll share his thoughts here in a second). But, who he was and how he was embodying his belief was inspiring. Here he was ... someone who had been a journalist, someone who cared deeply about his home city of Baltimore, someone who is serious with life enough to live in the face of real injustice and crime ... willing to speak passionately about justice and injustice. He said plainly ... over and over again ... we do not want to face the facts. As Americans, we have grown accustomed to comfort over truth.

What he is is a prophet, at least in the biblical sense of the word. The biblical prophets - like Jeremiah and Ezekiel - made the people of God face reality, even when the reality wasn't easy. That's what David Simon was trying to say last night. He was saying, "we can do better; we have not done our best." I could not believe how open he was about it.

And that gets me to what you want to hear ... which is what he said.

David Simon's main point is that we've been making crap in this country for thirty years and expecting gold (except he didn't say crap). He said we've been living out of other people's pockets instead of developing our own communities (the key line in The Wire by David's own admission is when one guy says, "we haven't made anything in this country for thirty years ... we use to make stuff."). He said we've become a culture of individual promotion to the exlusion of community benefit. He said we've become so obsessed with "statistics" that we can stare glaring truths right in our face and claim they are not true ("There are 60 ways to make statistics lie so it looks like crime is going down," he said. "I know. Having worked in crime journalism for thirteen years, I've seen 58 ways."). He said we've lost any sense of professional integrity that will hold us to a task for a sustained period - longing instead for quick promotion and 36% margins of profit.

(If you would like to get a sampling of his thoughts, click here ... it's an article about the show The Wire, but at the end is the full transcript of the interview).

So, here's what I agree with David about ...
1. We have seen capitalism run afoul and personal promotion triumph over community welfare.
2. We've seen the triumph of "statistics" and "information" over pure reason and moral sense ... interestingly this is the exact point Edward Friedman made about American culture, and like David Simon, Friedman suggests that despite our "technological" advances our culture is in regression.
3. The only way to really stem this problem is to cease reliance or belief that someone "outside" of the situation is going to fix it and to begin working where we are (i.e. locally) to figure out what is not working and what will work.
4. The birth of the global news network has limited the ability for individuals to speak truth to power (much of David's talk reminded me of that great movie Network and the dangers of making our news sources "profitable" for or because of entertainment).
5. We are eating our young (as Parker Palmer says) by demanding unrealistic growth out of our investments, our businesses, and in our life.
6. We cannot expect a "hero" to save us from our ills - whether that hero is a politician, a product, a technology or a movement. Only a return to honest work over a sustained period of time will save us.
7. Life is essentially tragic, and - as David said - we can learn alot about how to live by re-engaging the tragedies of Shakespeare and Greek drama. We too need to learn how to be human even in the face of tragedy.

On the other hand, here is where I would differ from David Simon:
1. While life is indeed tragedy, it is also - as Frederick Buechner says - comedy and fairy tale and we haven't told the whole truth until we acknowledge the personal, intimate way God deals with the suffering of the world through Jesus Christ.
2. While I agree that David's anger is largely justifiable, I do not agree that anger is what will solve our community and national problems. I believe righteous indignation can be a spark for progress, but I also believe that radical movements throughout history that are sustained by anger instead of love and self-sacrifice end up becoming corrupted by the very power they seek to be rid of.
3. A return to sound reporting is not the answer ... the answer is in the work of the Holy Spirit guiding persons of faith to immerse themselves in the tragedy and problems of their community, trusting that God will bring new life into the misery through love, hope and faith. And, more often than not (if not all the time), such virtuous living in the face of ongoing danger, exploitation and power does not win. It is killed, only to be resurrected by God in a triumph of humility. Such is the way of Christ and the followers of Jesus Christ. What gives life to community is the willingness of individuals courageously seeking the good of others ... even when it limits or hurts their own life.

But, still, it takes someone with courage and hootzpa to at least say, like David Simon and Peter Beale ... "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore." In fact, as Eugene Peterson says, rejection of the world is and always has been the place where we begin our journey back to God and goodness begins:

"A person has to be thoroughly disgusted with the way things are to find the motivation to set out on the Christian way. As long as we think the next election might eliminate crime and establish justice or another scientific breakthrough might save the environment or another pay raise might push us over the edge of anxiety into a life of tranquillity, we are not likely to risk the arduous uncertainties of the life of faith. A person has to get fed up with the ways of the world before he, before she, acquires an appetite for the world of grace." (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society)

So, thank you, David, for increasing my appetite for the world of grace. And, Jesus: may you strengthen me to engage this tragic world so that I too - like you - might experience the divine comedy of God's love and grace.


Wednesday, April 01, 2009

making a home

A vacation week has come and gone for the Kendall's...we were here at the farmhouse, trying to make it feel a bit more like home and exploring the property in more depth. We discovered, dotting the acres of woods and fields here, multiple bird houses (my favorite of which is pictured above). This struck me as somewhat ironic, though, given the fact that nature clearly has her run of the place... There is no shortage of potential real estate for our feathered friends!