Friday, December 23, 2011

Bethlehem: In Occupied Territory

When our tour bus entered Bethlehem it was the first time we saw "the Wall" (a.k.a. "security perimeter") from the Palestinian side. The Israeli side of the Wall is clean, unmarked. The Palestinian side is a seemingly endless mural of "prison art." I was too slow getting out the camera and missed taking photos of some of the more striking images: a weeping Statue of Liberty, holding a dead child (after Michelangelo's Pieta); the desolate stumps of a clear cut forest; Alice about to step through an intriguing little door.

Bethlehem was in occupied territory at the time of Jesus' birth, as well. Mary and Joseph were compelled to leave their home by order of the ruling powers, and after arriving in Bethlehem, forced to flee again in terror of violent government oppression. Today the Palestinian people, who were also compelled to flee their homes by an occupying military regime, still find their movements through the country controlled and curtailed by the Israeli government.

Our Palestinian guide was frequently tearful, describing what it's like to live under foreign military rule. She told us of the humiliation and frustration she felt every time she had to pass through a security check point: an ordinary, unarmed woman routinely treated as a suspected terrorist.

I can't imagine what that must be like, as someone who's never lived in "occupied territory" ... or have I? The Gospels of Matthew and Luke may emphasize the Roman occupation, but John highlights the spiritual occupation: that Jesus came into this world to overthrow its invisible, intangible ruler, the Prince of Darkness.

The question of whether Satan is a person, a principle, a force, etc. could be the subject of a separate post. That's not important here. It is clear that we are living under the occupation of the powers of greed and reckless opportunism, exclusion and vanity, selfishness and deliberate ignorance--the powers of darkness and evil. And the birth of Jesus was the beginning of a resistance movement, called the Kingdom of God.

There's this old comedy starring Danny Kaye, The Court Jester--it's always been a favorite of my family. I think it must be spoofing the Scarlet Pimpernel or something, but part of the plot is that there is a false king on the throne, and the rebels who live in the woods are fighting to protect the true heir to the crown, still just a small infant. The movie pokes fun at the idea that a tiny baby could be considered "the king." But that's just what we say about Jesus at Christmastime.

The work of salvation began not on the cross but in Mary's womb. Why? Because the Resistance is not about fighting with swords or machine guns or missiles--because the Almighty who strips completely, surrendering all power and authority to become a helpless, naked, and hungry infant is the true king and savior of this world. Because peace will not be purchased through war but will come to us only by the power of the vulnerable God, the weak God, the God of love.

At the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where they say Jesus was born, the welcoming signs asks visitors to "Pray for the Freedom of Palestine." Please do. Please pray for the freedom of Palestine, and for the freedom of the world.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Appropriate Anachronism

I remember reading somewhere that Jesus was probably born around October when shepherds in Palestine would be most likely to sleep outside with their sheep. Jesus may not have been born in December, and it certainly was not a "bleak mid-winter" with blankets of snow. Images of a frosty night are historically inaccurate ... but I don't mind them, because they're theologically correct.

The celebration of Jesus' birth was combined with winter festivals for sound spiritual reasons. The prologue of John's Gospel (which says nothing about Jesus' birth, yet is considered a classic Christmas text) speaks of Jesus entering the world as a light shining in the darkness. And that is what Christmas is about.

It is at the darkest, coldest time of year--in the time most bleak, when we feel closest to death--that we remember how God entered the world. Because he didn't just come for a pleasant holiday. He came because we needed him. Desperately. Christmas reminds us that God is with us in our darkest hour.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Tree Devastation

There was a huge windstorm in Pasadena last Wednesday night. They're still cleaning up the debris. Here are some pictures.

This is supposed to be a sidewalk in front of our apartment. Can't see it at all, can you?

A huge Callery Pear (a.k.a. Bradford Pear) limb (maybe 20-ft.) is blocking the sidewalk in the other direction.

The same Callery Pear limb seen from the other side.

I took some branches and put them in a pitcher. So beautiful!

Then I went to check on the Sweet Gum trees--most of their amazing, beautiful foliage was gone.

This one still looked great.

I added some Sweet Gum branches to the "bouquet."

Another casualty: one of the two Firewheel trees featured in Episode #2 of Virgie's Guide to Pasadena Trees.

I was able to get a better picture of the spidery flowers (these trees bloom twice a year).

This giant fallen cedar was still blocking the road three days after the storm.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Learning to Walk

It seems like when I was a kid I always had my eyes trained to the ground when I was walking. Maybe a throwback from my toddler years, when it was necessary to be constantly scanning the terrain, lest some unexpected obstacle trip me up. Or maybe because I liked finding small objects and picking them up off the ground--a feather, a discarded air freshener, a comb.

But I remember sometime when I was a teenager I realized that looking down, just watching the pavement slip by beneath my feet meant keeping my spirit narrow and confined. There was a kind of fear attached to it--it took an effort--it took courage--it was a bold move, deciding to look up, to lift my eyes to the trees, the sky, the horizon.

At that time I walked--really, I slinked--around with stooped shoulders--like a criminal, terrified I could be apprehended at any moment. And what crimes had I committed? Well, when I was about seven years old, I drew on the wall beside my bed. Another time I was trying to make a tent by hanging a blanket over a yardstick, and it broke. But my real crime was that I existed at all.

I’m not sure I can explain that last sentence. I imagine some people will know immediately what I mean. Perhaps to those who don’t, it can’t really be explained. In any case, I was so used to slouching all the time, one day I tried to correct my posture, and found that standing up straight was actually painful. I don’t know how old I was. Maybe sixteen. That was scary.

Trying to remember to straighten my spine did not change my habit. Improving my posture has been a major project of my adult life--because the only thing that really helps is changing how I feel about myself. Only as I know myself and my worth do I walk with head held high, facing the world without shame and fear.

I have been learning to walk these many years. But recently I realized something else. I walk fast. So does Brandon. And we do a lot of walking, being “car-free.” We are efficient, impatient people, zipping from A to B, trying to get things done as quickly as possible.

I asked Brandon the other day why we should tire ourselves out like that. What if we stopped hating the “wasted” transportation time, what if we stopped the pressure and anxiety--it’s only we who’ve been oppressing ourselves, after all--what if we walked slowly? Walking could be restful, enjoyable, a time of quiet meditation, or enlivening conversation. It’s a cliché that every moment in life is precious, if only we would notice it. But it’s true. And time spent walking from A to B needn’t be wasted.

And if you want to see the kingdom of God, you must become like a little child, like a little child, still learning to walk ...

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Wind Chimes

When I was a kid, walking to the public library, there was one house just down the street from us that had wind chimes hanging in their front balcony. I always looked forward to walking by that house.

Such a soothing sound—almost like birdsong or the chirp of a cricket—a simple object fashioned by human hands to capture the wild, gentle, calming, quickening sound of the wind.

I’ve been a grown up for quite some time now. And I have loved wind chimes for that entire period. For the past four years I’ve even lived in an apartment with a balcony. Wind chimes are not very expensive. And yet, I never bought them for myself. I never even thought to put them on my Christmas list.

Why settle on disappointment? Why forget the things that make us smile? Why resign ourselves to less than our hearts had secretly hoped to enjoy? Why let dreams fade and longings die away?

Fear will do that. It comes from being hurt. Yes, we all know what that’s like. But sometimes the resignation becomes a habit. Even after the wounds have healed and the fear subsided, still, the heart forgets. Like a bewildered flower, forgetting to strain toward the sunlight.

But I heard wind chimes the other day.

And I remembered.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Mattress, Bowling Ball, Marble Illustration

So many times I’ve heard this illustration of Einstein’s general theory of relativity: gravity occurs because space itself curves around massive objects. It’s like if you put a bowling ball on a mattress, and then roll a marble near it--the marble will be sucked into “orbit” around the bowling ball, drawing closer until they collide.

For the longest time, this illustration bothered me because aside from the curvature of the mattress, what pulls the marble down toward the bowling ball is gravity. How can you use gravity to explain how gravity works?

But as I thought about it more carefully, I guess it’s not really a major flaw. The problem is, the illustration is trying to explain something that happens in “the real world,” which we generally think of as being in three “spatial” dimensions (plus time); but the illustration envisions three-dimensional objects (bowling ball, marble) on a two-dimensional plain (the surface of the mattress) which has been distorted into three dimensions (that surface is no longer flat, but now has a roughly conical indentation). I suppose the role of gravity in this illustration is really just to keep the marble on the curved two-dimensional plain. (Because without gravity, the marble would continue floating forward in a straight line and leave the plain.

I guess the real problem is that it’s so difficult to visualize the distortion/curvature of a three dimensional field (because that would mean visualizing in four dimensions), so we just have to envision a two-dimensional plain being curved into three dimensions and use it as an analog, but then for the sake of making it easier to visualize, the illustration involves three-dimensional objects, which is a little confusing if you think too much about it, as I have.

But the other thing that always bothered me about this illustration is that it assumes the bodies are in motion relative to each other. Isn't the force of gravity just as powerful between two objects that are stationary in relation to each other as between two objects in relative motion? Maybe some smart person who understands such things can explain.

Further remarks added now after some comments have been made: 

Okay, it seems I did not make the original question clear enough. Let me try again.

The illustration assumes that the two bodies are already in motion relative to each other. The only motion that takes place is not due to the "force" of gravity, but due to the marble already having been set in motion by some other force. Gravity in this illustration does not cause any kind of motion--all it does is to redirect the path of something already in motion. There is a reason why persons offering this illustration will always say that the marble was rolled near the bowling ball, rather than saying it was placed on the curved part of the mattress (because in the latter scenario, they really would be using gravity to explain gravity). If the analogy worked properly, placing the marble on the curved part of the mattress would have no effect; they would both remain stationary in relation to each other. The only reason there is any motion in this illustration is because some unknown force set the marble going to begin with. Gravity does not "pull" the marble, and does not cause motion of any kind--all it does is affect the direction of something that is already in motion.

My question is, in real life (not the analogy), isn't gravity able to cause motion? If you were to place two objects near each other (not moving) and if they were far enough away from other massive bodies that the force of gravity would be greater between these two objects than between them and anything else around, would they not start to move toward each other? Newtonian physics seems to say that they would. I don't know about actual general relativity, but the illustration used to explain it implies they would not.

Monday, October 31, 2011


For some community college art class many years ago, I had to do a group project, and the painting (though it received an "A") was not to my liking. I finally painted over it--I thought it looked interesting during the process of being painted over, so I took a picture:

Here it is finished:

The idea of this painting came into my mind I think in the summer of 2009. I was taking a class on the Pentateuch and we had the option of doing some artwork (with a written explanation) for the final project. I was thinking about the story of Jacob's reconciliation with Esau (after his long night struggling against the angel of the Lord). I didn't actually do the painting until now. (I ended up writing a series of sonnets for the class instead.) I was very dissatisfied when I first finished this, because there was too much contrast in color between the sun part and the hilly farmland part. Then the flowers at the bottom edge sort of sprang up unexpectedly, as it were, tying things together quite nicely, I thought.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

More Gratitude, Less Entitlement

I started typing a response to Remigius's comment, and then realized it would be better just to compose a new post.

It's a valid point, certainly, that there would be some benefits to society if the government were to spend more money on subsidizing higher education. There would be some drawbacks, also. And I can't say exactly what the relative merits would be of keeping things as they are versus increasing government spending on education--these things are usually rather complicated.

But what I'm really trying to get at, what really bothers me is the idea that somehow people "deserve" a college education merely by virtue of being alive. Perhaps we could build a better society by giving people more things they haven't earned or done anything to deserve (like free healthcare and even more free education than is already available), but if we do, it ought to be considered a privilege, not an entitlement. A person who is enabled by tax-payer dollars to get a college degree should have an even greater sense of gratitude and indebtedness to society and the government than I have toward my loan companies.

It's interesting, though, how human psychology works. In addition to taking out loans, I received some grants and scholarships during my academic career. I was grateful for these when they were awarded, but I promptly forgot about them--even the ones for which I had to write thank-you letters. Having no head for figures, I don't even remember how much of the cost of my education they covered. I really have very little idea of the value of the free gifts I received to help pay for my degrees.

I do, however, have a profound sense of the value of the loans I took out. I have some idea of how long it's going to take me to pay them off (a very long time), which indicates to me just how lucky I was to be able to take out these loans, and also indicates to me the monetary value of my formal education.

Logically, I ought to be more grateful to the entities that gave me free money, than to those that only lent me money. But the opposite is true, because I have very little sense of the value of the free money, whereas I know very well the value of the money that I am responsible for paying back.

So, anyway ... it's a nice idea for everyone to be able to go to college for free, or for there to be more government grants available to fund people's education. But it's also a nice idea for everyone to know the actual value of the privileges they enjoy, and it seems to me that having to work for those privileges creates just such an awareness--whereas giving them away for free tends to detract from it.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

I Heart My Loan Companies

I've been wanting to say for the longest time (and just haven't gotten around to it until now) that I feel a genuine debt of gratitude to the companies who gave me loans so that I could complete both a Bachelor's and a Master's by the age of twenty-five. If it weren't for them, either I wouldn't have been able to attend school at all, or I would've needed to devote myself to earning and raising the money myself in advance, which would probably have taken many, many years.

When I first thought to write about how I love my loan companies, it had not occurred to me that some people would be demanding a free college education for anyone who wants it. I guess now I ought to address them in some way.

Well ... let me just point out that formal education is not free. Professors need salaries. Campuses need classrooms and libraries. Institutions need administrators. These things cost money. They cost a lot of money.

I do not hold to the idea that anyone who wants anything of value has a right to get it for free. If you want something that's worth a lot of money, you should have to work hard for it. This is why I am so deeply grateful that some businesses were willing to loan me large sums of money in advance of my having to work hard, because they trust me to pay them back with interest now that I'm done.

Sure, they did it on the basis of statistical calculations, not because they knew me personally, but nonetheless, they chose to put their faith in me and my ability to make something of myself career-wise. I am deeply grateful for their act of good faith and I am happy to uphold my end of the bargain and pay them back with interest so that they can continue in the business of making it possible for people who are not independently wealthy to get a post-secondary degree.

As I think about it, it seems kind of absurd for people who want greater social mobility to be attacking student loan companies. Such companies make it possible for anyone to pursue a college degree (well, except undocumented immigrants, the illiterate, etc.). Some people think the government (i.e. tax-payers) should simply foot the bill for everything, but to me, it seems much more logical and fair that the individual who receives the benefit of the college degree should be the one paying for it. I mean, honestly, why on earth shouldn't they?

Oh ... and ... I also have a burning need just to say: undying gratitude notwithstanding, those f***ing student loan companies are a big fat pain in the *ss to deal with.

Okay. I'm done.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Silly Heresies

If you've ever taught or attended Bible studies or other adult Christian education, you know that some people have a tendency to think themselves quite the intellectuals for coming up with pesky heretical questions--e.g. "What if 'angels' are really people? What if you're an angel and you don't know it?"

Sometimes I have found myself in the position of being an irritated classmate to such persons, sometimes I am the eager-to-explain-it-all teacher, and other times, I am that heretic, or I could be. But usually, when I have such ideas, I tend to keep them to myself, because I've learned by now that most heresies, while they may seem very clever at first, turn out upon closer investigation to be quite silly, poorly thought out, and easy but tedious to refute.

For example: I have participated in many, many a discussion about the classic formulation of the doctrine of the trinity. And I know the standard heresies. But I've always wondered, "How do we know there are only three persons in the trinity? What if there was a little known fourth person--kind of like the often-forgotten fourth Beatle? Or, since God is infinite, what if there were an infinite number of persons in the trinity--er--the 'infinity'? How can we say we know God exists only in three persons? At an earlier stage in revelation history, it was 'known' that God was one--no trinity at all--so what if someday we find out there are even more divine persons?"

Seems like a reasonable question, right? But when you start thinking about it, it's actually not that interesting or helpful. Because while it is of course possible that there could be more persons in the trinity than we know about, it's pretty much irrelevant because if they exist, they haven't been revealed to us. And the idea that deities from other religious traditions might be additional divine persons equal to the three in the trinity is, I think, ultimately a dead end, since it requires a highly artificial mixing of worldviews (that is, when Hindus, for example, talk about their pantheon, they are talking about a significantly different concept of the revelation/manifestation of God than the Christian concepts involved in explaining the doctrine of the trinity).

Furthermore, it is integral to the Christian belief system that Jesus uniquely reveals the fulness of God's glory, and that the church has preserved a faithful witness to the Christ-revelation in scripture, and that witness contains only indications of three persons in the trinity, not more.

So, anyway ... I find that heresies turn out not to be so interesting after all, and orthodoxy is really the more fascinating and compelling avenue for thought and discussion, because it contains within it so many surprising, beautiful, mysterious paradoxes. Like the classic doctrine of the trinity.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Lone ... Something-Or-Other

On occasion, I have been asked to identify the role I typically play in a group--you know, for example, the peacemaker, the encourager, the executive. Well, I find that most often, I am the outsider. I have a tendency to feel out of step with everyone else, and if I see a group moving together in one direction, I tend to be the one who tries to point out everything that's wrong with what they're doing.

This came up in group work during my hospital chaplaincy internship. I realized then that being the outsider can get really lonely, and I decided I was not content to continue isolating myself in the name of being different.

Easier intended than done. But I hope I am making progress.

After I posted about the Occupy Wall Street movement yesterday, I immediately started thinking I'd been too hard on them. I could see that essentially my criticism was that they are an unorganized rabble and aren't accomplishing anything--and in the background of this criticism, my general skepticism about the typical proposed solutions of the progressive wing.

I still think "the outsider" can play an important role, and I still think it was worthwhile to publish my thoughts--I think I made a valid point, except that it was too harsh. And I couldn't help smiling when I saw the comment by "Trendsetter" that all the angry mob really needs is a good leader. I had just amended my thinking to reach that very conclusion ... (The words that came to my seminary-trained mind being, "They're like sheep without a shepherd.")

I had also been thinking, from the beginning, to write a follow up post titled "Starting With The Man In The Mirror," reflecting on how I can be the change I wish to see, and actually propose something constructive instead of just criticizing others. That's going to be a hard essay to write, because honestly, I get so overwhelmed by the complexity of everything, it feels impossible to select the best option.

But I'm starting to see how "the outsider" might someday become "a prophet." No, I have no delusions of being there yet. Clearly, I am still in the stage of being uncharitable and overly critical and isolating myself by being "different." And I appreciate everyone who has listened with patience and grace and found what was worthwhile in my "different" perspective, in spite of the unworthiness of the spirit in which I have, at times, written or spoken.

I also appreciate finding out I'm not so alone after all. My brother found this essay by someone with a clearer understanding than I had yesterday: "The Conflicting Conflicts of Occupy Wall Street" by James Pearson.

Anyway ... thank you to those who have listened for the good in what I have to say. Your gracious, respectful attitude encourages me to be kinder to others. I will try to be less of a critical outsider and strive to imitate the great compassionate prophets whose stories I know.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Let's All Blame the Rich

I really have virtually no sympathy for the Occupy Wall Street protesters. Maybe that makes me a bad person; maybe if Jesus were around today he'd be standing out there with them--I honestly don't know. The problem with asking "What would Jesus do?" is that in actuality, Jesus would probably do something unexpected and surprising to everyone.

But about the Occupy Wall Street people: if they had a coherent message and purpose, I might be out there with them in downtown L.A. right now. But they don't. Or rather, their only clear, unified message seems to be, "We blame the wealthiest less-than-one-percent of people for our economic woes. Down with the rich!"

This bothers me. It bothers me a lot. This is not responsible citizenship; it's scapegoating.

Contrary to what some believe, we actually do have something like a democracy. I saw a video of an Occupy Wall Street protester saying we need to get rid of all our elected officials. Yes, all of them. She was very clear about that when the reporter pressed her. So, we should get rid of all our elected officials and replace them with ... more elected officials? Or perhaps we should appoint a dictator? I don't think she had thought the idea through very well.

If something has gone wrong in our society, we ought to diligently search out the reasons why, not demonize a sub-group of the population and punish them.

Let me put it this way: of course the wealthy often steal from the poor. They typically do it by exacting labor without giving fair compensation. There are all manner of ways to do this, some legal, some illegal. This problem should be addressed by finding out how, specifically, employers are cheating their workers and then by amending and enforcing legislation to prevent that from happening.

More importantly, however, as we start delving into these problems, we will discover that exploitative business practices are not easy to fix, and that, in fact, they implicate us all. Take the problem of the federal minimum wage. The real value of the minimum wage has been steadily dropping for decades because of inflation, allowing employers legally to pay their workers less than fair compensation. It has not been increased because people are afraid that doing so would push more low wage jobs out of the country.

Well, let's just stop for a moment and consider who is to blame here. It is common knowledge that most of the clothing we see in stores was made in sweat shops overseas. This not a secret. The general population has some awareness that factory workers in China, Indonesia, Taiwan, etc. are expected to work in hazardous conditions, for long hours, for unreasonably low wages. But we continue buying clothes that, for all we know, may have been sewn together by a nine-year-old girl with an ulcer during the twelfth hour of her shift, earning her ten dollars a week to bring home to her starving family.

So, when we talk about the problem of factory jobs going overseas, where employers can pay ridiculously low wages, should we place all the blame on exploitative business persons and foreign governments? What about the consumers who create an on-going demand for these cheap products? Oh, wait ... that's all of us.

So let's all blame the rich ... because it's easier than taking responsibility for our own choices.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Hopelessly Broken?

Recently finished The Way It Spozed To Be, by James Herndon, a memoir of his year teaching at a ninety-eight percent African-American junior high in an unnamed city in California (published in 1965). The title is altogether ironic, since Herndon sets out merely to describe the way things are, and offers no suggestions as to how they really ought to be.

So, here's the basic story:

Everyone else at the school shares a common philosophy of education: teachers must maintain as much order in the classroom as possible, because otherwise the children won't learn anything. Herndon observes that this strategy does not work, because the children are evidently learning nothing, in spite of the semblance of order the other teachers establish.

So he decides not to impose order on his classrooms. He allows the kids to do whatever they want, as long as they're not physically harming each other. He spends a lot of time thinking about what he can do to help the children learn. But he doesn't come up with any ideas. None. So he just sits back and waits to see if anything will happen by itself.

His classrooms are so chaotic, the principal talks to him about it, and so do two other teachers, and a woman from the district sent in to help him. He rejects all of their advice, since they are just trying to get him to conform to a method he knows is bankrupt.

At the end of the year, the principal lets Herndon know he won't be asked to teach there again. Herndon protests that his method has acheived a small degree of success: the kids in the social studies class spontaneously started watching some old science videos for fun (also bringing in lots of snacks, which was against school policy). And in his English class, some of the kids had gotten into reading some fairytales adapted for theatre. They were actually learning a little bit, on their own initiative.

The principal was not impressed. Herndon was fired.

In the final chapter of the book, Herndon reflects that even students in nice suburban, white, middle- to upper-class schools aren't really learning anything. They just do what they're "spozed" to, because grown-ups force them into it, and they protest less against it, but they have no real interest in what they're doing, so it doesn't stick. He suggests that there is simply no hope for change or transformation of the system, because that would require giving the children some freedom, which is the last thing the teachers and administrators (on the whole) are willing to try.

I found this book interesting. Any description of what actually goes on in a school classroom is fascinating to me, because I never experienced it myself. I feel more grateful than ever for having been homeschooled. But I also find it hard to believe that things are as hopeless as Herndon implies. Surely people have come up with ways of teaching that can better engage students and make them feel they have a vested personal interest in what they're doing.

But I really don't know hardly anything about the situation. I hope my brother, who is a teacher, will read this and have some comments.

Monday, October 3, 2011

"Can't--Put--Enough--EXCLAMATION POINTS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

Seems like it always takes me a while to find out about funny hit videos on the internet. I saw the original "Double Rainbow" video and its "songified" version just yesterday. (Also the original and songified "Reality Hits You Hard, Bro"[!!!]).

Original Double Rainbow Video:

Songify This version:

Some people think the "double rainbow" guy must have been on drugs. He says he wasn't. I don't know, but I can easily imagine having a moment like that, and I've never used drugs (of the illegal sort, that is). Sure, his reaction is laughably extreme, but the camera actually does capture some of the beauty of the moment, if not the vivid brightness of the rainbow itself.

Even without the aid of mood altering substances, intense beauty really can reduce someone to a babbling, weepy kind of ecstasy--some of us just quietly keep it to ourselves, whereas others, apparently, totally let themselves go with spontaneous utterances which they later post on youtube. Well ... one's own front yard is a safer place to start crying and moaning and semi-coherently murmuring with joy than ... say ... an art museum.

Anyhoo ... "Double Rainbow" is definitely going on my personal playlist of happy songs. (-:

Friday, September 30, 2011

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

a festive reception

and after the heat
the welcome cool
of autumn brings
a final burst of brightness
the happy ending
for green leaves saying farewell
with cheerful shouts of red and gold
a fond goodbye that looks ahead
not fearing dark and cold
a festive reception
of the arriving chill

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Constant Commentator

This evening we returned home after quite the trip, touring western Washington with my brother and his wife. Brandon served as our intrepid and expert guide, being himself a native of the sprawling megalopolis, Duvall, WA (population: a staggering 5,980); Brandon's family were our charming inkeepers; my sister-in-law, N., our brilliant tactician; myself a quiet, functionless parasite now turned chronicler; and my brother, P. ...

My mother said recently of P. that he cannot stop talking, to which he immediately replied, "I know. I tried; it didn't work!" Having him along on a roadtrip is like having the radio always on and tuned to a consistently amusing comedy show.

Driving around Whidbey Island and nearby areas, after every stop, we seemed to find ourselves behind the same car. "They must be tourists," said Brandon, the ironically disdainful local. "No," said P., "there are four of them." We were all confused as he paused before the punchline: "They must be four-ists."

A little farther on, Nancy pointed out some cows, and a bull who was a little ways off, alone. P.: "He is out standing in his field."

P. works for Enterprise, the rental car company, in their insurance claims division. He was behind the wheel one evening of our trip, telling Brandon about how he sometimes takes over cases from less competent Enterprise employees, correcting the inefficient way they handled the situation. After describing one such situation: "Brandon, this goes to show how awesome I am: insurance companies save money by switching to me."


Such a fun trip. I have the best siblings (and siblings-in-law) ever.

Friday, August 26, 2011


[Apologies for the unpolished style--I'm tired, but wanted to post this.]
Sometimes I have an intense feeling of failure, even after doing things no one else perceives as failures. I think probably I did well on each of the three-hour ordination exams I took today, in terms of whether I'll pass, that is.

But I was so disappointed in myself because ... I wanted all six essays to be beautifully written, egaging, powerful, edifying and a pleasure to read. And instead, much of what I wrote was just so humdrum and rote, bland and boring, boring, boring. I was proud of just a few lines, here and there--but even the best bits could have been better, if only I'd had more time. In particular, one of those essays was so terrible. I mean, I answered the prompt, but I wish I could apologize to the people who have to actually read what I wrote, it's so insipid and lifeless. Oh, damn my miserable inadequacies!

Anyway, this is a good illustration of how so often I fail in my own mind, even though ... well, probably no one else expects so much of me.

Ah ... maybe I'll do better on the next two exams. Maybe if I really punish myself thoroughly for doing so bad this time, and mentally berate myself constantly ... Hah ha ha. Just kidding. (-: I'm too wiped out for that, anyway.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Psychological Profiles in Film

In his book, People of the Lie, M. Scott Peck describes something like a personality disorder he observed in certain clients (or clients' family members) in practice as a psychotherapist. He identifies such people as being given over to evil, noting that their condition resembles a severe variation of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Although otherwise apparently normal, these persons were apparently whole-heartedly selfish in all their decision-making, unconflicted and unashamed about lying constantly in order to advance their own purposes.

The classic movie Bringing Up Baby is about just such an individual. The horrible, horrible female protagonist just lies and lies, without giving it a second thought, not caring at all how her deception is creating confusion and frustration and causing damage all over the place. I found it so distressing, I couldn't stand to watch any more after the first twenty minutes or so. God, I don't know what I'll do if (when?) I have to deal with someone like that as a pastor. Anyway, if you want to know what M. Scott Peck calls "an evil person," just watch that movie.

Now, much more fun ... last night we watched another classic film, Kind Hearts and Coronets. It's one of the best films we've ever seen--and we'd never heard of it before! Crazy. It's a very British dark comedy about a young man's plan to kill off eight relatives (all played brilliantly by Alec Guiness) in order to inherit a dukedom. It was so funny, even after the movie ended, I was still laughing and laughing. They really don't write comedies like that anymore. Today's "smart" comedy is actually pretty dumb by comparison.

And if you want to see how Enneagram Type Three ("The Achiever") becomes a homicidal sociopath, it's a stunning, spot on portrayal.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

"Devastating Loss of Self"

While working on a new painting, I've been listening to The Myth of Alzheimer's by Peter J. Whitehouse (with Daniel George) on CD. Whitehouse, a physician, researcher, and authority on the condition, argues that there is no scientific basis for treating Alzheimer's as a disease, and that care for patients would be improved by acknowledging the symptoms of "cognitive brain aging," as he calls it, as a normal part of growing older. Rather than labeling a more rapid decline as pathologically abnormal, we can recognize that every person's progress into older years is unique, and that the challenges of aging, which we all must face, can hold opportunities, as well.

Whitehouse in large part blames the pharmacuetical industry for creating "the myth of Alzheimer's" by talking about waging war on the disease, and the (according to Whitehouse, completely unfounded) hope of a cure. But most of all, the myth of Alzheimer's creates an intense fear and dread (the reason I picked this book up off the shelf). Alzheimer's is said to result in a "devastating loss of self," robbing victims of their very personhood.

According to Whitehouse, this is simply not true. We are constantly changing throughout our lives; loss of cognitive ability does not destroy the self. Perhaps the most important component of treatment for a person in cognitive decline is to focus on the ways they are still able to contribute to society, do the things they have always enjoyed, and accept the loving care of their family members--that is, to continue to see themselves as human persons in the midst of real losses.

 * * * * * * *

The painting is coming along nicely. It's not completed yet, but when I was finished working on it for today, I stepped back to have a look and was disappointed: it was all out of focus--I had to put on my glasses to appreciate it. It was upsetting to me not being able to appreciate my own painting without the aid of corrective lenses.

There are so many things we think we own, or consider to be part of who we are, and it's scary to lose them. Who would I be without my vision, my memories, my intelligence, without the dexterity of my hands, without strength to walk and run?

Some might say we're born into this life with the very purpose of growing old--to learn by divesting ourselves of every external prop that, after all, I am not the clothes I wear or the things I own; I am not even the thoughts I think. Who I really am ...

... is beyond words and comprehension. Because after all, the soul does not exist in and of itself, but exists only by the creative act of God's love. But of such things ... it is extremely difficult to write, especially as a scrupulous Christian theologian ... if only I could commission Charles Williams to write this into a novel! Alas, he has been dead several decades. And, dying at age 58, I suppose he must have missed out on much of the experience of growing old. Well, he was surely an old soul from birth.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


Hm. I miswrote the common name of this tree on my opening card. And I accidentally said "branches" when I meant "limbs." How embarrassing.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Reflections on the Road from Jerusalem to Jericho

A man went up
Jesus said
from Jerusalem to Jericho

Now fifty
seminarians, professors
following the way

This land perhaps
has not changed
much, still a
terrifying place to be left for dead

Zipping along
in our air conditioned
whirlwind tour
it takes about an hour

Can you imagine?
turning from window to seat partner
They must have experienced
time so
and space

What would it be like
walking this waste

or with someone to talk to
you might really get to know them

Approaching Jericho
a moment of déjà vu
billboards in the desert
just like the 10 freeway approaching Palm Springs

A camel at a gas station!
Someone snap a photo!

We're here!
Quickly, everyone off the bus!
We're late
We're running out of time

Running out of
the endless expanse?
Didn't you see it there
or were you in too much of a hurry
on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Violence and the Fantasy Genre

Last week we watched the final Harry Potter film. It was a good ending to the series. Not so pretty as the previous one; and no big surprises ... but a good ending.

Without spoiling any details, I will say that there is a large-scale battle, during which one of the goodguys kills one of the badguys and smiles. It could be interpreted as a smile of relief, but could also be seen as a smile of satisfaction at having killed someone who caused many deaths.

I was bothered by that. Violence and killing are such a difficult issue for the author of young adult fantasy. It's something I've really struggled with in writing my own series.

I have great respect for the thoroughly non-violent approach of Madeleine L'Engle's books. Her protagonists are never called to use violent means in combating evil. They always overcome hatred with love.

I'm not sure how I feel about C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein's fantasy wars between good and evil. It seems wrong to glorify the concept of war. War may at times be necessary, but it's always tragic and ugly. And given the universality of human wickedness and corruption, it's extremely dangerous ever to identify one nation as good and another evil. (I don't care if it's Nazi Germany versus Allied England; it's still dangerous.)

Lewis argues that killing in war is not murder because it's nothing personal. He imagines that two Christian soldiers on opposite sides, bent on killing each other, might wake up, moments later, side by side in heaven, and find no difficulty whatsoever in laughing it off and embracing in joy.

In Lewis and Tolkein's fantasies, the killing is very impersonal. Perhaps what bothered me most about the confrontation in Deathly Hallows Part II is that, even though it could be seen as technically soldier-to-soldier combat, it nonetheless feels deeply personal, perhaps even an act of revenge.

Well ... that's "Hollywood" for ya: tapping into people's pent up aggressive instincts, satisfying the repressed bloodlust of our animal nature.

I suppose soldiers risking their lives to protect a nation under attack is a valid way of sublimating the aggressive instinct. (For non-Freudians: sublimation=channeling the energy of one's socially unacceptable sexual and aggressive instincts into higher, nobler [and in that sense, "sublime"] socially acceptable pursuits.)

Unless we think we can do away with war altogether, then as a society we must in some way glorify the role of the soldier--we must believe and tell our children that it is a noble thing to risk one's life in the attempt to kill our nation's enemies.

In some ways, I believe it truly is. To the extent that it requires courage and self-sacrifice, and that its purpose is to protect ordinary people from harm, it is a very noble thing. But unfortunately ... it also means "impersonal killing" ... it means doing something that is absolutely obscene and somehow setting aside the remorse, horror and disgust that a healthy soul would feel.

So ... as I said, I've been struggling with this issue in writing my own series. I started writing the fourth book last year, and stopped because it was just not shaping up at all--needs to be scrapped and restarted. But it's going to deal with this question about the use of violence ... Unfortunately, my thoughts and feelings on the subject are still so messy ...

Ugh. I hate violence because it's so evil and ugly and disturbing. But I'm also aware of my own deep-seated aggressive instincts. I am violent and I hate violence. Well ... it's something to brood about and maybe start writing again ...

Friday, July 15, 2011

"Zionism Is Racism"

concrete block closing off a street in Hebron

I spent this year's Independence Day with an unusual degree of patriotic feeling. My wonted pessimism about America and its many ills and failures was balanced by an appreciation for the nobler principles on which this nation is founded: democracy, civil liberties, equal protection under the law ...

Perhaps one of the worst misconceptions Americans have about the state of Israel is the idea that it is "the only democratic nation in the Middle East." It may be the most democratic nation in the region (I reserve judgement) but the very concept of Zionism, on which the state of Israel was founded, is radically opposed to what I think most people would understand as democratic ideals.

Zionism sees the state of Israel as "a national Jewish homeland"--not just "a national homeland for the Jewish people" (a country where Jews would always be welcome) as the British wanted to define it, back in 1948--but "a national Jewish homeland"--meaning, an ethnic Jewish state. (This is not just my forumlation, but how it was framed by a journalist from The Jerusalem Post.)

It is simply astounding that people would be so blind to the blatant racism of this idea. How is it supposedly different from a Caucasian-American declaring that the U.S. should be a nation for people of European cultural and racial extraction ("And we don't want no immigrants comin' in here dilutin' the purity of our heritage")?

Our group spoke with a guy from the leftist Meretz party (they hold 3 out of 120 seats in the Israeli parliament). A student asked how Israel could be so hypocritical as to condemn the genocide in Darfur while denying their own human rights abuses. His answer: Actually, Israel has not been condemning of the genocide in Darfur. On the contrary, Israel has been trying to get rid of the refugees who have come from Darfur and refuses to give them refugee status.

So, in fact, the state of Israel has been chillingly consistent, and no one should be surprised; Zionism is a racist concept.

It's hard to believe that this could be happening in the 21st century, but in Israel (and I'm not talking about the West Bank and Gaza, but within Israel itself) the schools are officially segregated. WTF? We ought to be beyond this by now! Surely I needn't inform you that there is a vast acheivement gap between children and youth in the Jewish versus the non-Jewish school system.

It also appears problematic that the Palestinians seem to want a system that is "separate but equal." That is the basic idea of a "two-state solution": Israel for the Jews, Palestine for the Arabs. (And as for African refugees ... the question remains).

As an American, I most agree with Palestinians and Israelis who will admit that the establishment of two ethnic states is not a "solution" at all, but may be a huge step forward in moving toward a political future where concepts of race and national identity are less important than the recognition of our universally shared humanity.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

"a people cannot be oppressed forever"

It's so much harder than I thought it would be, trying to put this into words--I said on facebook that my time in Israel/Palestine was so much more than I had imagined--by which I meant, mostly, anything I could imagine would not compare to the actuality; to being there, in the very place, seeing with my own eyes. So, I very much doubt that anything I write will do justice to the experience. But ... I'll try.

As you may have gathered from my last post, I went with a heavy heart, sick with despair, hardly daring even to think I might find any reason for hope. Now, two weeks later, I have become a witness to the stunning resilience of the human spirit.

I had heard much about how the Palestinian people suffer under the occupation--and of course, we all know that many have thrown stones, a small minority have turned to terrorism, and growing numbers are choosing non-violent forms of resistance. But having heard all that in the news is nothing like walking the streets of a refugee camp in the West Bank, guided by one of the residents, a man whose father was shot and killed by Israeli soldiers for trying to cross the street--a man whose friends and neighbors told him he had every right to become a suicide bomber, but who chose instead to "use the power of pain" to work toward a just peace.

He tells us that even though they are in "Area A," supposedly under full Palestinian control, they are still subject to curfews; many roads, including a main thoroughfare through the middle of the camp, are for Israelis only; soldiers regularly come on raids; the Israelis keep water and electricity cut off much of the time--but he says to us, a group of fifty Americans, if we want to help, "Do not send food or water; what we need most is education. We need education so they will see us as human beings."

We heard this from the lips of virtually every Palestinian we talked with: "We want to be treated as human beings."

It was absolutely incredible to me, the patience with which they spoke--about situations that have me boiling over with rage--they seemed to have a calm determination--as exemplified in the matter-of-fact statement of Palestinian Authority cabinet member Nabeel Shaath, "We know that we will win, because a people cannot be oppressed forever."

Here is a sign I really liked at a community development center in the Dheisheh refugee camp.

The guy at the center was telling us that when they were constructing the place, Israeli soldiers came in the night three times and destroyed the place. They had planned to just call it the Dheisheh Community Center, or something like that, but because they had to keep rebuilding it from ruins, it's now called the Phoenix Center. Someone in the class asked why the Israelis would want to destroy a community center. The response: "That is my question! They usually don't give a reason ... We are in Area A, but it is controlled by the Israelis."

Salaam li'l Quds - Peace for Jerusalem
(with thanks to Vicki Tamoush, for translating!)

Anyway, I thought that was such a brilliant image: the phoenix--no matter how hard the powers-that-be try to crush the people's spirit, they will rise again.

"A people cannot be oppressed forever."

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Weeping For Jerusalem

And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, "Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes."Luke 19:41-42

The last two weeks I've been busy, busy, busy preparing for the big peacemaking travel course in Israel/Palestine I'll be auditing (I leave Monday, return July 1). I'm just about packed. I've done most of the reading I was supposed to and some other reading I "assigned" myself. But I don't think I'm really emotionally prepared.

At the end of his ministry, when Jesus came in sight of Jerusalem, he wept. He perceived that the city's destruction was inevitable. The current situation in Israel and Palestine makes me want to cry, also, but the point of this trip is that there is still hope. It's very hard for me to see that.

At the same time, I am terribly, terribly excited for this trip, and open to taking it all in, learning as much as I can, but my heart is so heavy--I don't know what to do with all the grief and outrage that I feel even now--what will it be like, actually being there in the midst of it all?

I've always thought of myself as having a good sense of humor (in terms of recognizing irony and being able to laugh in all kinds of situations). But I really haven't been able to laugh, even about the tragic ironies of the Israeli-Arab conflict. Certainly, there are many such ironies, but I'm just too frustrated and sad about them to laugh.

Well. We will see, we will see what things are like when I am there.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Adventures in Graduating

No "Master of Divinity" After All

Every time I refer to my degree by its name, "Master of Divinity," I always feel a twinge of fear that God is going to smite me on the spot, perhaps with leprosy or a giant hailstone, for uttering blasphemy. "Master of Divinity"--egad, what arrogance, what vanity--what an irony that students of theology, who ought to understand more deeply than anyone the fact of divine transcendence, the vast, yea infinite mystery of God's glory, should presume to name themselves "Masters of Divinity."

So to poke a little fun at the absurdity of the title, I got it into my head (years ago) that I would take some pictures of myself in graduation robes making divinity, the confection. Alas, there are two problems with this idea: first, divinity is difficult to make, and not surprisingly, I failed to prove myself a "master of divintiy" on the first try. Second, divinity is not an appealing candy, and I had no interest in making several batches in order to get one right, which I would probably not eat, anyway.

But here, at least, is a goofy little video of the attempt:

More Silliness
Last year, when I worked at Commencement, I thought how great it would feel, being among the ranks of the graduates. But I had mixed feelings about the idea of walking across the stage to shake the president's hand and receive the diploma case. Again, it struck me as such an exercise in vanity--hoity-toity acadmics slapping each other on the back for their supposed accomplishments. I'm just too cynical about the whole "education" process to really congratulate myself on completing the degree.

So I decided to lighten up the moment by wearing an awesome pair of striped flip-flop socks (and a pair of flip-flops my mother bought me when I was eleven!). Even during the long time waiting, before and in the midst of the ceremony, I was sitting there, first feeling bitter, then just sad, about all the wasted opportunities of the past four years. But when at last they called my row to line up, and I saw my family there in the audience--I was happy--in fact, when they called my name, I was so happy, I threw my hands up and ran/skipped across the stage. "Wow!" said President Mouw, shaking my hand, "Congratulations--you won the race!"

Why do I look so short in this picture? (-;

No longer a seminarian, it's time to catch up on some vices--quick, before I become a pastor.

The sweet taste of success--in cigar form!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Movies (Three)

We've gone to see three movies recently! Here is my report.

Going into Thor, I had pretty low expectations. After Iron Man, thus far the pinnacle of superhero movie acheivement, it's hard to get excited about something you know will never compare. But actually, Thor was quite fun.

To be sure, there is nothing original about it; I winced at some of the insipid dialogue; it suffers a bit from predictability and cliches. But for some reason, it was easy to overlook these weaknesses. In the early scenes of Thor's obnoxious war-mongering, it was actually nice to have the assurance that a formulaic change of heart lay in his future.

Perhaps much of what made the film so palatable was that I liked how it looked. New Mexico is so beautiful; Asgard, too.

X-Men: First Class, on the other hand, was marred for me by visual flaws: some of the CGI was, I think, not detailed enough to meet the highest standards of realism--for whatever reason, some of it looked fake. And Beast's make-up was poorly done--especially, his mouth didn't move very well--it looked bad.

Aside from that ... it was a pretty good movie, but surprisingly boring. Perhaps because the old "threat of nuclear war" plot has been done so many, many, many, many, many times over--and as a person who did not live through the Cuban missile crisis, I cannot recall the terror of that time.

Perhaps they could have done more to play up the interpersonal drama--give the characters a little more depth.
X-Men left me feeling something like, "Gee, maybe I'm getting tired of movies--I've just seen too many"--but watching Source Code, my love of films was restored completely: "This is why I watch movies!"

Yes, Source Code was an excellent film: smart, gripping, surprisingly humorous; it handles superbly a clever premise, through simple, yet elegant storytelling. It strongly recalls another great film, 12 Monkeys, using similar themes and images, though to very different effect. Brilliant script. I'll have to keep an eye out for future work by Ben Ripley.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Thoughts on Authority

Have I mentioned before that every time someone suggests a Ph.D. could be in my future, I want to scream at them: "NO, NO, NO, NO, NO-O-O-O!!!"?  It has to do with the kind of person I do not want to become, or to be subject to.

During my internships, I've given a lot of thought to the concept of authority--both in a pastoral context, and as an abstraction. And I've come to understand that, ultimately, all genuine authority is God's authority. When someone speaks or gives a command authoritatively, it is because they are speaking God's truth, and commanding God's will.

In this sense, authority cannot be vested in any human being, whether by virtue of appointment, position, or relationship. A person's authority does not depend on their role (pastor, police officer, judge)--their role helps them to exercise authority effectively--but the moment a pastor speaks heresy, or a police officer uses excessive force, or a judge decides a sentence based on a bribe, they cease to speak and act with authority, and should be challenged rather than obeyed.

Even when I am ordained as some kind of pastor at a church (God willing), I will not really possess any authority by virtue of my position. Any real authority I have at that point will not be mine at all--I may by God's grace be able to speak with the authority of divine truth and the divine will, and in such a way exercise God's authority. But I do not want anyone to submit to me; that would be idolatry.

And what does this have to do with my horror of the world of academia? I really hate the way that the educational system puts professors in a superior relationship to students. I think it's bad for professors, who are encouraged to become narcissistic and set themselves up as false gods; and I think it's bad for students, who become intellectually indolent.

The One who is Truth should be the head of the seminary classroom; professors ought to recognize the humbleness of their position, being but fellow servants of our one Lord, and empower students to use all the unique gifts and experiences God has given them--they should see the class not primarily as a personal project through which they can impart their superior wisdom; but as a learning community where all contribute.

Is this really so radical of an idea? In fact, YES! Sadly, I can think of only two professors who seem to have understood that they had as much to learn from students as students had to learn from them. They were good teachers. I wish there were more like them. I guess maybe I should be the change I wish to see and think about getting a Ph.D. someday, after all. Oh, heavens. Only if the good Lord asks it of me ...

(Hey--this is my 200th post! Who knew I had that much to say?)

Friday, May 27, 2011

It's All Coming Back Now ...

It's been a fantastic year. My internships at Children's Hospital and Immanuel Pres. to-ta-lly rocked. In fact, things have been so great, I had forgotten all the agony and grief of my three years taking classes at Fuller. But tonight, it all came back to me ...

Every year they throw a special party for the graduating class. I wasn't sure what to expect, but, gee, it was lame. Not many people came. There are about 500 graduates per year; perhaps thirty (plus significant others) attended this event.

Why did the evening suck so badly? There was no spirit in the gathering. It was very telling that virtually everyone left immediately following the closing prayer--a few small groups stayed to chat, but man, that room emptied almost instantly.

That was my experience of Fuller in general--a complete absence of group spirit--no sense of unity, camaraderie, fellowship, or mission. It's so strange; we have great professors and great students, but the whole is somehow less than the sum of its parts. So completely opposite from Whitworth.

It makes me sad. I received an excellent education here, but by the end of those first three years, I felt that much of the opening up and softening of my heart that happened at Whitworth had now been undone. I felt so calloused and bitter, closed hearted, hostile and burned.

Looking back on it, my internship at Immanuel has really been very healing ... so much so that it was quite a shock being suddenly re-immersed in the soul-less-ness of Fuller.

I'm glad that not everyone experiences Fuller in this way. On the bright side, Brandon won a raffle prize and we received a neat benediction attributed to St. Patrick:

"I bind unto myself today
The virtues of the starlit heaven,
The glorious sun’s life-giving ray,
The whiteness of the moon at even,
The flashing of the lightning free,
The whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
The stable earth, the deep salt sea,
Around the old eternal rocks."

(Most stirring part only quoted--more here)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Sympathy for bin Laden (ending in a rant)

(Skippable) Introductory Concept: On Moral Dilemmas

Watching this neat video of an ethics class, I thought: people need a paradigm shift for thinking about moral dilemmas. We want to come up with the “right answer”--the best option, what you’re supposed to do. Ethicists try to tease out the moral principles involved and discern how they apply in a given situation, hoping to end up with a list of propositional statements which can be expressed in logical symbolism, making it possible to create a formula, from which we derive the correct course of action.

I still find such an approach natural, and think it immensely useful, except that it misses the big picture. And the big picture truth is that reality is messy, people’s intentions are typically unclear even to themselves, they are influenced by a whole range and variety of factors which perhaps no one will ever know completely, and even the consequences of one’s actions are always uncertain.

I think we need to stop thinking of ethics as a way to determine the single, formulaic “right” way to act (a la Kant especially, but Utilitarians and others as well) and instead accept that moral dilemmas are probably always going to be more complex than any individual is going to wrap their head around, and that the best we can do is consider carefully the competing values we recognize as applicable, and weigh them against each other as best we can.

What does this have to do with bin Laden?

Well, Americans have really vilified him, but he believed he was doing the right thing, and he has quite a number of admirers who still think so. Americans fail to appreciate that bin Laden and other revolutionaries of the Arab world find themselves faced with a genuine moral dilemma, and we ought to have greater respect for the choices they have made, given their situation.

Now, I want to acknowledge, explicitly, that acts of terrorism are an absolute evil. Killing non-combatants is murder; it’s wrong, no question. But if we stop there and just call Osama bin Laden an evil man because he was a terrorist, we fail to appreciate the complexity of the situation.
America and its ally Israel compose a modern day Goliath to the Arab world’s David. Particularly in the Palestinian experience (which was a driving impetus behind the September 11 terrorist attacks), Arabs have been horrifically, unjustly victimized by ruthless displays of our vastly superior military might. They have no way of fighting back against our tanks, bombs, soldiers, etc. So they choose the only target available to them: civilians.

As I said before, attacking civilians is evil. I do not condone such a practice. But consider this: the United States is a democracy of sorts. That means every citizen does hold some responsibility for the political actions of our nation, including military actions, including our support of Israel’s semi-covert attempts at eradicating the Palestinian people (a.k.a. ethnic cleansing or genocide). In ancient Greece, military service was a prerequisite to voting. We could stand to learn from such a policy that having a say in the fate of a nation means accepting the consequences of our decisions, including the ugly consequences of bad decisions. If we choose to inflict violence on others, we should expect a violent response, and we should take responsibility for provoking it.

Rev. Jeremiah Wright was not being anti-American when he pointed out that on Sept. 11 we were reaping what we ourselves had sown. In fact, he was showing greater patriotism than all the flag-waving horn-honkers who rejoiced at bin Laden’s death this week. Why? Because citizenship is not about “hooray for our side”; it’s about wanting our country to be the best it can be--and that’s not possible if we continue to ignore the truth about ourselves. The truth is, we are a violent nation, and that’s not acceptable. Violence begets violence. Those who live by the sword die by the sword. Osama bin Laden may have been an evil terrorist, but he was also a prophet. We should listen to him.

Addendum:I just want to express my irritation at two details of media “spin” in coverage of Osama bin Laden’s death: first off, it was misleading to say he died “in a firefight,” as it appears to have been a completely one-sided fight--he was shot, unarmed, for not immediately surrendering. I have no doubt that, tactically, this was entirely sensible, but I do think it’s regrettable he was not taken to trial. And I believe it is also misleading to talk about Zawahiri as the “second in command.” Hasn’t he been the head of al-Qaeda for years? Bin Laden was a powerful spokesperson for the organization, but I’m pretty sure he wasn’t having a whole lot of direct influence on things during his time on the lam. I’m just irritated by the way the media are trying to make this out to be more of a victory than it really was.

Friday, April 29, 2011


Oh my gosh, I'm so proud of myself! A couple days ago, I finally finished reading Una Nueva Tierra, the Spanish translation of Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth. And it only took me two and half (well, closer to three) months! Alright, fine, I know that's kind of pathetic. But still: it's the first entire book I've ever read in Spanish! Wish I could say, "Next: Don Quixote," but I'm afraid I'm not quite there yet. I think next will be the Tao Te Ching.

I should celebrate by ... like ... eating tacos or something ... (-:


In my previous post, "Free Dirt" I said I found myself struggling to establish appropriate physical boundaries with four individuals--I should have said: five, including the church cat, Peaches. I have literally let her walk all over me.

Some of you may think I'm joking, but I'm not! I love animals, but I dread the idea of ever having a mammalian pet again. Haunted by guilt over neglecting the dogs we had growing up, I'm intimidated by the intense obligation I feel to fulfill dogs' and cats' need for affection.

This is why I'm always talking to Brandon about getting a lizard. "Let's get a lizard! We won't ever have to worry about it becoming emotionally attached to us! We can get a great big iguana, or gila monster, or even a monitor, and it can just live as a wild animal in our house--it'll be so great!" A tarantula would also be fun. Or a snake. Not a scorpion, though; they're icky.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Pretty Women

One day my Hebrew prof. began the class by saying, "I am an unusually good-looking person." In fact, he wasn't really, so we all sort of smirked or raised our eyebrows, and he continued, "It's true! I am an unusually good-looking person. How do I know that? Well, by looking in the mirror, of course!" We still weren't getting it. "Because when I look in the mirror, I know just where to stand, and just the right angle to hold my head, so that I see myself in the best possible light, and dang, do I look good!"

When I was a child, people used to tell me I was beautiful, and I believed them, partly because, like my old Hebrew prof., I thought I could prove it to myself by looking in the mirror. Now, as an adult, I no longer have a sense of how pretty I am, because I don't trust my own perception and I don't trust anyone to tell me what they really think. I guess I consider myself to be kind of pretty, on a good day, in the right lighting, as long as my hair is doing something flattering. But I know I am not among the top tier of gorgeous women ...

One day I saw a woman on the train who just about made my heart stop--she was stunning--her face was just so perfect. I've always hated that stupid song, "You're Beautiful" by James Blunt, and yet it came true! Well, except, she never looked at me. And she wasn't with anyone. But, "I will never be with her" (sigh!) ... although that's really not so tragic as that dumb song makes it out to be. I just hope she has a significant other who appreciates the perfect contour of her cheek, the exquisite shapeliness of her mouth, etc. etc.

I never blogged about one of the high points of my time in Florence--seeing (adoring--really, just short of worshipping) Titian's Venus of Urbino. "The woman." I remember how I caught my breath the moment I first saw a photo of her in my art history textbook. The most sublimely erotic image of a woman ever painted.

But to think! She's not just an imaginary ideal! There are women, living, flesh and blood women as beautiful, as perfect as she, ripe for the enjoyment of some damn lucky bastard. I wonder if they know, these goddesses among women, the brilliancy of the radiance they possess ...

"Ah, pretty women ..."

I suppose they must know ...

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Firewheel Tree

Virgie's Guide To Pasadena Trees
Episode #2: Firewheel Tree (Stenocarpus sinuatus)

Wednesday, March 30, 2011


We watched The King's Speech Saturday. Every bit as good as it was made out to be. And the story really resonated with me--the story of man unmistakably, and unavoidably called to greatness, who nonetheless has a terrible, embarrassing weakness obvious to everyone.

My own vocation is not nearly so great, and neither is my weakness so obvious. But as I get closer to ordination, I have felt some intensification of anxiety about the significant amount of responsibility I will be taking on, and the fact that I am at heart so flawed and fragile.

I've always been something of a hypochondriac--never about physical illness, but about psychological maladies. My imagination keeps cooking up all these excuses, reasons why I'm really not fit to be a minister.

I can't do this job because I have an undiagnosed autism spectrum disorder. I can't do this job because I'm really bipolar. I can't do this job because I'm on the verge of a psychotic episode. Or I'm suicidally depressed. Or I'm really transgendered. I can't do this because I'm not a human being at all, but a super-realistic android, and my whole life is just an experiment to see if a robot raised as a human can attain to a normal life. The experiment is failing. I should be deactivated and recycled for scrap metal.

But I'm afraid the truth is, I'm not crazy (above paragraph notwithstanding). I would like to be. I would like to have an excuse to give up, throw in the towel, jump off a bridge. But the truth is, I can do this job.

I keep clinging to an image of myself as utterly incapable of accomplishing anything, a complete and total failure. And yet, here I am one quarter away from completing an M.Div., getting ready to take ordination exams in August ...

Honestly, I don't know what to make of that. Obviously, the thoughts I have about myself are ridiculous distortions. Yet they hold some truth. I may not be crazy, except that to be human is a kind of madness.

Perhaps George VI was lucky to have such an obvious weakness--it made it clear up front that he was a flawed and fragile human being, like me, like everybody else--and that his greatness did not eliminate that frailty, but transcended it.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Una Poema

So last night, Brandon gets home and notes that I seem tired.

Slumped over at the table, each word requiring an effort, I exclaim, "Must ... write ... perfect ... brief, explanation ... for my blog ... of what is wrong ... with Platonic metaphysics ... from a Christian perspective ..."

"Is this for your internship?" Brandon begins to ask and stops himself, "This is just to appease the demands of your muse, isn't it?"

Oh, the muse. Indeed a harsh taskmaster yesterday--but then (of course, when I was supposed to be going to bed) she graced me with a very special gift: my first ever poem in Spanish.

It's certainly not in the beautiful/profound category--just quirky/philosophical. But it sure was fun to write. (English translation below.)

Fingir a Querer

Yo quiero lo que no puedo tener
quiero el imposible
Pero si de verdad no puedo tenerlo
¿es un verdadero deseo?
¿o quiero querer y solo fingir
que quiero tener lo que quiero?

Ahora escucho a mi corazon
¿Quieres querer o tener?
Me dice, "Yo debo fingir a querer"
Así le pregunto por qué
"¡No sé! Que extraño. ... Ahora yo veo:
es porque yo no quiero nada."

Yo no quiero nada. ¡Que serenidad!
Siento tan mucho mejor
quiero sentir esta paz por siempre
--¿o solo quiero quererla?

Pretending to Want

I want what I can't have
I want the impossible
But if I really can't have it,
is it a real desire?
Or do I want to want and only pretend
to want to have what I want?

Now I listen to my heart
Do you want to want or to have?
It says to me, "I have to pretend to want"
So I ask it why
"I don't know! How strange. ... Now I see:
it's because I don't want anything."

I don't want anything. What serenity!
I feel much better.
I want to feel this peace forever
--or do I only want to want it?