Monday, December 23, 2013

And a pet dragon and rocket powered roller skates and a moat and a secret passageway for my bedroom ...

A few weeks ago I was really tickled by this collection of "insane" kids' wish lists--including requests for "fake pills," "a dozen swords," and "1,000,000 pieces of shrimp."

And I thought: Man! What a pity that grown-ups' wish lists get so boring--I mean, it's all, like, electronics and clothing and food stuffs--not that those things can't be exciting--but once you're an adult, if you were to stop thinking about what's "realistic," and let your imagination run wild--first of all, Oh! The things you could come up with!--and then second (more importantly), you have so many more resources for making your dreams come true than when you were a child.

I've recently been reading a book called The 4-Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss. Now, I don't want to give the impression I fully endorse the ideas in the book because, as Brandon pointed out upon reading the jacket cover, the author is basically explaining how you can become one of those lazy fat cats sitting pretty on the backs of the poor. The notion of not just failing to condemn, but even joining the new leisure class struck Brandon immediately as morally abhorrent. I wasn't quite so quick to judge, but being somewhat partial to Kantian ethics, it does bother me that if everyone were to apply Mr. Ferris's methods, the whole system would crumble.

That being said ... I completely agree with Mr. Ferriss that the 40 hr work week is too long and, at least partly because of that, people waste a lot of time while "on the clock." It's a lesson that becomes very clear contrasting the public school system with the homeschool experience. It is possible to accomplish much more learning in just a few hours at home than in a whole day spent at school (with homework added on to be completed in "off hours"). I could continue, but this is not the point I want to make right now.

The really valuable takeaway from the book for me is the reminder that you don't have to wait until retirement to pursue your dreams. In fact, you shouldn't. You should figure out right now what you really want to do with your life, make a plan to get it done, and start executing that plan immediately.

So, here's my own preliminary "insane" list of wishes:
- to write a great work of literature (some novels?)
- to do lots of paintings that I really like (better than the ones I've done so far)
- to get paid for giving workshops on topics of interest to me
- to get paid for writing curricula that help people learn valuable stuff
- to have multiple friends whom I can really trust, who like me, and who enrich my life with their strangeness
- to live in a home that is kept tidy and is full of happy-making art
- to eat well and exercise sufficiently to feel as good as possible
- to appreciate each day, knowing that I am fulfilling my longtime dream: to see the face of God and live
- and not just that, but also to appreciate what hadn't occurred to me until recently as a corollary to the previous that the face of God is being seen in me and my creative endeavors
- to raise children who know that they are loved and valuable, and who have gifts beyond what I can imagine
- also one of those Tibetan singing bowl thingies
- and a really fancy kazoo (gold plated?)
- and a collection of the best medieval scholars' hats recreated for modern times
- and more accessories for my camera (macro lens, telephoto lens, super deluxe flash)
- and a hooded cape with awesome embroidery (more than one?)
- and a solar powered motorbike
- and my own private study - that's really, really private - with a heavy, soundproof door and a huge dead bolt - or, better yet, a big wooden bar across the door - and with no windows - and stuffed book cases lining the walls completely
- and a giant monitor lizard (which is about the closest to a pet dragon anyone is going to get until genetic engineering advances a lot more)

Okay, so now, while I get to work on a plan to make my dreams come true ... what about your "insane" wish list? (-:

[Sadly, of all those things, I think the least likely ever to be fulfilled are the ones about the house being tidy, and eating well and exercising ... lol ... totally unrealistic ... ]

Monday, November 11, 2013

Thinking Of Our Veterans Today With Admiration, Gratitude, Concern ... And Resolve

I haven't done much to observe this Veterans' Day. I've thought with gratitude and admiration of people who've offered their lives in military service.

But (without considering the appropriateness beforehand), I also watched The Bridge On The River Kwai today--and yesterday, Ender's Game.

Bridge On The River Kwai is a depressing fable about the madness and futility of war. And Ender's Game--well, the movie was a poor adaptation of the book, unnecessarily introducing tired old tropes that obscured the philosophical themes--but the book, anyway, (which I hurriedly read the day before yesterday) raises the question: to what extent do we want to become violently brutal in order to protect ourselves (and our loved ones) from violent brutality?

Ender's Game (the book) poignantly illustrates the weight of--what shall we call it? Regret? Responsibility? The heaviness and terror felt by someone who never wanted to become ruthlessly violent, and yet, when faced with murderous intent, chose to respond in kind.

I have a great deal of respect for soldiers; for their sacrifice, which I consider genuinely noble. But I also feel concerned for soldiers, since, in combat, they must develop a side of themselves which most human beings generally strive to suppress. (And of course, much happens in combat that is severely emotionally traumatic for various reasons--in addition to the physical harm suffered.)

I don't know what else to say. Thank you, veterans, for your service, and I'm sorry it was necessary (or, worse, asked for even though not necessary). So today I resolve once again to do what I can to work for peace so that the horror of war can be avoided as much as possible in future. I will try to become the kind of person who forgives, who is gracious when others are mean and conciliatory when others are hostile. I will try to set aside my pride when I disagree with someone, listen with an open mind, and make a way for peace where there is no way.

I do believe that the best hope of changing the world is to change oneself, especially since personal transformation tends to be at least somewhat contagious. So ... I'll try to be a peacemaker in my relationships to honor those that have bought peace at a very dear price.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Why I Don't Drink Coffee (In short: it feels like choosing leprosy)

A couple days ago I was sitting in a morning meeting and noticed everyone else had a cup of coffee in front of them, and I’m there going without, yawning and slouching and rubbing my eyes. I don’t mind starting the day a little groggy; it wears off after a little while. But sometimes I wonder if I’m making other people uncomfortable by being so counter-cultural. I mean, even vegan health nuts drink coffee.

And it’s not just caffeine: I’m also reluctant about consuming alcohol, over-the-counter painkillers, and vitamin supplements. Basically, I don’t like the idea of using mood altering substances, no matter how useful and socially acceptable they may be.

And I was just reflecting, perhaps the best way to explain it is I’m afraid of losing touch with my “true state of being.” I mean, what does caffeine do but mask the symptoms of sleep deprivation? If I’m waking up tired and can’t get going in the morning, I probably haven’t rested enough.

At a formative age I was repeatedly exposed to the idea that pain and discomfort are to be welcomed as a signal that something is wrong. You wouldn’t really want a pain-free life (the argument goes): look at people with leprosy: because their nerves have been deadened, they can’t tell when something is causing their bodies harm, so they don’t change their behavior to protect themselves from further damage and pretty soon they’ve become all crippled and deformed.

So I internalized the principle of viewing pain and discomfort as helpful information and as inspiration to alter course.

The only problem with that is … sometimes the behavioral changes necessary to bring an organic (rather than artificial) end to my suffering are just too f***ing difficult to manage. And maybe at that point I should just concede defeat and drink a cup of tea.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

"Do Not Be Afraid" (Sermon)

So, I'm going to be posting (at least some of) my sermons on youtube now, through the church's new youtube channel. Here's the first one:

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Point Of This Painting Is The Paper Lanterns

I love paper lanterns. And I need some more art for the living room (art that goes with our blue and orange color scheme). So I did this painting last weekend. Yay!

Friday, September 20, 2013

On This Date Ten Years Ago

I was a new transfer student at Whitworth University (then "College"), a small Presbyterian school in Spokane, WA. Little did I know as I composed the following email to the folks back home what a momentous occasion it was. For those that know me and my beloved soul mate (see, I say that and I don't even believe in soul mates!), I thought this might be a fun read, ten years after the fact.

Also, I am posting this to reveal to Brandon the reason of the "Special Mystery Day" for which I got up at 5:45 to make him breakfast and send him off with a special lunch. Thank you, dearest Brandon, for ten incredible years, which have been so much more than at 17 I could possibly have imagined. See you after work ... (-:

From: Virgiliana
To: weekly report group
Subj: Ongoing adventures in Washington
Date: 9/20/2003

I came here to my desk to begin this email and found I could not sit in the chair, since it was covered in books and papers. "Ah!" I thought. "The room is beginning to feel like home at last!"

The other day, one of the TAs in Ethics wrote what I consider the best Dr. W--- quote so far: "I'm not being homo-erotic! I'm trying to describe the sublime!" What's even better is one of the other religion teachers, T---- M--------, happened to come in before class to tell Dr. W--- something. Right before leaving, he looked at the white board and smiled confusedly. "We'll be discussing this in our next faculty meeting." Everyone laughed as he left. Dr. W---, very red in the face, stared into space for a moment. "Hooooo," he said. "There goes my tenure."

Oh! And I forgot to mention earlier -- I tried out for the Whitworth Choir. They posted assignments Monday of last week and I was disappointed to see that my name was not on the sheet. Then I started looking for the names of a couple other people I knew who had also tried out. I looked on the sheet marked *Trouveres* (I had no idea what that was) and there was my name! As it turns out, that's the women's choir. So anyway ... that is/will be fun! (-:

This morning I ate breakfast in the cafeteria alone, since I wanted to think about a story I've been writing. When I had just about finished, a nice young man named Brandon sat down and started chatting with me. We talked about Dante, biblical inerrancy and denominational differences in interpretation of the Bible, whether the theory of evolution makes sense ... and then went our several ways.

An hour or so after I got back to my room, quad-mate J---- grilled me on the incident, asking to hear every detail of the conversation. How on earth she heard about it, I've not a clue. She said "I'm tempted to go downstairs and write on the dorm message board 'Virgie and Brandon sitting in a tree ...'" I think I'm beginning to get an idea what it's like living in a small town.

-Virgie (-:

Friday, September 6, 2013

Louisville 2013

Some photos. Enjoying my new camera on a trip to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) headquarters in Louisville, KY.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Camera I've Always Wanted!!!!

Now that our household has two full-time incomes for the first time ever (hip hip hooray!) I finally bought myself the really nice camera I've been wanting for years. Yes, previously I'd made do with the photo function on my little HD camcorder, but it had no flash, no manual controls for setting the shutter speed and aperture and stuff like that, and most importantly, it can't take pictures of very small objects.

But take ... a look ... at ... THIS(!!!):

This was my test shot to see how the camera could do on very small objects. It captured all the beautiful tiny little wrinkles on the cashews!!! YES YES YES!!!

And here's our little 3-inch cactus (he's named Pafnuty, after the Russian Mathematician):


So ... expect to see more photos on this blog from now on ...

Thursday, August 8, 2013

An Ode for Love of the Potato Chip

Many times I’ve eaten just a few
sometimes even two only
But today marks the first
time ever I ate just one
and felt
“That’s enough”

No; it’s not restraint
But depth, intensity
of appreciation
Think you can fathom
such a love?

Bet you can’t …

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Sermon: Spiritual Compost 2013.07.21

It wasn't until doing a late revision of the sermon that I realized I should talk about the Trayvon Martin / George Zimmerman story. The sermon is not about that, but it includes my best attempt at helping a broad audience to develop a Christ-like attitude toward that and similar situations. As is always the case with my sermons, this is written as much for me as it is for anyone else. (Also: I don't usually write a full manuscript, but I did this time to help me keep it very short, because we were doing a special service of healing prayer with extra music and a guided meditation and stuff.)

Spiritual Compost
1 Corinthians 1:18-31

This is the second sermon in the new series on evangelism and today I want to tell you about the Jesus whom the evangelists you see on t.v. don’t know about. Because it only takes a little bit of reading between the lines to realize the Messiah of televangelists must be a man of perfect power and unlimited wealth who NEVER EVER stops smiling.

But that’s not the Jesus of the Bible. And while it might be more effective to evangelize people with promises that all their troubles are going to go away, it’s a lie. Because the real Jesus lived in poverty, was rejected, tortured and, by worldly standards died as a failure. The Jesus we have to tell people about is a crucified Messiah—and as Paul said, no one wants to hear that.

But they really should. Because for that very reason, because of the crucifixion, the gospel is for people who are suffering—and that means everyone. The crazy-sounding good news of Jesus is that we can welcome and rejoice in suffering. All those times when things go wrong in our lives—when people get sick, even when they die—when friends abandon us—when family members betray us—when our savings dry up and the bills are piling high—when there’s nothing in the news but doom and despair—all of this is really so much garbage that can become the compost for our souls.

The most fertile ground for our spirits to grow is in the stinking pail of rot and refuse—that’s where we grow to maturity, by learning to depend on God. That’s where we learn the meaning of surrender; when we have no choice but to hand ourselves over to God’s wisdom and God’s power. Because our own wisdom and our own power are getting us nowhere.

That’s when we realize we are not the ones in control. Are you in control of your life? It might feel that way, because there are some things you can control—but every now and then, the truth starts to jab into your side and you realize: you are not in control of other people, you can’t control the economy, or the politicians in Washington, or the division of cells in your own body. You cannot prevent the rising costs of medical care or the shooting of random civilians in public places. No matter how good you are, no matter how hard you try—you will still be subject to unfairness and suffering, just as Christ was subject to suffering and injustice.

And the good news is, you can stop fighting it! ... And you're now wondering, how is that good news?

Well, let me give you an example of what that might look like: a lot of people have suffered some anguish this week over the Trayvon Martin / George Zimmerman story. It came up in our Bible study, even. And people here have some very different opinions and feelings about it. The story really touches a nerve—on the one hand, for people who feel upset that the media have sensationalized the whole thing and riled people up just because they know what sells—and on the other hand, there is a huge amount of grief and outrage from the black community and those in solidarity with them, for all the ways that black youth get pre-judged as violent criminals and treated with suspicion—which is something that happens all the time, whether or not it happened in the Zimmerman case.

So, regardless of what their opinions are, a lot of people have been really upset—personally, I would say justifiably upset in all cases—so what about this idea, then, that suffering is compost for our souls? What about this as an opportunity for spiritual growth?

This can become a situation where we practice putting our trust in God alone, and not in ourselves. We can let go of our desire to be in control—the megalomaniacal part of ourselves that says “If only I was in charge of the Associated Press” or “If only I had been on that jury”—and instead, we turn the situation over to God, and trust that God is at work here, even if we can’t see it. We acknowledge that God is in control, and things would be much, much worse if we were the ones in charge. And finally—this kind of acceptance does not mean throwing up our hands and saying “there’s nothing I can do”—but it means asking God, “Lord, how can I be obedient to your will and become part of what you’re doing already to take care of this?”

You see the difference? You’re no longer saying “God, help me to impose my will on other people.”  That’s not going to be very fruitful because you don’t have the ability to control other people and you may not really know what’s best for them. It’s not going to do any good just to get all upset about that whole Trayvon-Zimmerman thing, basically wishing that things were different and being angry—but it is another thing, and it’s good for the soul, if you can take a deep breath, and remember the peace that passes understanding—remember that God is in control, even in spite of this terrible tragedy—God is in control, even though the media have become an instrument of divisiveness and social chaos—God is in control, even though black youth in America are facing pervasive, debilitating racism every day—even so, I trust that God is at work here and now, bringing about an end to all corruption and injustice. So I give myself over to God, asking “Lord, how can I be obedient to your will? How can I be part of what you are doing to bring justice and healing?”

And it is only after you have surrendered to God in your suffering and in your anguish, that the Spirit begins to move in you, and it can give you that peace, and it can bring about some real changes—turning sorrow into joy, giving hope instead of despair—and guiding you in obedience to God’s will. And then you no longer want to strangle Mr. Zimmerman’s attorney or burn down the New York Times building—instead you want to—you know—get a bunch of white and black people together to sing songs and hold hands around a bonfire. Or donate to some program for helping inner city youth or volunteer as a mentor or whatever. Who knows how the Spirit may lead.

So, that’s one example. Of course, there are all kinds of ways that each of us has suffered this week—and all kinds of ways that we will likely suffer in the next week—and again, the good news which we have to share with this world is that we need not be afraid of that suffering or try to avoid it—but we can accept it as an opportunity—the way that Christ accepted the crucifixion—as the true path to salvation. So let’s take all our suffering as an excuse to humble ourselves and surrender to the power of God and the work of the Spirit in our lives. Amen.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

finding religious meaning

This morning, after the part of my dream where I bought an old t.v. from a thrift store and they delivered eight because they wanted to get rid of their stock and they all had different hookups and some were bizarrely shaped, there was kind of a nice little story, which I have made slightly more coherent for the blog:

There’s this elderly nun who has some kind of religious relic that’s supposed to have great power—but it’s not really the relic itself, because she offered to put it on display instead of having it with her all the time—so other people could come and revere it—but no one wanted that, because what makes the object so special has to do with the nun’s personal holiness.

One day she doesn’t show up for some chapel worship service, and all the people who normally found it such a profound and holy experience worshipping with the revered sister and her relic are all bored and irritated having to sit through Sister Margaret doing 12 novenas. 

Afterward, the monks are talking amongst themselves and one says, “It couldn’t be clearer; Sister is trying to teach by example that religious works are of no value to God.” Another says, “That’s not it at all; religious works are of value if they lead to greater love for God. Maybe Sister is intentionally acting in an unsaintly manner so that we will not idolize her.” And another said, “Or she’s trying to teach us that the holiness she represents to us is always present, even if she herself is not.”

Sister was getting up in years and had dozed off and slept through the service.

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Evolutionary Basis of Sexism

This week I stumbled across a fascinating website by a scholar named Peter Frost who has researched (among other things) the fact that women’s skin is lighter than men’s. Yes, that’s right: women have lighter skin than men. What the heck?

Not only that, but apparently, skin color signals male or female gender to the unconscious mind. Click on this link and you’ll see two faces. Granted, both faces appear gender-ambiguous, but the one on the right looks more masculine, and the one on the left looks more feminine, right? The only difference between the two photos is the skin color (slightly darker in the photo on the right). Well, I don't know if it will work for you, personally, but it certainly does for me.

ISN’T THIS UTTERLY FASCINATING??? And what are the implications with respect to racial prejudices???

Well, you can read Dr. Frost’s website for some speculation.

I just wanted with this post to point out an intriguing theory of the biological evolution of the differences between the sexes which Frost mentions as a possible explanation of the male-female skin color difference:

“Guthrie (1970) suggests that a fairer skin is one of several infant-like features—smaller nose and chin, smoother skin texture, relative lack of body hair, higher pitch of voice—that women have evolved to deter male aggression: ‘the sexual differences in skin color resulted from female whiteness being selected for because it is opposite the threat coloration, although the selection pressures may have been rather mild. Light skin seems to be more paedomorphic, since individuals of all races tend to darken with age. Even in the gorilla, the most heavily pigmented of the hominoids, the young are born with very little pigment.’”

[The reference is: Guthrie, R.D. (1970). "Evolution of human threat display organs." Evolutionary Biology 4:257-302.]

WOW!! Another thing that was not previously part of my consciousness, but it makes so much sense: part of the evolution of the differences between men and women is that women have a more child-like appearance in order to trigger others’ nurturing and protective instincts rather than competitive and aggressive instincts. Sure, it's "only a theory," but it seems quite reasonable and helpful to me.

It’s a plausible partial explanation for the maddening condescension of men toward women (and the equally infuriating condescension of women toward women).

And the theory makes me feel so much more “okay” with humankind’s terrible history of sexism and misogyny; now that it seems so obvious that it was, for a longer time than I can imagine, evolutionarily advantageous for women to be treated more like children than adults, I see no need to be angry that such a social pattern existed for millennia and has not been completely transcended in the present day. Human instincts are relatively weak, but they do exert some influence and our species can therefore be cut some slack. It may take a while for that one to be gotten over, and that shouldn't be dismaying. Instead, we should be amazed at how much progress has already occurred thus far.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Super Stink

Super powers are not just the stuff of comic books. I have seen a youtube video of Isao Machii slicing vegetables at mind blowing speeds and I have read apparently legit articles about Wim Hof, the guy that's impervious to cold. I know that there are supertasters walking among us. None of this is real news anymore. People take the incredible for granted ...

But today ... I want to share how my own life has been touched by (probably) two remarkable individuals whom I have never met, but who, it seems, were endowed with a superhuman stink power

Exhibit A

Witness exhibit A: one of my favorite shirts. I bought it at a thrift store only to discover after bringing it home that one of the armpits still carried the odor of the previous owner's sweat. This powerful "smell stain" has proven itself impervious to removal after many washings. Whether fortunately or unfortunately, I keep on forgetting about the smell stain and wear the shirt again without trying more drastic means of stink removal, and then I get all embarrassed when I catch of whiff of it (but of course, by then I'm out in public and it's too late to change). I imagine to myself that anyone else close by is disgusted by the odor, but would no doubt be even more grossed out if I explained, in my defense, that it's not me that stinks--it's the previous owner's super stink that just won't wash out ...

Exhibit B cannot be displayed, since I didn't take a picture of it. But this is a much more bizarre case. One day, a stomach turning stench of body odor wafted around our living room. We had a hard time, at first, tracking it down, but ultimately discovered it was emanating from the DVD of Inspector Maigret we'd checked out from the public library. The disc itself reeked as if it has spent the last several months lost in the fat folds of a 3,000-lb person--perhaps upon that person's death, the disc was discovered (and removed with tongs, I imagine) and returned to the library. I can come up with no better explanation. I also cannot find words extreme enough to describe the potency of the b.o. that somehow got onto that disc.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Sorry I Didn't Give Money To Stop Kony, But I Did Pledge $50 For This ...

I confess: I am a jaded postmodernist, generally skeptical about the ability of any nonprofit agency to do actual good in the world. Every now and then I see requests for donations on facebook but I can’t remember ever actually giving money. Even for causes I care about. And to be honest, that’s first of all because I’m stingy. Second because I’m lazy. Thirdly, I get nervous making financial transactions online. And then also, I get paralyzed by cynicism.

But for some reason, this project made me stop and decide to open my wallet. (And then I found out they may not even take my money after all—which was kind of emotionally confusing—“Oh, good, I might get to keep my money” but also “Oh, bad, maybe they won’t get enough support to make their movie.”)

This is the article that I first read (most of—well, okay, really just the parts that interested me). To summarize: it’s the story of author Alisa Valdes’ disgust at certain mainstream Hollywood producers’ rejection of her pitch for a t.v. show (based on her bestselling novel) about a diverse group of Latinas because (she tells us they said) they wanted to limit themselves to more stereotypical portrayals of Hispanic women. And sure enough, one of the studios she was in talks with (Lifetime) but could not reach an agreement with is now (unsurprisingly) coming out with a show about sexy Latina maids.

So Valdes is now trying to raise enough money to produce independently a movie based on her book. That’s ambitious. And definitely, to my mind, a worthy goal.

I love this idea, first of all, because it’s not like giving to so many national or international charitable organizations where there’s a real question as to what, exactly, your money will accomplish. Here, you know that a movie is going to be produced. Art will be created. And that is an end in itself.

Also, the more people support small budget films, ultimately, the less people’s attitudes will be shaped by mainstream media (which relies to a horrifying, revolting extent upon stereotyping, sexual exploitation, hackneyed tropes, and other undesirable appeals to the lowest common denominator in taste[lessness]).

So, now I’m doing my part to spread the word. Support better art; support a better world! (-: Read about the project and perhaps you'll be inspired to make a pledge, too.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Bird Project, Panel 1: California Quail (mama with four chicks)

I'm planning nine panels for this project--which would make it a "triple triptych" or "ennea-tych," I guess.

This first panel depicts the state bird of California. I completed it a little while ago, but thought it would be appropriate to post it on Mothers' Day. (Note: I know it's "supposed" to be "Mother's Day," but that just doesn't make sense to me.) Happy day of honoring mothers, everyone!

Friday, May 3, 2013

Human Life Or Cheap T-Shirts: What Matters More To You?

The death toll for the collapsed garment factory in Bangladesh reached 500 yesterday. At least 501 people are dead.

I read in this Associated Press article that back in November (after 112 factory workers died in a fire), "clothing brands and retailers continued to reject a union-sponsored proposal to improve safety throughout Bangladesh's $20 billion garment industry." Apparently, they didn't think consumers would be willing to pick up the extra costs.

I feel like I ought to say something about how it may be perfectly natural for us Americans to have a much stronger emotional response to the death of three people at a bombing of the Boston Marathon--after all, most of us know someone who has run in a marathon or have even run or watched one ourselves. But only the very tiniest percentage of Americans knows anyone who works in a sweatshop in Bangladesh. The vast majority of us cannot imagine what the lives of Bangladeshi factory workers are like at all. 

And it's only to be expected that people would sincerely "wish there was something they could do to help" in the case of a national tragedy like the one in Boston--but that they'd have a very difficult time talking or even thinking about how their actions and choices might help to prevent future industrial disasters in developing nations.

I don't want to "preach" about this. I can't take a stand of righteous indignation, not least of all because I buy my clothes at thrift stores and Target; I have not myself taken the principled stand of purchasing only from fair-trade organizations or sewing my own clothing.

And, like I said, it's understandable and completely unsurprising that people would be callous and unmoved by the unimaginably horrendous accident in Bangladesh that they're still sorting through the rubble from right now. It's only to be expected that we all just want to put the responsibility on the Bangladeshi government--and it is their responsibility. But we are ignoring or justifying the role that we ourselves play in the system by purchasing cheap goods which we might have guessed were produced in sweatshops with unsafe working conditions. It's understandable. It's not surprising. But it's also sickening and sad and terrible.

Anyway, at least some folks think that major improvements in safety could be made in Bangladeshi factories without dramatically increasing prices. This article suggests that all it might take is some pressure from consumers on the brands they buy to start seeing some positive changes. Now all we need is some folks to start campaigns of making phone calls, writing letters and emails and signing petitions and stuff, right? Hm ...

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Found an Amazing Blog! ("Jyoti Art Ashram")

Nowadays especially, I am always on the lookout for great artwork with spiritual themes and did I ever hit the jackpot stumbling across this blog: Jyoti Art Ashram! OH MY GOSH IT'S INCREDIBLE!!!

I absolutely, instantly fell in love with this mandala of the shepherd with a hundred sheep who seeks out the one that is lost; a revival of my all-time favorite genre/style: medieval Europe, pre-Renaissance.

And look at this gorgeous painting of the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus at his baptism!

And this one of "Guru Jesus and his fiery sermon"!

And I LOVE this one of "Jesus the Healer"--depicted as a member of the Dalit/"untouchable" caste.

And this joyful sketch of the healing of the paralytic, and this fascinating image of the "Trinity in the landscape," and this one of a 15th century mystic poet, Kabir.

Wow wow wow! That's what I have to say!

The only bad thing about this blog is that it hasn't been updated recently and it's kind of hard to navigate. In fact, the only way to find one of the brightest gems in the collection is to scroll halfway down this page to the "Surya Namashkar" entry, which is a series of yoga poses, beautifully illustrated, of the stations of the cross!

Let me just repeat that for anyone who failed to catch the absolutely amazing awesomeness of that the first time: it's a beautifully illustrated series of yoga poses for praying the stations of the cross!!!!!!!

I feel like I just discovered a buried treasure chest filled with wonders beyond my imagining!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

"How To Make Six Figures Online"

A few weeks ago I went to a free lecture on how to make six figures on the internet. It was pretty good. The guy who gave the talk shared his experiences and the strategies that ended up working for him.

The primary take-away for me was that you can make buckets of money on the internet if you really want to--but you have to really want it, and it's a ton of work.

Personally, I have never particularly wanted to make a lot of money, so I probably never will. I would guess that's true of most people. Anyone likes the sound of "six figures" but very few want the money badly enough to do the work required to earn it.

So, lesson number one is, most people should stop complaining about how little money they make. If it were a higher priority, they could be making plenty more. They just don't care enough to get off their butts and do it. (And I mean most Americans, by the way--can't say about people in other countries.)

And then the other lesson is, you can accomplish all kinds of things that seem beyond the reach of ordinary people if you're passionate enough about it.

Someday I hope to write some books that will actually be accepted by a publisher ... but at the present time, it's not a high enough priority in my life to actually happen. I think that's okay, though--what all is going on in my life now is future grist for the writing mill ...

Monday, March 18, 2013

Jesus' Donkey: symbol of what, exactly?

Typical Palm Sunday interpretation: Jesus rode a peaceful donkey instead of a war horse to indicate his non-violent intention. However, I've also heard it suggested that donkeys were better animals for waging war on rocky hillsides where horse-drawn chariots were useless--so, donkeys were still a symbol of war, but they represented the indigenous underdog using guerrilla tactics, as contrasted with the big and powerful armies of a foreign invading empire. Perhaps there's room for both meanings--we could imagine the crowds taking the second interpretation (hoping for a violent revolution) whereas Jesus intended the first (as was demonstrated soon after). Or we could take Jesus' act as transforming a symbol of the people's resistance into something even more powerful.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Stupid Brain Stem Wants To Subdue That Chevy

Sometimes psychologists make a big deal about the "reptilian brain." They're referring to the brain stem, thought to be the earliest part of the brain to evolve, which controls very basic, unconscious processes (heart rate, breathing, etc.)--as contrasted with the limbic system, which is said to be the seat of emotions, and the neocortex, which enables us to reason. It's said that threatening situations trigger the reptilian brain's fight or flight instinct, which overrides rational processes. I've never found the supposed applications of this concept to everyday life to be very meaningful or helpful, with one exception.

The "fight" instinct always kicks in when I'm walking across the street and a car is approaching at a high speed. Although the calculations of my neocortex would indicate impact is very unlikely (it's rare that a motorist would intentionally mow down a pedestrian rather than stopping at a red light), an uncontrollable instinct takes over for a moment, and my body automatically stops in the middle of the road and braces itself for mortal combat with the oncoming vehicle. It only lasts for a moment, but it happens every time. No matter how many times the neocortex tries to inform the brain stem (for future reference) that "flight" would be a better option than "fight" in those cases, the stupid reptilian brain simply never learns.

Have other people experienced this? Do I have an overactive "fight" response, or what?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Has the Democratic Party Lost Its Vision?

Over the past few days, facebook friends have posted several dozen Martin Luther King Jr. quotes—they’re all great—but you get to wondering after a while—what relevance do all these quotations have to our current situation?

The evil of legislated segregation has been over for decades, thanks to the work of Dr. King and so many others. Today, people are celebrating the fact that our (biracial) black (/white) president is still heading the nation, a symbol of how far we’ve come and a role model to inspire young African Americans. And people are talking about how there’s still work to be done, but we can press on in hope toward Dr. King’s vision and dream.

 But how are we going to get there unless we start talking about the problems facing black communities today? I am purposely using the term “black communities” rather than “black community,” even though I think there is value in talking about “the black community” in some contexts—because another reality is, there are huge differences between, say, the middle-class suburbs where some black people live and were raised, versus the crime riddled urban wastelands where others struggle to survive.

Although our president is part of “the black community,” he did not grow up in gang-controlled territory. Though he had to deal with the kind of racism that one of only three black kids in an elite private school might face, he had nothing like the experience of adolescent (or even pre-adolescent) boys struggling with the dilemma of whether to join a gang, or else refuse and risk bodily injury or death—and bleak economic prospects. Our black (/white) president did not have to attend an abysmally failing, dangerous public school. Can there be any doubt but that he benefitted immensely from the privileges of his white-American heritage?

Just because we have a black president does not mean he understands or is an advocate for solutions to the worst problems African Americans are facing in this country. I am, frankly, disappointed that his inaugural speech ended up sounding like the same old Democratic hobby horse riding of which I’ve been getting sicker and sicker since the beginning of last year’s campaign. People keep complaining that it offered no vision of a way forward in partnership with Republicans, but I was even more disheartened that it was such a small bundle of hopes limited to issues I consider of only secondary importance.

 Isn’t the Democratic Party supposed to be looking out for the interests of the poor and marginalized? “Struggling middle class families” do not count in my mind. Neither do women or gays. Okay, sure I'm phrasing it that way for shock value, and it's true that there are a few ways public policy could be changed to improve things for certain subsets of those groups—but this is not the same kind of high priority issue as it is to rescue children from criminally bad public schools, or to reduce the incarceration and homicide rates for young people, particularly black and Hispanic males. I'm not saying we should pit the interests of the less-marginalized against those of the substantially oppressed—I mean that if the party is only talking about issues on the scale of "keeping entitlements the way they've always been" and vague aspirations of closing the income gap between men and women (how exactly do you legislate that?) ... they've lost sight of the bigger issues.

I don’t understand why Democrats are so afraid to admit that probably the single worst cause of continued racial inequality in this country is the war on drugs. Gang activity centers around the underground drug economy. Young men who made poor choices during their youth, usually because there were no good choices available, become second-class citizens with felonies on their permanent records. This is one of few instances where public policy (and not just public policy, but federal legislation) is oppressing the poor on a massive scale.

In spite of being black, our (also white) president seems to have no appreciation for the importance of ending the inestimably destructive (and unjust) war on drugs. Instead, he’s gotten lost in politicking, and is not able to lead his party, much less the nation, out of its blindness and hypocrisy.

Friday, January 18, 2013

You Really Expect Me To Turn The Bare Rocks Into Tithing Members?

This is a modified, shortened version of last Sunday's sermon.

Being the pastor of a church with fewer than ten people has been a real test of faith for me (and it’s only been three months now). I wasn’t expecting this, perhaps because I’ve dealt in the past with doubts of a more intellectual sort—“Is faith consistent with a rational worldview? Is ‘God’ nothing more than fantasy born of a habit of psychological dependence?” and that sort of thing. This is a different kind of doubt.

I’ve been thinking of Moses lately, in the desert—when the Israelites were dying of thirst—and God told him, just talk to that rock over there and that’ll fix it. And Moses goes ahead and gathers everyone together, but when the moment comes, he chokes, and instead of talking to the rock, he says to the people, “What am I supposed to do, squeeze water out of this stone?” And he hits it a couple times with his staff and sure enough, it turns into a gushing fountain.

I know that other people know it’s not reasonable to expect that I can just instantly turn my church around, make it grow by leaps and bounds, and bring in enough income to put all our financial concerns to rest. But I also know certain people are really, really hoping that will happen. Some people really, really want it to happen and have faith it can happen—and just like Moses, I have my doubts—and unlike Moses, I have not had a word directly from the mouth of God telling me exactly what to do or what kind of provision God is going to make.

It’s been said that doubt is not the opposite of faith—indifference is. Because if the potential existence of God really makes no difference in your life, there’s no particular reason either to believe or to doubt. But the more you’ve risked on the possibility of God actually doing something to intervene in your life, the more you’re probably going to struggle with doubt. It’s scary to entrust your career (for example), or your reputation, finances, your life’s work, etc. to someone you have never literally seen or heard from. The more you entrust to God, the more anxiety you can expect to feel—i.e. the more faith you have, the more you will have to struggle with doubt.

It’s possible that by the end of 2013 we could have twenty new members. It’s also possible we could have even fewer than are here now. No one knows what’s going to happen. And that’s what causes me anxiety, when I see how much faith other people have that the church is going to grow and I want to shield them from disappointment—or when I imagine that other people think this venture is crazy and I wish God would prove them wrong.

But deeper than all that, I have no doubt that whether the church grows numerically or even shrinks (hah ha, talk about a test of faith), it’s going to grow spiritually.

I’ve also been thinking about how Jesus said the kingdom of God is like seeds that some guy scattered in a field. He doesn’t know how or why it happens and he doesn’t make it happen, but all by itself the seeds sprout and grow and eventually the kernels of wheat are ripe for harvesting.

Sometimes the reassurance God gives us is “too deep for words” and sometimes an image—a seed that sprouts and grows, naturally, at first invisibly, beneath the soil, mysteriously, wondrously grows—an image may be all that we need to remember and keep in mind. Something is growing, whether we can see it or not, whether it’s the type of plant we imagined or something unexpected. I know my doubts are only superficial, some worry about how this is going to end up looking to other people—but the truth that is written on my heart—how could I doubt—that God is, as always, causing something beautiful to grow …

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Something Ugly To Look At (Part 1)

One of the best things about living in Florida is the birds: there are all kinds of birds, most of them quite large compared with the pigeons, sparrows, and occasional hummingbirds one sees around L.A.--such as the flock of wild turkeys that seems to like hanging around the church. There are water birds everywhere, as well as hawks and vultures.

About a month ago I met one of the oddest, ugliest birds I've encountered yet: the wood stork.

I wish I'd had a camera with me. The pictures I've found of it online don't seem to do it justice. The effect in person is more striking--it's one of those so-ugly-it's-endearing kind of faces--almost goofy--really, just odd.

An artist named Vickie Henderson did a nice portrait in watercolor:

I've had a couple previous posts of "Something Beautiful To Look At"--lovely images to put up in my office. This is something ugly-beautiful I'm going to put up. These odd bald birds really make me smile.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Refraining From Poetic Wax ...

Sometimes as I’m preparing a sermon (or a blog post, or to teach a class) my thoughts go off in some mystical/metaphysical direction which I find deeply meaningful, but I almost never try to share it with anyone because it’s hard to put into words and I don’t expect many people to understand what I’m talking about. I’m afraid people will think I’m crazy if, for example, I talk about how our response to the shooting in Connecticut should be shaped by the doctrine of the trinity, or if I try to explain how loving the person different from us is the meaning of “organic”/ is life, possibly is existence. If I just explained it better it would make perfect sense to you, also. But you might not find it very meaningful. And I guess that’s the bigger reason I don’t share my mystical musings: they seem so impractical—kind of—I mean, they’re actually helpful to me in making everyday decisions—but I imagine other people thinking “This has no relevance to anything.” Hm.