Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Book Thoughts

Silver on the Tree by Susan Cooper (last in a series of 5)

Great stuff, this series.
Loving Husband tells me that JRR Tolkein, like many Englishmen, hated the French. He so disliked them that he personally resented the Norman Conquest in 1066. That's powerful. I bring this up because good ol' JRR and Susan Cooper have that much in common. There is implication in all the books of dislike of other countries--all these important, world-changing events happen in jolly old GB, for one thing--but in Silver she specifically calls out each of the successive invasions of the British Isles as waves of the Dark. Interesting, that, particularly since there's a scene early on in which some of the Stanton children stand up for a little boy from India who's being picked on. We are treated to a dialogue between the bully's dad and Mr. Stanton in which the bully's dad is clearly ignorant, mean, conservative, and wrong and Mr. Stanton is patient, kind, expansive, and liberal. Conservative, liberal, we know these words are malleable. I'm just saying the book's conflicted.

Thoughts on How Things Work

Remember when you had to hand-crank your car window down? It wasn't just a small button that quietly lowered the window with no effort on your part. You had to work to get that sucker down.

I'm only thinking about this because, in a dazed moment late on Saturday night while finishing up my sermon for the next morning, I noticed a similar device on Loving Husband's laptop. You'd think that on such a technologically advanced machine, there'd be a password or a cyberspace-related mechanism. There should at least be an electrical catch. But, no, it's just a little lever that catches on another little bit. That's all that holds the thing closed.

Weirdly, I felt smug when I noticed this little catch. There is comfort in knowing that I can operate that catch. That I, technological simian that I am, could understand and possibly even fix it if it broke. There's satisfaction in knowing, what, that I'm in control? That this is understandable?

Honestly, when was the last time you fixed something yourself? And did it work well, the thing you fixed? It seems to me that, more and more, the things we have require specialists to service them. I'll admit I'm something of a luddite, but don't you sometimes long for the days when you could not just understand that something worked but see how it worked? Take the Krispy Kreme doughnut shops: if you go to the right one, you can see the actual process of making a doughnut, from the racks where the dough rises to the conveyor through the glaze. It's amazing--so that's how they do that, I say. And I do say it out loud. Ask Loving Husband sometime.

In my business, you don't see a lot of the workings. You rarely see the results of your labors. I won't get to see how the kids I hang out with now will turn out. The education, the fellowship, the empowering--I see some of it pay off, but most of it will really show up in 5, 10, 20 years. And when what you do and say are not received well, they're not often fixable. There is certainly no sense of being in control. Church work is hugely complicated with millions of interconnected wires and relationships. And it's as simple as a small catch.

How do I do what I do? How do you? What makes you frustrated? What gives you energy? What makes you see the interconnected wires and think, "Wow, so that's how they do that"?

Friday, May 25, 2007

Whedon on Women

One of my favorite television visionaries is Joss Whedon. He’s a brilliant director and a thoughtful guy. Normally, he’s a barrel of wacky laughs, but right now he’s got something powerful and important to say about women, how they're treated and how they allow themselves to be treated. If you have a moment, read this short essay he wrote. I’d be interested in your thoughts.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Book Thoughts

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
Loving Husband's favorite book, it's taken me six years to read. And very much worth the wait. It's about hope in the face of inescapable odds, heroes living everyday lives, love in a time of cholera--no, wait, that's something else...

Seriously, an excellent book connecting the early years of comic books with World War II, magicians, Judaism, and love. (The following is an excerpt which sums it up but doesn't give away any of the plot. Made me a bit weepy because it's so true.)

"[Joe] thought of the boxes of comics that he had accumulated, upstairs, in the two small rooms where, for five years, he had crouched in the false bottom of the life from which Tommy had freed him, and then, in turn, of the thousands upon thousands of little boxes, stacked neatly on sheets of Bristol board or piled in rows across the ragged pages of comic books, that he and Sammy had filled over the past dozen years: boxes brimming with the raw materials, the bits of rubbish from which they had, each in his own way, attempted to fashion their various golems. In literature and folklore, the significance and the fascination of golems--from Rabbi Loew's to Victor von Frankenstein's--lay in their soullessness, in their tireless inhuman strength, in their metaphorical association with overweening human ambition, and in the frightening ease with which they passed beyond the control of their horrified and admiring creators. But it seemed to Joe that none of these--Faustian hubris, least of all--were among the true reasons that impelled men, time after time, to hazard the making of golems. The shaping of a golem, to him, was a gesture of hope, offered against hope, in a time of desperation. It was the expression of a yearning that a few magic words and an artful hand might produce something--one poor, dumb, powerful thing--exempt from the crushing strictures, from the ills, cruelties, and inevitable failures of the greater Creation. It was the voicing of a vain wish, when you got down to it, to escape. To slip, like the Escapist, free of the entangling chain of reality and the straitjacket of physical laws. Harry Houdini had roamed the Palladiums and Hippodromes of the world encumbered by an entire cargo-hold of crates and boxes, stuffed with chains, iron hardware, brightly painted flats and hokum, animated all the while only by this same desire, never fulfilled: truly to escape, if only for one instant; to poke his head through the borders of this world, with its harsh physics, into the mysterious spirit world that lay beyond. The newspaper articles that Joe had read about the upcoming Senate investigation into comic books always cited 'escapism' among the litany of injurious consequences of their reading, and dwelled on the pernicious effect, on young minds, of satisying the desire to escape. As if there could be any more noble or necessary service in life."
--Chabon, page 582 (New York: Picador, 2000)

Addicted to Television

It's true. Don't get me wrong--I am not equating my passionate love of TV with real, heavy-duty addictions like alcoholism or what have you. That would be rude as well as inaccurate. Suffice it to say, Loving Husband and I were simultaneously saddened to discover that we have no more discs of Six Feet Under to watch at the moment and we've just finished watching 5 episodes almost back-to-back. This one time, we watched all of Buffy Season 3 in a week-end. It was Easter week-end. And I had to preach. It's that bad.

On the other hand, we only watch when we have the DVDs available which is a neat built-in restriction. We just don't watch actual TV with the commercials and everything. Hate commercials. Really and truly hate them. I don't need to be sold more stuff. I've got plenty of stuff right here in my house.

I waffle between (a) being concerned about how much pixilated trash I'm absorbing and (b) justifying my watching by saying they're powerful stories and it's my time off so get over it. The key is, I think, how much is TV-watching getting in the way of "real life"? Am I late for meetings or socializing because of watching something? Sometimes. Does it get in the way of my other interests? Sometimes. Do I find myself connecting every conversation or situation I'm in with an episode or character? Absolutely. Does it get in the way of my relationship with my husband? Don't think so. Does it get in the way of my relationship with God? Now that's a toughie.

I see the image of God in all things--creation, people I like, people I don't like, grocerying, youth ministry, and, yes, television. I've been moved to tears by the presence of the holy in a television show. When Doyle says, "The good fight, yeah?", or when Fox Mulder finds his sister, or just the look and cohesiveness of Firefly--these are all God-moments for me. And since I've got a minor in art history, I can bs God into anything. God is in all things. But are all things getting in the way of my relationship with God? Because that's idolatry, pure and simple. I don't know, but I'll have to keep my eyes open.

Monday, May 21, 2007

A New Start

I've had this blog for nine months and originally set it up so that I would be allowed to post on my father's blog. Until now, I've only posted once. But that's all about to change, my friends!

The world we live in is a complicated place. The decisions we face every day, the relationships we form, our feelings and reactions to just about everything that happens--all complicated. We have mixed motivations for what we do. We're not rational. We're sinful creatures. Yes, I said sinful. That's kind of a bad word these days. Sin implies judgment and unpleasantness. It suggests that the things we do are not as good as we try to convince ourselves. We intentionally and unintentionally hurt those around us. And yet, in the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the plants and animals and the light and the dark and us--when God created the world, God looked at it all and said "Indeed, it is very good." We are, at the most basic part of our natures, good. Yet we sin. We are saved and judged. Saint and sinner. Simul justus et peccator.

My brain works overtime thinking about this kind of stuff. Theology, spiritual journey, liturgy, how we live in the world--it's all going to come out here. Sometimes it'll be draft versions of newsletter articles, sometimes rambles on a theme, sometimes short posts about books I've read. I will probably cross-post some old entries from my livejournal blog, too.

Peace to you and all in your house.


Listen to this:

Maybe there's a God above
But all I've ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya
And it's not a cry that you hear at night
It's not somebody who's seen the light
It's a cold and it's a broken "Hallelujah."

This is the last verse of Jeff Buckley's song "Hallelujah." He sings with only his guitar for accompaniment into an empty and echoing room. His voice is haunting, thin in places, as though he's about to give up on singing entirely, and powerful with anger in others. You feel rather than hear his despair—it washes over you in waves. His song ends, dejected and hopeless—love is a cold and broken "Hallelujah."

Leonard Cohen actually wrote the song and when he sings it, he ends with this verse:

I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but "Hallelujah."

I've got a live recording of Cohen singing it and his voice is deep and rich and...perplexed. It's as though he doesn't really understand what he's singing but he's singing it anyway. He's trying to puzzle it out, trying to make some sense of his life. I can relate—youth ministry can be frustrating and overwhelming. There are times when I know I've done everything I can and a conversation simply doesn't work. I tell myself that it is God who turns folk's hearts and God who is in charge, not me. It doesn't always work.

It is frustrating to me that I can't find the definitive version of this song—it seems that everyone who records it, including Cohen himself, picks and chooses the verses they'd like to sing. The verses in some ways contradict one another: some seem to be more Bible-story-oriented—David, Bathsheba, Samson and Delilah—and some which are introspective and seem to be based on the singer's own history in love. How do they fit?

In the young adult Bible 101 group at my church, we've been talking about the book of Genesis and its two Creation stories. How do they fit together? Can we make them agree with each other so that it makes sense to us? Should we just take the one that makes sense to us this moment and sing its "Hallelujah"? What's the real story? What are they saying to us: are they short histories of what happened back in The Day, are they political machinations to uplift a downtrodden tribe, or are they poetic versions of a people's experience of their relationship with God?

The answer seems to be "yes"—that is, yes, they're political, yes, they're historical, and yes, they're a people's experience. I'm not saying I like that answer or even that I understand it. I do know that God's creation is so much more complicated than we can imagine and we can find God where things are the most frustrating.

Many days I feel like ending the song where Jeff Buckley does. More often I sing with Leonard Cohen who senses his sinfulness and his salvation in every breath, who sings:

…even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but 'Hallelujah.'"