The Taser's Edge

Tuesday Reading Roundup

City of God by Augustine of Hippo
The first time I tried to read this was in high school.  Clearly that wasn’t going to work out.  The current attempt is probably about a year in the making (or more).  Part I was really interesting to the type of person that such things are interesting to (like me and others interested in Greek and Roman antiquity).  I started Part II today, and it is kind of amazing thus far…

When ‘God rested on the seventh day from all his works, and sanctified that day,’ this is not to be understood in any childish way, as if God had toiled at his work, seeing that ‘he spoke and they were made’ by a word which was intelligible and eternal [ed. note: JESUS! THE WORD!], not vocal and temporal.  No, the ‘rest of God’ means the rest of those who find their rest in him, just as ‘the joy of a house’ means the joy of those who rejoice in that house – even if it is not the house itself but something else which is responsible for the joy.  How much more appropriate it would be if in fact the house itself were to make the inhabitants glad by reason of its beauty.

Culture Making by Andy Crouch
Interesting thing to read alongside City of God as Crouch’s work stands in that work’s direct shadow, with Crouch working toward an understanding of Christ, the church, and culture which is about creating culture (as opposed to the many other ways that Christians have tried to relate to wider culture in the past).

The writers of the Bible would have been the first to insist that human attempts at fashioning images of God are doomed to failure or worse.  But God, it seems, has no such limitation.  God himself makes an “image” of himself.  Humankind’s “images of God” are always deficient and destructive, the Hebrew Bible insists, but God’s own “image of God” is the summary of everything he has made, crowned with the words, “It was very good.”

Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by Sue Johnson
Cheesy title or not, this book is hip-hop-happening.  Its basic claim is that the take on what makes romantic relationships work which has been mainlined into American pop psychology and pop culture through sitcoms and romcoms (that ‘take’ being communication, communication, communication, all five words containing ‘com’ of course) doesn’t actually hold up.  Johnson argues (and has research to back it) that in the same way that infants have to form strong attachments with their mothers in order to thrive into adulthood, we continue to need to have strong bonding attachments in order to thrive.  All of our relationships, but particularly our most intimate ones, are marked by a need for healthy attachments which help us to feel safe and secure in all areas of our lives.

Two reasons that this sounds brilliant to me.  (1) Safety is the basic human need that I personally learned was necessary for every successful chaplaincy interaction I had during my chaplaincy residency, and which (I believe) I learned is necessary for every fruitful human interaction, period.  (2) This revision make clear how ideologically individualistic the “all codependency is harmful” school of psychology is.  The need for making adult attachments in order to be healthy individuals is much more in line with a Biblical theological anthropology of interdependency.

We have to dive below to discover the basic problem: these couples have disconnected emotionally; they don’t feel emotionally safe with each other.  What couples and therapists too often do not see is that most fights are really protests over emotional disconnection.  Underneath all the distress, partners are asking each other: Can I count on you, depend on you?  Are you there for me?

The Artist and The Contemplative

The Sartorialist is the fashion blog of Scott Schuman, possibly the most-read fashion blog in the whole shootin’ match.  Recently somebody at Intel thought it would be a good idea to do a brief documentary about him, and here is that product:

As I watched, I thought about a couple things:

1.) Schuman’s art requires leisure, 4-5 hours a day walking and attempting to be present to New York, Milan, London, or (most recently) Seoul, looking for 1-2 pictures.  And here’s the jump, if you’ll make it with me: contemplative prayer and good art both require a similar kind of leisure, a similar kind of attention, and a similar cultivation of awareness over time.  (Think Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus, just ‘wasting’ her time.)  Maybe it’s obvious that leisure is required for contemplative prayer, but I never thought about just how important it was until Beatrice Bruteau opened her Radical Optimism with a full chapter devoted to leisure.  [Side note: she also says that study requires a similar level of leisure, which would also connect to the best study being the most creative study.]

2) Schuman’s daily process is a long search, but it is nonetheless fully expectant, and it has the right expectations, which the artist has learned over time.  Contemplation too is shaped by a similar expectancy, one which changes and matures over time and through experience.  Just as Schuman doesn’t expect or look for a brilliant photo on every street he walks, so the contemplative doesn’t expect life-changing insight 10 times a week, but this does not at all mean that there is not joyous and hopeful expectation on the part of both artist and contemplative.

Personally, I see a connection between the cultivation of a healthy life, an aware life, and a creative life.  Doing a year-long chaplaincy residency beat the crap out of me, but the twin practices which seemed to be most helpful for my holistic wellness are mindfulness/contemplation (not to claim the two are synonymous) and creative outlet.

Book Haul!

That is, Birthday Haul! (Don’t feel the need to make yourself watch the entire awful thing):

For Bridge Day, the day which falls between Holly’s and my birthday, we headed to Chapel Hill for lunch and to hit a couple stores.  I rarely buy a book.  That is, they come by the many.

From the excellent The Bookshop (and thanks to my excellent Mom, who got me a gift certificate there)

  • The Angry Christian by Andrew LesterI’ve heard good things about this book for a long time, and one of my chaplain supervisors at Duke knew the author while living in Dallas
  • The Lord by Romano Guardini–Ratzinger/Benedict XVI likes Guardini a lot (Ratzinger’s Spirit of the Liturgy is titled in an homage to Guardini’s book of the same name), and this looked fantastic
  • Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life, edited by Miroslav Volf and Dorothy C. Bass–I’ve been looking for this book for several years, both because of everything, and because one of my favorite (now former) Duke profs, Tammy Williams, submitted a chapter
  • Zen and the Birds of Appetite by Thomas Merton–From late in Merton’s life, continuing inter-religious dialogues with the East

And from the excellent resale shop connected to an even better cause, Pennies for Change:

  • An Actor Prepares by Constantin Stanislavski–I’ve been interested in the book for a long time out of curiosity, then out of practical questions of the connections between preaching and performing, then because performance and Christian ethics is now a hot topic (including Stanislavski)
  • The Challenges of the Disciplined Life: Christian Reflections on Money, Sex & Power by Richard J. FosterYou would think that I should read Celebration of Discipline first, but no
  • The Crosswicks Journal, Book 3: The Irrational Season by Madeleine L’Engle–I have yet to read much of her non-fiction
  • The Confusions of Young Törless by Robert Musil–from the back of the book, “Like his contemporary and rival Sigmund Freud, Robert Musil boldly explored the dark, irrational undercurrents beneath the calm surface of bourgeois life…”
  • Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain–Not normally my genre for reading, but a new movie version is out as an HBO series starring Kate Winslet and directed by Todd Haynes
  • The Myth of the Eternal Return, or, Cosmos and History by Mircea Eliade–Who’s not interested in the eternal return?
  • The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays by E.P. Thompson–Thompson’s most famous book is The Making of the English Working Class (not well-regarded by at least once Wesley historian at Duke), and his second may be this
  • Virgin Time: In Search of the Contemplative Life by Patricia Hampl–Interesting-looking book by a well-respected author?  Yes, please.

The Fountain (2006, dir. Darren Aronofsky)

You might be an intense director if all your soundtracks feature the Kronos Quartet and/or Mogwai and if your least intense film to date is about a scientist desperately trying to find a cure for his wife’s illness as a way of grieving for her before her death.  Yes, in case you thought it might be a different Darren Aronofsky, this is the director of Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, and Black Swan. [Note: Once the next X-Men Wolverine movie comes out, The Fountain will likely no longer be Aronofsky’s least intense film.]

When The Fountain came out, I didn’t really seek it out.  Sci-fi is not Holly’s thing, so then I never rented it either.  Then, finally, it came to Netflix streaming.

As I recall, it had mixed reviews upon hitting theaters (51% says Metacritic), but I cannot understand why.  Life, death, immortality, medicine, science, ethics, spirituality, friendship, love, marriage, romance, drama, history, myth, adventure, Rachel Weisz, Ellen Burstyn, Darren Aronofsky, Hugh Jackman (who in his conquistador costume convinced me he could have been a good Aragorn).  Can you name one of these things which can’t make a great movie?  No, you can’t (although I know the conquistador costume tests you).

If you have followed this blog for long, you know that I sometimes like movies for their ambition alone, and this one excels in that category, but not in that category alone.  Hugh Jackman plays three incarnations of the same character, and Rachel Weisz plays two, before basically being played by a giant tree in a third role.  And the last half of that last sentence tells you why this movie lost so much money.  At least according to IMDB, it cost $35 million to make and only recouped $10 million at the box office.

So what is so great about this movie?  For me, having done a lot of reading, thinking, and dealing with questions of life, death, grieving, and loss through the lens of spirituality (as a chaplain resident, if you’re a new reader), The Fountain is a beautiful piece of art–well-written, well-scored, well-acted, well-directed, beautifully visualized–about very important topics (although topics is a terribly weak word for what I’m talking about).  It’s not only visually and emotionally compelling, but it also manages to be meditative.

It had me thinking about my church, which has been talking about doing something with theology and the arts for a long time, to perhaps think toward a film series around death and dying.  Or, as a couple of my own clinical pastoral supervisors modeled for me, I might just keep it in mind for teaching in the future.

Netflix has a five-star rating system, and it won’t let you do half-stars, so I always round up.  To me, The Fountain is a 4.5-5 star movie (because, yes, the ending could have been less muddled).

See. It.  And then buy me the graphic novel version.

Vocation, the Church, and Time

How much time can you really get your head around?  10,000 years?  If you say you can, I don’t believe you.  250 years?  Perhaps just barely.  The question is really this: “From how far back can you place yourself in a relatively contiguous historical narrative?”

I’m talking specifically about the Church (as my title may have let you know), this reality in which my own few decades are coming after millennia and may be followed by millennia; or, within the whole of the Time of God, perhaps my years are book”ended” by infinity in both directions.

In this point which is my this-earthly life on the line of Time (yes, viewing time linearly for this exercise), I have things to do, a calling or callings, personal responsibility.  But I don’t knit All That Is Everything together, so I don’t need to approach life as if I do.

The point?  For as far back as I can actually imagine myself coming from (and that 250 year mark may be it for me), I want to imagine at least that far into the future for what I am working toward when I consider my calling.

Thus, the question of vocation is this: “What work of God, which God has been doing through countless people and circumstances for 250 years and more, and which God desires to continue for 250 years or more into the future, am I called to be a partially-yet-truly responsible piece of, for this day and for the next several decades, which are my this-earth life?”

Such a question makes me both more important (500 years and more on my shoulders) and less important (100 millions and more people sharing that load) than I usually view myself.  It’s not just a marathon, because a marathon is both selfish and easy in comparison; it’s the most ridiculous relay-race ever devised, with billions of participants involved, many of us not realizing that we are supposed to be on the same team.

I should say that there are a number of sources that have brought me to these thoughts:

  • Loving the Hebrew Bible
  • Loving the New Testament picture of the Jesus, the Church, and the work of God
  • Loving history
  • Loving fantasy (for many of the same reasons I love history)
  • Loving sci-fi
  • Personal anger and frustration with American historical short-sightedness (e.g., My own sense of 250 years as a ‘long time’ vs. Some family friends in England who own 18th and 19th century reproductions of furniture, and half-apologize for their inauthenticity as compared to the real furniture from hundreds of years older)
  • A friend, J, an Orthodox college chaplain who views his calling in terms of “What am I doing today so that 200 years from now my church will be able to have a clue in how to minister to college students?”
  • Rev. Canon Dr. Sam Wells, who in his Improvisation, reframes all our Protestant attempts to get back to the ‘pure’ early Church, instead asking if we might actually be the early Church
  • A year-long chaplaincy residency, in which I constantly found a wondrous tension: with God’s help I have tremendous power to do important work and to be life-giving, but I was simultaneously blocked at every turn from self-importance by the reality that I was far from any ultimate source of formation in a person’s life in which I was present for at best a few hours over a few weeks

The Christian upbringing I received taught me that Jesus could come back tomorrow afternoon.  My later movement to believe and live in a Church which is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic (with at least one, catholic, and apostolic pointing to greater historical continuity than I had yet received, and holy pointing to the transcendence of God in reference to Time) gave me a sense of history and Christianity’s future which that earlier pure apocalypticism had not.

And so now I find myself looking at Christian ethics (defined not as a corner of Christian thinking, but as the way that Christians are called to be and to do in imitation of and in sharing in Christ’s person, work, and reality) like this: We live as if Christ may return before you finish reading this sentence, and as if the Church has 10 million years to wait, which includes being willing to hear all the theological questions which that would raise for her.  (Not least, we might actually be able to talk about holy dying as we haven’t in a few hundred years; and we might be more humble about the way we do theology.)

Mentally, a 10,002,000 year window is far too big for us to handle, but I think we can live into a wider sense of time in particular ways.  For instance, I think the massiveness of time is part of the reason that remembering particular people in the communion of saints can be so helpful for our faith.  The massiveness of the reality of God in time is why we spread out focusing on particular pieces of that reality through an entire liturgical year.

And of course, because I’m writing this, I want to go back to my own present struggling: vocation.  This is why vocation is so difficult for me.  I believe that it is about praying for the senses to perceive what the Holy Spirit is already doing in the world, for a heart that desires to be a part of that work, and for the guts to actually join in that work.  And if that weren’t enough, none of it works without other people at every level.

Still too abstract?  Then try this.  I am an ordained minister in a church dedicated to new works in the form of newly planted churches, but equally dedicated to doing very old things, like living a Christianity which we believe is something received, not something which we make up (not to say that there’s not such a thing as ‘development’ or ‘growth’ or ‘improvisation’ out of those roots).

I live in Durham, North Carolina on Friday, December 10, 2010.  What is God doing here and now (a here and now which I can conceive of as a point between 250 years ago, when there was no Durham, NC, and 250 years in the future, when I have no idea if there will be a Durham, NC, but in any case a here and now which is situated squarely in the life of God in the world) and how is God calling me to be a part of that work, both in continuation of what God has always been doing, and in preparation for what God always will do?  With this question, I challenge myself to take the long view.

This replaces the normal, evangelical hubris – the assumption that we have something to offer to a person (a people, a community, a nation, a world, a universe) that no one else has to offer or ever has offered – with the hope that God actually is at work, actually wants us to join in, and that we actually have something to offer.  And in case that still leaves room for our pride (for pride, like Dr. Malcolm’s life, will find a way), remember that God’s work is to share in Christ’s suffering and death out of love and for the life of the world.

space church

The Taser’s Edge Be Playin’ by New Rules

Read the new rules over at the new site, Feed My Brebis! And don’t worry, The Taser’s Edge will still be here and being updated.  If you’ve liked it recently, you’ll still like it.  Because it will be the same.  By which I mean awesome and fresh.

New Blog on the Block

Head over to KPL’s A Thin Veil only if you are interested in interesting things…photography, contemplation, literature, theology, Durham, pastoral care, Gerard Manley Hopkins, etc.

A random sample:

Transitioning to Something, Not to Nothing

Okay, I couldn’t do it.  I couldn’t name this post “It is finished.”  Maybe in the right company.

Yesterday at 11am, I celebrated with the whole Pastoral Services Department the completion of my residency year with a banquet.  Yesterday at 6pm, I celebrated with my fellow members the completion of the 22-month Anglican Missional Pastor program with a feast (and that one had booze!).

Today at 8am, I met for the last time with Anglican Missional Pastor folks (in that setting).  And at 3pm, I was back at Duke for my final residency work.

22-month ending of AMP.  12-month ending of CPE.  And the new beginning is summer, for which I don’t know a three letter acronym, although SUN and FUN are neck-and-neck in this lame race.

And I might be helped at least a little by the fact that the Psychology Today blog was doing some work on transition theory this week.  Check their articles out, or look at this handy-dandy chart, an oracle of my life (or not).

The Transition Curve

I don’t want to define this new space as nothingness.  I don’t want to define it as unemployment.  I don’t want to define it in terms of what it lacks.  I want to enjoy my rest.

Turkey Day Comes Early

In February I got a job,
In June I started a job,
In November I started looking for a job,
In March I got offered two jobs,
In April I turned down two jobs,
In May I finish this job,
Come June I will be unemployed.

Sounds like a poem, and as everyone knows, poems (unless I am mixing them up with Disney movies) always have happy endings.

Yes, May 31st will be the last day of my chaplaincy residency at Duke Hospital and Duke Hospice.  This is an occasion of thanksgiving…

Accept, O Lord, our thanks and praise for all that you have done for us. We thank you for the splendor of the whole creation, for the beauty of this world, for the wonder of life, and for the mystery of love.

We thank you for the blessing of family and friends, and for the loving care which surrounds us on every side.

We thank you for setting us at tasks which demand our best efforts, and for leading us to accomplishments which satisfy and delight us.

We thank you also for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.

Above all, we thank you for your Son Jesus Christ; for the truth of his Word and the example of his life; for his steadfast obedience, by which he overcame temptation; for his dying, through which he overcame death; and for his rising to life
again, in which we are raised to the life of your kingdom.

Grant us the gift of your Spirit, that we may know him and make him known; and through him, at all times and in all places, may give thanks to you in all things. Amen.

Why is it a time for thanksgiving?

  • I didn’t just end a job and I didn’t just leave it.  Truly I completed the job I signed up for over a year ago.
  • At the end of this marathon-endurance-requiring year, I am finishing up like you are supposed to finish a race–totally exhausted, nothing more to give.  My final eval from my final unit says basically that.  One of the reasons I could never be a competitive athlete is the fact that you’re supposed to use up all the reserve of energy you have by the time you cross the finish line.  To me, the pain isn’t worth it.  Yet in this chaplaincy residency, the pain has been worth it.  I hit a wall and kept running.  Then it seemed like another wall, and another, and another, and another.  And at the end of this race, I can truly say that I used up all my reserves.  I have nothing more to give (1:23 on viewer’s left).  Doesn’t feel like a good thing to my worn out spirit, but the sense of achievement is (or is becoming, as perspective is a work in progress) terrific. 
  • I have security.  When it began to seem like I would end this residency without a job beyond it, I could commiserate with the so many unemployed today.  But there are a lot of differences.  Holly has a job so I will continue to have food to eat, a roof over my head, a reliable car (which was itself a gift), and even Netflix.  We have savings.  We don’t have kids to worry about providing for.  And then, even if Holly did lose her job and we ran through ‘everything’ we have, I could easily name 5 or more households who would take us in.

So many things I could pick out of that Prayer of Thanksgiving from the Book of Common Prayer which speak to me this afternoon at the end of this year: “all you have done for us…wonder of life…mystery…blessing of family and friends…surrounds us on every side…tasks which demand our best efforts…accomplishments which satisfy and delight us…dissapointments and failures…dependence on you…Jesus Christ…in all things.”  Amen!

VIA Strengths Finder

I love personality inventories, and I hate corporatespeak (especially when it comes anywhere near my church, which makes me possessively defensive and say things like “my church”).  What am I to do when people I really love and respect start talking about Strengths Finder?

Strengths Finder is a massive personality inventory based on Gallup research on 10 million workers.  It’s specifically focused on finding the strengths of people in an organization and then building on those strengths.  You no longer ask people to be what they’re not, and you don’t worry about your own individual weaknesses (because you are always in a group, anyway).

So I thought that it would be a waste of time, but I began snooping around online anyway, very much because I think a couple more personality inventories could help guide me through this fog that I’m trying to get through vocationally.  I came across an excellent site run by University of Pennsylvania, with a ton of  inventories based in positive psychology.  The site protects your privacy, gives you a decent analysis, uses people’s tests for ongoing research studies, and it’s free.

But is it worth anything?  Well, I just did the VIA Survey of Character Strengths, which mirrors Strength Finders (actually, I don’t know which research came first), saying, “Your top five [strengths] are the ones to pay attention to and find ways to use more often.”  (Its Wikipedia page is fascinating.)

Mine are an on-the-money description of what drives me, what I’m passionate about, what I value, and what I’m good at.  Hmm, “what drives me, what I’m passionate about, what I value, and what I’m good at” sounds suspiciously synonymous with “my vocation.”  The astounding accuracy reminds me of the first time I read Myers-Briggs descriptions of my personality.

According to the VIA, my top five strengths are Forgiveness and mercy; Love of learning; Creativity, ingenuity, and originality; Curiosity and interest in the world; and Spirituality, sense of purpose, and faith.

1. Forgiveness and mercy–“Your guiding principle is mercy and not revenge.”  Maybe that’s why I’m a chaplain.

2. Love of learning–“You love learning new things, whether in a class or on your own…anywhere and everywhere there is an opportunity to learn.”  Maybe that’s why I find myself thinking about applying to doctoral programs for next year (and, returning to Strength 1, thinking up projects which almost exclusively have to do with forgiveness and mercy).

3. Creativity, Ingenuity, and Originality–“Thinking of new ways to do things is a crucial part of who you are.  You are never content with doing something the conventional way if a better way is possible.”  I might edit this but removing “if a better way is possible.”  Interestingly, this is definitely connected to number two and definitely subordinated (along with number two) to number one.

4. Curiosity and interest in the world–“You are curious about everything.”  To me, this is the twin of the love of learning.  It too is in service to forgiveness and mercy.

5. Spirituality, sense of purpose, and faith–“You have strong and coherent beliefs…Your beliefs shape your actions and are a source of comfort to you.”  When I tried to figure out how this ranked among my top strengths, I concluded that it kind of undergirds and supports others, which makes it both subordinate and wholly important.