The Taser's Edge

“O admirable heights and sublime lowliness!”: A Eucharistic Prayer of St. Francis
Let the whole of mankind tremble
     the whole world shake
     and the heavens exult
when Christ, the son of the living God,
     is [present] on the altar
     in the hands of a priest.
O admirable heights and sublime lowliness!
O sublime humility!
O humble sublimity!
That the Lord of the universe,
God and the Son of God,
so humbles Himself
that for our salvation
He hides Himself under the little form of bread!
Look, brothers, at the humility of God
and pour out your hearts before Him!
Humble yourselves, as well,
     that you may be exalted by Him.
     hold back nothing of yourselves for yourselves
so that
He Who gives Himself totally to you
     may receive you totally.

from “A Letter to the Entire Order” in Francis and Clare: The Complete Works (Paulist Press: The Classics of Western Spirituality), trans. by Regis J. Armstrong, OFM and Ignatius C. Brady, OFM

The Trip (2011)
October 30, 2011, 9:41 pm
Filed under: Film, Food, In the News, Video | Tags: , , , ,

It is as good as you had hoped. Better than I had hoped, even.

And just because…

and, even though it’s not accurate…

The Trip is on Netflix streaming, by the way. It’s not just comedy. It has heartfelt drama as well. (Thank you, Michael Winterbottom, for your ever-excellence.)

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Freedom (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux; 2010)
by Jonathan Franzen

Freedom is big, ambitious, about people, about relationships, American, worldly, dark, multi-colored, multi-layered, thick like strong coffee or like extra-greasy pizza with cheese that just keeps stretching instead of breaking.

How does it compare to The Corrections? That’s surely the question. It’s very similar, and they’re clearly by the same author. In both books, extended families and close friends and lovers try desperately to find meaning through human relationships but are hobbled by themselves.

Although I read almost exclusively American fiction, most of it isn’t actually particularly American. As I read Freedom, I realized that that’s not the case with Franzen.  Freedom is actually about  Minnesota, Virginia, West Virginia, DC, New York, America as it’s located in the world. This puts Franzen on a higher shelf than most of his literary contemporaries.

Who else is really writing about place? Almost every great author you can name, American or not. If you’re really into fiction, name your favorite book, and I dare you to tell me it’s not about place.

To the synopsis…the Berglund family is living normally enough in suburban Minnesota. An unhappy-but-stable marriage. A boy and a girl who don’t get along with each other or with their parents. White people problems galore. Also, both of the adult Berglunds are in love with an indie rocker named Richard Katz, whom they’ve both known for over 20 years. Eventually, there is 9-11, the Iraq War, Halliburton-like unsavory contracting, lots of bird knowledge, adultery, the end of the world through human overpopulation, heartbreak, ecology-saving plots, and a little bit of hope.

That last bit, in my memory at least, distinguishes Freedom from The Corrections. I was deeply depressed for a couple weeks after The Corrections; I think I’ll get by with this one.

Repentance is for Christians

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to preach at the noon Ash Wednesday service at our church.  The priest who would be heading things up with me and I quickly decided that we wanted to shape the service so that it really would be feasible for those who might come in the middle of the work day.  For me, this mean crafting a 600 word sermon (actually, 636 words below)  as part of a 30-minute service.

Read below, and then read another Lenten homily taking a different tack and using a similar word count here.:

“Repentance is for Christians” (Ash Wednesday 2011)

Lent is for Christians.

This service, this day, and this entire season are a call to repentance extended specifically to those who have already called Jesus “Lord.”  Does this surprise you?  It shouldn’t.  Think about it.  Did you come to receive ashes on your forehead today in order to attract the folks you see at Kroger into relationship with Christ?

Paul in 2 Corinthians, makes it plain that it is the Church not just the world which is always being called back to repentance: “We appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.”  No, Paul does not use the word Lent, but Paul is saying that the grace of God in Christ has been offered to the believers at Corinth, has been received, salvation has been accomplished, and yet salvation is very much still in progress.

What Paul is saying is this: “As a believer in Jesus Christ, you need to be being saved.”  What Lent is saying is this: “As a believer in Jesus Christ, you need to be being saved.”  And this happens through confession and penitence in response to the Spirit’s work in our hearts.

In the Book of Common Prayer there is a liturgy for personal confession called Reconciliation of a Penitent.  (And I urge you to seek out one of All Saints’ priests to make confession, perhaps for the first time, this Lent.)  The liturgy draws heavily on the story of the Prodigal Son, makes clear the reality of how we actually live in Christ, makes clear what poor disciples we truly are.  I’ll read from it: “Through the water of baptism, you clothed me with the shining garment of Christ’s righteousness, and established me among your children in your kingdom.  But I have squandered the inheritance of your saints, and I have wandered far in a land that is waste.”

The Church does Lent because though we are the Bride of Christ, until we die, we will remain the faithless Prodigal Son as well.  Each of us is simultaneously saint and sinner, as Martin Luther famously put it.  We Christians have all gone down into the waters of baptism before, have all died to our sins, and then we have come up out of the water, raised from death to new life, and eventually…heartbreakingly, we have returned to those same sins.  We are addicts who relapse again and again, who continue to chase after our lusts and our sins long after they could and should have stopped ruling us.  We are hopeless in ourselves, yet a gracious God extends invitation after invitation.

In Lent, we are reminded that the call of Christ to pick up our crosses to follow Him to death is an everyday call.  We are called, in the words of 2 Corinthians, to make our way straight into the heart of “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger” because the only way to life is through these things not around them.  In that painful journey we will find that Christ is not only on the other side of these things, but Christ is in the midst of them.  We cannot find Him apart from these things.  We cannot find Christ apart from death.

You came from the earth and you will go back into the earth, no matter how long you extend the in-between time.  You will suffer in this life and then you will die.  The questions Lent asks (and which the heart of the Gospel asks) are these:

Will your suffering and death be devoid of meaning?  Or will you head into Meaning Himself, choosing this day to be marked by his death—the cross, and to be stained by destruction—the ashes?

These are the questions which Lent (and the heart of the Gospel) are asking today.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Attachment Theology, or A Whole New Meaning to “No Crying He Makes”

I said it was coming, a look at what attachment theory may say about how we as humans relate to God, and whether it’s to our flourishing or not.

Traditional Attachment Theory (Mama and Baby)
This is the kind that everyone basically believes in, whether they would call it ‘attachment theory’ or not.  The basic thought I’m claiming we all buy into: infants who fail, for whatever reason, to form loving, secure relationships in their earliest life will not thrive in adult relationships.  What not everybody knows: not only do those kids most likely fail to form secure relationships, but often they will actually physically fail to thrive.

Interesting study #1–Harry Harlow’s famous study shows that primates prefer comfort even to food.  Later Harlow studies on furry folks like the one below showed that primates beyond humankind fail to form healthy adult relationships if they don’t form infant attachments:

And to understand how much this matters for humans, listen to “Unconditional Love,” a This American Life episode whose first act is about a kid whose earliest years were spent in an Eastern European orphanage, until he was adopted by American parents and brought to the States.  Or, for a similar horror which attachment theorists would also connect to failure to make early attachments, recall the American mother who last Spring sent her adopted Russian son back to Russia on a plane with nothing and no one but a note about how he was too hard to raise.

Adult Attachment Theory (Adult to Partner)
While any relationship with anything requires some form of attachment, the most interesting may be within the most intimate relationships we make as adults (and specifically in adult romantic relationships).  If we are to be in healthy relationship with our significant others, then we must be able to bond securely to them.

That’s all the stuff from Sue Johnson’ Hold Me Tight I’ve been quoting around here lately…

We all experience some fear when we have disagreements or arguments with our partners.  But for those of us with secure bonds, it is a momentary blip.  The fear is quickly and easily tamped down as we realize that there is no real threat or that our partner will reassure us if we ask.  For those of us with weaker or fraying bonds, however, the fear can be overwhelming.  We are swamped by what neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp of Washington State University calls “primal panic.”  Then we generally do one of two things: we either become demanding and clinging in an effort to draw comfort and reassurance from our partner, or we withdraw and detach in an attempt to soothe and protect ourselves.  No matter the exact words, what we’re really saying in these reactions is: “Notice me.  Be with me.  I need you.”  Or, “I won’t let you hurt me.  I will chill out, try to stay in control.”

Attachment Theology (Human to God)
I really don’t think it ought to be a stretch to think about our relationships to God through the lens of attachment theory, now that we’ve seen how it affects two other types of relationships.

1.) I’ve mentioned it before on this blog, but the Hebrew Bible’s “El Shaddai” -while comfortably and traditionally translated from Tyndale to Michael Card as “God Almighty” (or “Almighty God”) – actually seems to have more in common etymologically with ideas of fertility.  A fully plausible translation: “Breasted One.”  Not that hard to understand how if our Father is our breasted mother, then our relationships with God require the secure attachments made between mother and child.

2.) What’s more, if we are all children of God, as Christianity (and plenty of other religions and belief systems) tells us, then attachment theology spells out for us that when we fail to make secure attachment bonds with our divine parent, it deeply affects our relationships with one another.  That is, just as failure for infant to bond with mother means difficulty or failure at that same person, when an adult, to forge emotional bonds with other adults, when we fail to make attachment bonds with God, we will find it difficult-to-impossible to relate healthily to other human beings.

3.) So what does the Garden of Eden mean through an attachment lens?  To start, I’m reading through Augustine’s City of God right now, so I know full well that much (most?) of the Christian tradition has read the sin of Adam and Eve as Pride.  So, I’m not saying necessarily that it wasn’t Pride.

But might it also be something else?  What if it is seen as insecurity that the Father would provide?  The serpent’s trickery is then, “Do you really think God wants your best?  Will he really keep you safe?  Will he really provide for your needs?  Do you really believe that?  No, God knows that eating that fruit would really cause you to flourish, and that’s why he won’t let you have it.”  Imagine what happens to the infant who begins to believe that the breast holds poison and that though a newborn, the mother’s lunch looks much more appetizing.  Adam and Eve react to this fear by first eating the fruit (not bad in itself, but bad for them at this time, to follow Augustine) and then by throwing some clothes on to cover their shame.

Humans only feel shame in places where they don’t feel safe or where they don’t trust the owners of the eyes who see their nakedness.  The infant is not ashamed of its nakedness.  The lovers are not ashamed of their nakedness (and if they are, it’s a sign of brokenness, not of health).  Original Sin is that the way of humans is always to distrust and feel unsafe around God and therefore each other.

4.) So what is redemption?  It is the Trinitarian pursuit of life-giving relationship with the beloved child (humankind) who will die because she has no ability to attach.  Think of the infant who can choose to release her mouth from the nipple, but then cannot find it to reattach and begins to squall.

The Fall is the infant choosing to look elsewhere for food because it either doesn’t trust that the supply will keep coming, or because it believes that it can go off into the world to find better sustenance.  Salvation is that the Son becomes one of us, the only one among us who fully trusts the Spirit of love and attaches his mouth to the breast of the Father as his only sustenance.  His life says, trust the Hand which guides you back to the Breast.  You will not find the Breast apart from being guided by the Hand as I am guided by the Hand.  And without Breast or Hand, you will die.

Yes, I just named the Trinity as Breast, Infant, Hand, and I used Augustine to back it.

5.) If you’ve listened to the This American Life episode prescribed above, then you already know that a treatment used to help kids who have attachment disorders (extremely controversial, but with apparent effectiveness for what are sometimes cases beyond healing) is to break the kid down psychologically into infant helplessness so that he is forced to form attachments with his parents.  This makes me think of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus that he would have to be born again in order to enter the kingdom of God.

Through an attachment lens, the command could be “You have to start over with your attachment to God in order to relate to God or to have life.”  Or, “You must realize that you are an infant who will never find the nipple without help.”

6.) In the context of Jesus’ other teachings, baptism has a similar understanding.  Death of the self is required for the sake of resurrection in (attachment to) Christ.  Do not fight it.  Let the Hand take you to the Breast.  Your Brother, the Hand, and the Breast love you and only want to bring you to flourishing growth.

7.) And the Lord’s Supper?  I think the implications should be clear, but if you want me to say nipple or breast again in this theology post, I just did.  How does the infant give thanks for the Breast, for the Hand, and for the Brother who showed how it’s done by being the only one who really got it?  The infant enjoys and then settles in for a nice Sabbath.

This Day in Beer (and Hipster) History
January 24, 2011, 1:00 am
Filed under: Family, Food, History, Life | Tags: , ,

Apparently, on this day in 1935, Krueger’s Brewery debuted the world’s first canned beer!!!

The Return of Harper’s (to Me)

Yes, this magazine. No, not this February.

I well remember reading my Mom’s copies of Harper’s Magazine in high school, and what I most remember was the stuff which came before the meat of the magazine – Harper’s Index and Readings.  It was in Readings that I first came across Pat Metheny’s world-class-obscene and hilarious take on Kenny G.  It was in Readings that I first learned of the occupation of Crime Scene Cleaner, from a first-hand account.  (Making Sunshine Cleaning all the more of a boring let-down.)

Fast-forward to today, and H got a free subscription to Harper’s for joining the teacher’s “union” (in NC, a ‘right to work’ state).  The Harper’s Index is still there, still (apparently) a copyrighted entity, and still a totally brilliant collection of nearly-free-associative, not-so-randomly-selected statistics.  An excerpt from the February 2011 issue:

Chance that an unmarried American under thirty says marriage is “becoming obsolete”: 1 in 2
Chance that he or she wants to get married: 19 in 20
Percentage change in the average value of an American home since 2006: -25
Change between 1929 and 1933: -25.9
Percentage increase since 2004 in the estimated household net worth of members of Congress: 22
Estimated number of pigs that could be bought with the money diverted last year to congressional earmarks: 108,200,000
Percentage of the fuel used to power Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer that comes from rendered beef fat: 20
Odds in New York City in 1900 of dying in a horse accident: 1 in 19,000
Odds today of dying there in an automobile accident: 1 in 26,000
Percentage of the pedestrians stopped in 2009 for random searches in Philadelphia who were black: 71
Percentage of the city’s population that is black: 44
Portion of the stops that didn’t lead to an arrest: 11/12
Miles from land and maritime borders that the U.S. Border Control can legally perform warrantless searches: 100
Portion of all Americans who live within that area: 2/3

And yes, you will have to take my word that it’s there, because Harper’s website seems to have nothing from the February 2011 issue or from Harper’s Indices in general.

Why I Am Not a Teacher

My first real employment in months has been as an after-school language arts and math tutor for K-5th graders.  It’s only three days a week, a couple hours at a time, and it’s one of those programs federally funded under No Child Left Behind (meaning, the federal trough is open, all kinds of skeezy companies have sprung up to eat their fill, and one of those companies has hired me).

For the first time, I’m getting a slight taste of what my wife and other teacher friends are going through 180+ days a year.  My ‘classroom’ has only four kids, not 34 kids, so I don’t have the everyday knowledge that there is no way to make a connection with each child.  And while at least two of these students would certainly be a handful in a large classroom, no one is really a behavioral issue with the amount of personal attention I can give.

So the issue boils down to the academic side of school, and I am cursed by the award-winning computer software this tutoring company uses, which tells me daily exactly how far behind all but one of my students are.  The software has thousands of focused lessons programmed in, all focused toward state standards, so that language arts and math are both broken down into a ton of smaller components.

These components are actually surprisingly fun (at least for someone who wasn’t born into a household with a Playstation 2 and satellite HDTV).  Build a sandwich by doing phonics, fill a shuttle’s booster rockets with fuel by counting change, help out a local newscaster by telling him what letters his subjects begin with, etc.

Part of this is actually a beautiful mystery–how long did it take me to figure out that a tiny dime is worth more than a bigger nickel, or to automatically differentiate between a nickel and a quarter, which look basically the same when you’re not used to them?  (And when, other than when counting change, do you ever count by 25s?)  When did I first realize that when reading English, you just have to memorize certain words, because sounding out the letters only gets you so far?  When did I buy into the lie that it makes sense for phonics to start with the letter P?  (One student keeps reading it ‘poe-niks’, and I am on his side, even as I correct him.)

A second part of the experience is just that it’s a lot of fun.  The youngest kid is all smiles all the time, and when he walks, he races everywhere slowly on his 20-inch legs.  The next older is very shy, slowly came out of his shell before Christmas break, and now after break has apparently retreated inward again.  And I love talking to all of them, asking how their days are going, failing to make them laugh at my dumb jokes (succeeding in having them laugh at my dumb face).

The last part, however, is heartbreaking.  I usually work my way around the classroom, sit next to a student, have him unplug his headphones, and then listen and follow along as he goes through a module.  Yesterday, I sat beside one student as the computer asked him to click on the picture with the middle sound of a long O: “Which word has the middle sound…’O’?”.  In the program, when you slide the cursor over a picture, it reads it aloud: “House…Rope…Hero…Bed.”

The problem is, as it turns out, D doesn’t know the answer, because, being both six years old and an English Language Learner, he doesn’t understand the word ‘middle.’  If you have spent any time with me on the same side of a game of Taboo, you know I had to work hard to come up with an explanation that wasn’t even more confusing.  Synonyms don’t work: ‘center’ and ‘between’ wouldn’t help.  So maybe write out a word he would know, and ask him to sound it out.  Except sounding it out isn’t that easy, and he’s distracted because I’ve muted the program but the visuals are still interesting.  Could I use numbers instead (1-2-3)?  No, that’s more confusing, because it changes the subject.  By this point, I started thinking towards drawing a short train with a letter in each car, but his concentration was totally gone.  So we moved on, hoping to come back later.

I don’t write about this because I think my experience is unique, or because I have anything new to say.  (That’s actually the reason for the title of this post: to say I’m a teacher would be to insult those who are.)  I really don’t know what I’m doing, except that I have some compassion, some patience, and some creativity.

I write this because last night after tutoring I was totally drained and dragging around the house.  This morning has not gone according to schedule because I’m still drained and dragging around the house.  At first I was clueless, but now what I think it is is not lack of sleep or calories.  It’s emotional.

I am an empathic sponge.  It works well in some situations–I’m compassionate and a good listener.  I actually hurt when others hurt.  I’m a very good chaplain, a great friend, and usually a good husband.  It doesn’t work so well in other situations.  When Holly comes home after a hard day, my day becomes a hard day, because I soak it up without any conscious decision, and then sometimes find myself taking her hard day out on her.  After a year-long chaplaincy residency, I still bore far too many of other people’s hurts, and I would guess that seven months after it ended I am still detoxing.

And then this morning, I am wiped out by the emotional expenditure of being with a kid who doesn’t understand the word ‘middle.’  Thankfully, no more tutoring until tomorrow.

Until then, unwinding from one version of Blasters (no, it’s not actually Math Blasters) with another:

The Blessings of Limitedness: Time

The title of this post references a larger thought, that “in the beginning” human beings were created as finite creatures, and God called it very good.  Given this fact (which I at least think is undeniable), why do we all find ourselves constantly wishing we didn’t have limits?

What if it we actually believed that it is a good thing that we are limited?  What if we even daily gave thanks for it?  Might we find it to be the case that our finiteness is for our blessing?

What if our limitedness in time was actually most excellent?

The reason I think about this in reference to Time is that recently, a few things have been added to my schedule.  A few hours here, a few hours there, and as often seems to happen to my structures, the added weight seemingly caused the whole thing to collapse.  I am doing the new things (some after-school tutoring with a handful of DPS grade-schoolers, participating in my church’s weekly staff meeting, some other church volunteer stuff), all of which I deeply enjoy, but the other regular things which I highly value (reading for pleasure, reading for study, praying the hours, physical exercise, healthy food preparation) have just lost their place.

Think about the way we talk about Time.  We often use the phrase “time constraints,” but I am lately convinced that we actually mean “time restraints,” as in chains and bondage.  For me at least, it is much more difficult to come up with an equally striking positive metaphor.  But here’s an attempt in the form of an analogy–Time:Humans::Soil:Plants.

Ignoring sea and hydroponic plants for the sake of a simpler metaphor, what if part of Time as our natural habitat is that Time is chock-full of nutrients for our human flourishing?  (Thank you, Andy Crouch, for the phrase “human flourishing.”)

To further the thought, here are some questions from my own experience:

  • Would I ever move forward in life if I could move backwards?
  • Would I ever make a single decision when I could just decide on every course of action?  (“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, / And happy that I could travel both / And be one traveler / I am still lost in these frakkin’ yellow woods…”–Robert Frost, Time-Traveling Poet Laureate of the Twelve Colonies)
  • Outside of time, is it possible to be shaped by our decisions and actions?  (To explain, Time seems to be an integral part of how God forms us into the image of the Son through the power of the Spirit.  So the question could also be…)
  • Is it possible to become disciples or saints apart from Time?
  • Without Time, how much easier would it be to have the illusion of bringing about my own redemption and/or salvation?  (Is redemption possible in timeless reality?  With the possibility of the do-over, do I believe I need the second Adam to save me?)
  • Without Time, how much easier would it be to have the illusion of bringing about someone else’s salvation?

This last is a core question for me.  Serve others for just a little while (in my case, whether as a hospice chaplain or an after-school math and language arts tutor or a husband/friend/brother/son/nephew/you-name-the-relationship) and you simultaneously begin believing (a.) that you are the one on whom all the responsibility rests, and (b.) that there is no way that you can ever live up to that responsibility.

Time is the greatest possible refutation to this set of beliefs.  Everywhere we turn, we not only hear but experience, “You have limits.  You are not God.”  And that, like all of God’s creation, is a very good thing.  If this doesn’t remove some unnecessary weight from your shoulders, I’m not sure what will.

Bonus: Limitedness in time also helps us avoid situations like this one:

Turkey Day Meditations: Prophetic Feasting in a World Gone Wrong

What’s with November and moral murkiness?

An Anabaptist-leaning Methodist acquaintance claims today is about celebrating genocide.  On facebook:

I am so thankful that 400 years ago, a boat full of “Christians” came to this country, accepted the native people’s hospitality, and subsequently committed genocide against them. We need new freakin holidays.

A friend points me to NY Times blog, which reminds me today of the reality of gluttony alongside starvation in America.

Winslow Homer, Thanksgiving Day, 1860, The Two Great Classes of Society, from Harper’s Weekly, December 1, 1860.

Winslow Homer, Thanksgiving Day, 1860, The Two Great Classes of Society, from Harper’s Weekly, December 1, 1860. (Click to embiggen.)

My own experience is, for the first time, spending the holiday with no one from Holly’s or my family (having grown up with no Thanksgiving with fewer than 25 people related to me in the room).  Yesterday, I had to venture out for a couple last minute things, and I dreaded it.  Instead, I found that Thanksgiving Eve buying groceries is a lot different from going to the mall on Christmas Eve.

Christmas Eve at the mall is about going into more debt at 27% interest for crap that people don’t need and don’t even want.  Thanksgiving Eve is about preparing to exercise the virtues of friendship, hospitality, generosity, love, and gratitude. Yes, that whitewashes things, like people for whom the holiday reminds them of the losses of the past year or of the long-broken relationships which are throbbing with pain today, or for those who will go hungry.

Yet speaking in terms of Christian morality, I actually believe that we are called to times of feasting even in a world of killing hunger.  We are called to celebrate and to enjoy and to give thanks, because God is at work, and we are indeed blessed.  The way this gets unbalanced is when feasting becomes habitual gluttony, when we never fast, and when we consider our plenty to belong to us and to be our right.

The answer is not to avoid the very real and worth-asking question of genocide behind this particular holiday (which I think we should educate our children about), and it’s not to deny that many hunger and die (which I think we should educate ourselves about).  Instead, we bring those concerns into our prayer and into our worship on this day.

In truth, genocide, starvation, and economic injustice can only be understood for how deeply evil they are when they are placed in the context of the love and abundance which are the nature of the Kingdom of God, the way things should be and shall be.  Nothing can be very wrong in a world which is not going to become as unimaginably right as ours will be one day.  Our feasting is a sign and prophetic action, proclaiming that though that world might seem far off, it is also here today, and it’s incredibly fitting that Thanksgiving always seems to fall in the week of Christ the King.
Now let’s pray this post.  I think it expresses what I’m talking about.