Friday, December 15, 2006

Quote: Oscar Romero

No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need even of God – for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. That someone is God, Emmanuel, God-with-us. Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Odds 'n ends

I was googling around looking for information on oblates for a post on another site when I ran across Shared Solitude by Deborah Smith Douglas, a fellow Camaldolese oblate. It includes both a discussion of oblature, as well as this wonderful description of New Camaldoli:

This respect for solitude and silence permeates the hermitage in California's remote Santa Lucia Mountains. Even the architecture reflects it. The monastic enclosure contains not a traditional cloister, but a collection of tiny round houses in which individual monks live: they are alone, together. The guest accommodations (nine private rooms and five more distant hermitage-trailers) are designed to honor the solitude of those on retreat. Consequently, the silence and the invitation to contemplation are extra-ordinarily deep.

This commitment to shared solitude is also evident in the daily practice of silent meditation after Vespers. When the final office of the day has ended, those who wish to remain file in silence from the chapel into the vaulted rotunda beyond, which is empty except for a central altar holding the consecrated host. Monks and guests take small rugs from a stack and arrange themselves among cushions, Zen fashion, on the stone floor. After a moment of settling in, with the sound of prayer beads being taken out and shoes shuffled off, the lights are extinguished, except for a single candle. People sit and pray in total silence. At the end of 30 minutes, the prior strikes a single bell-like note on a singing bowl. People stand, bow toward the altar, put on their shoes and leave, still in silence.

That half hour of wordless adoration is my favorite part of the beloved hermitage day. I love the sense of time-out-of-time, and the space it-self--round and empty as a bowl, resonant as a bell. It is an inhabited emptiness, a living silence. A shining darkness, as St. John of the Cross might say. The rotunda reminds me of the hold of a ship, a large enclosed darkness beneath a turbulent surface. Sitting there reminds me that we are pilgrims, fellow travelers, holding still but heading home, moving purposefully through deep darkness. Alone, together. Immersed in God (as St. Catherine of Siena put it) "as a fish is in the sea and the sea is in the fish."
A perfect description. I was googling around for a post at Making Light: What is it with fruitcake? Of course the Official Fruitcake around here is the Hermitage Fruitcake.

Monday, December 04, 2006

What's going on here?

The lessons for the First Sunday in Advent are:

  • Jeremiah 33:14-16
  • Psalm 25:4-5, 8-9, 10+14
  • 1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2
  • Luke 21:25-28, 34-36
If what you are looking for is nostalgia, Christmas is your season. Christmas cards featuring medieval paintings or Currier and Ives engravings are the norm. Advertisers devise various riffs on "tradition" to induce us to buy. It is supposedly a feel-good season, bringing families back together. (Which means that it can be an emotionally devastating season for some.)

So, what is it with these lessons? We get to learn, once again, that Advent may be the most counter-cultural season in the Church calendar. (A close second to Lent, perhaps.) These lessons aren't warm and fuzzy, they are frightening, particularly the Gospel lesson. This is the season for looking forward, not backward, and looking with open eyes. It is the time to look at the world realistically, and ask whether we are prepared to deal with it.

This Gospel passage, just prior to the passion narrative in Luke, is often called the "small apocalypse", paralleling similar passages in Matthew and Mark. And along with other similar passages and books, such as Daniel, Ezekiel and Revelation, is often misunderstood and misinterpreted by modern readers, causing a great deal of mischief. An apocalypse is a revealing or unveiling of something hidden, bringing new knowledge or perspective. Apocalyptic literature in scripture uses vivid symbolic language to reveal the relationship between events on Earth with the eternal truths of heaven. Such literature is prophetic, but not because it is always intended to be a literal prediction of future events. A prophet speaks truth to power -- Jeremiah told Israel of the coming destruction and exile, not as a parlor trick, but as the direct consequence of the people's separation from God. The purpose of a prophet is not to condemn, but to call God's people back to a loving relationship with Him. When it became clear that Jeremiah's warnings were correct and disaster was imminent, Jeremiah completed his message with the promise of God's love and the redemption of his people, as set forth in today's first lesson:

The days are coming, says the LORD,
when I will fulfill the promise
I made to the house of Israel and Judah.
In those days, in that time,
I will raise up for David a just shoot;
he shall do what is right and just in the land.
In those days Judah shall be safe
and Jerusalem shall dwell secure;
this is what they shall call her:
"The LORD our justice."
As Jeremiah had warned, Solomon's Temple was thrown down, and many of the inhabitants carried off to exile in Babylon. But also as Jeremiah had foretold, the exiles did return to Jerusalem, and a new, Second Temple dedicated. The apocalypse in Luke has the same purpose, to reveal the eternal plan of redemption even in a time of threat and conflict.

This "small apocalypse" comes at the end of Jesus' ministry in Jerusalem and the Temple itself. In Luke, Jesus arrives in town in the manner of the foretold king and redeemer of Israel. The first thing he does is to clear the temple of moneychangers -- in effect taking charge of the Temple and setting it to rights. He then proceeds to teach in the Temple complex with an authority and success that the established Temple officials find very threatening. This, the Second Temple (subsequently rebuilt by Herod), was the physical sign of God's presence with his people. But Jesus seems to be teaching that with the coming of the Kingdom of God this has changed. At the beginning of the longer passage that the lesson is part of, Jesus responds to admiring comments about the Temple with this shocking statement:

While some people were speaking about how the temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings, he said, "All that you see here--the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down." Then they asked him, "Teacher, when will this happen? And what sign will there be when all these things are about to happen?" (Luke 21:5-7)
The destruction of Solomon's temple is one of the great dividing points of Jewish history -- to lose it again would be comparable to the end of the world, which is what many people think of when they these words of Jesus.

As said above, an apocalypse is strongly symbolic -- it is intended to work on more than one level. There is the immediate context of Jesus speaking in that time. He speaks both of the coming destruction of the Temple (by the Romans, in 70 AD) and also about his own death and resurrection. The Gospel writer, some 20 years after that destruction, may have included this to reassure the persecuted church of that time. In our own time, we learn about how we are to live as Christians in uncertain times.

In this passage Jesus makes three points.
  • The challenges are not going to stop. When asked when the Temple would be destroyed:
    He answers, "See that you not be deceived, for many will come in my name, saying, 'I am he,' and 'The time has come.' Do not follow them! When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for such things must happen first, but it will not immediately be the end." Then he said to them, "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place; and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.
    Sound like the evening news? Jesus warns us that we have to live out our faith in a chaotic and threatening world, no matter who we are. No coasting allowed.

  • Jesus will not abandon us.For us as Christians, Jesus is the "temple built not by hands" told of by Ezekiel -- our resurrected Lord is now our sign of God's presence. We have to look to our own experience of grace and redemption in our lives, and our knowledge of Jesus' current living presence as our anchor in these times.

  • We have to be prepared.We have to keep reminding ourselves which way is north, and to keep our face in that direction. Jesus warns us about letting either the pleasures or the anxieties of this world distract us from doing what we already know we should be doing. Problems are always with us --the only way we can have perspective on them is to turn to God for help in building lives of prayer, study, and service.
Over the next three Sundays in Advent we will continue to look at the challenges ahead for us, and what it will take to be prepared for them. Then we will be ready to unsentimentally understand just what the coming of Jesus in the flesh really means to our own lives today.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Quote: Thomas Merton

Learn how to meditate on paper. Drawing and writing are forms of meditation. Learn how to contemplate works of art. Learn how to pray in the streets or in the country. Know how to meditate not only when you have a book in your hand but when you are waiting for a bus or riding in a train. Above all, enter into the Church's liturgy and make the liturgical cycle part of your life -- let its rhythm work its way into your body and soul.

from New Seeds of Contemplation

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Toll Lab Cookies

I ran across this while looking for TexMex recipies.

A & M Chocolate Chip Cookies

  1. 532.35 cm3 gluten

  2. 4.9 cm3 NaHCO3

  3. 4.9 cm3 refined halite

  4. 236.6 cm3 partially hydrogenated tallowtriglyceride

  5. 177.45 cm3 crystalline C12H22O11

  6. 177.45 cm3 unrefined C12H22O11

  7. 4.9 cm3 methyl ether of protocatechuic aldehyde

  8. Two calcium carbonate-encapsulated avianalbumen-coated protein

  9. 473.2 cm3 theobroma cacao

  10. 236.6 cm3 de-encapsulated legume meats (sieve size#10)

To a 2-L jacketed round reactor vessel (reactor #1) with an overall heat transfer coefficient of about 100 Btu/F-ft2-hr, add ingredients one, two and three with constant agitation. In a second 2-L reactor vessel with a radial flow impeller operating at 100 rpm, add ingredients four, five, six, and seven until the mixture is homogenous.

To reactor #2, add ingredient eight, followed by three equal volumes of the homogenous mixture in reactor #1. Additionally, add ingredient nine and ten slowly, with constant agitation. Care must be taken at this point in the reaction to control any temperature rise that may be the result of anexothermic reaction.

Using a screw extrude attached to a #4 nodulizer, place the mixture piece-meal on a 316SS sheet (300 x 600 mm). Heat in a 460K oven for a period of time that is in agreement with Frank Johnston's first order rate expression (see JACOS, 21, 55), or until golden brown. Once the reaction is complete, place the sheet on a 25C heat-transfer table, allowing the product to come to equilibrium.

For all you non chemical engineers, you have now made Chocolate Chip Cookies. This is why engineers should never write a cookbook.
I think I'll stick to the recipie on the back of the chocolate chip package.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Construction zone -- double fines for speeding

I just get back to blogging, and things change. So it goes . . .

Well, I decided to take the medicine early, a switch to the new beta of Blogger. So far, so good -- my custom template still works. However, the hack for categories appears to be broken by this change, so I will be switching to the new labels features, and in fact will me modifying the template to handle them more appropriately.

As to the long hiatus, it was a combination of a tough schedule, job stress, and a lot else. More on that as I put things together in my own head.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

As kingfishers catch fire

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is—
Christ—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

Gerald Manley Hopkins SJ

Friday, November 03, 2006

The best, and most painful, thing that could happen (updated)

Updates below.

Well, the biggest news on the political-religious front this weekend is the Ted Haggard story. There are aspects of both the familiar and the surreal to this. There is nothing new to finding out once again that the clergy most in the public eye are just as hypocritical and sinful as the rest of us. How thoroughly biblical. Of course the word that Haggard had made a carefully parsed confession came out almost simultaneously with news that his accuser had failed a very public polygraph test. We seem to be skipping tragedy and moving straight to farce.

I have little taste for the kind of politically connected megachurch that Haggard has developed, and there is little doubt that he and I would find little to agree about politically. It would be easy to (in John Scalzi's words) bake up and enjoy a big schadenfreude pie over this. But my reaction is this has to be the most painful time in Ted Haggard's life (not to speak of the devastating effect this must be having on his family) but it could be the best thing that could happen to him.

I love few books more than Thomas Merton's New Seeds of Contemplation. It is not an easy book to describe -- a series of meditations on "the ordinary fulfillment of the Christian life of grace" concentrating on the internal life of the person who genuinely seeks God in contemplation. Considering "Things in their Identity", Merton says that each created thing gives glory to God by being fully itself in its unique identity -- the more something is truly itself, the more it is like God and the more it gives Him glory. This is particularly true for us:

For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.

Trees and animals have no problem. God makes them what they are without consulting them, and they are perfectly satisfied.

With us it is different. God leaves us free to be whatever we like. We can be ourselves or not, as we please. We are at liberty to be real, or to be unreal. We may be true or false, the choice is ours. We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our own true face. But we cannot make these choices with impunity. Causes have effects, and if we lie to ourselves and to others, then we cannot expect to find truth and reality whenever we happen to want them. If we have chosen the way of falsity we must not be surprised that truth eludes us when we finally come to need it.
We are born wearing a mask, according to Merton, a false self that is the person that we want ourselves to be. This is the mask we want others to see, built up out of our own desires, which will become a mask that prevents us from seeing ourself as we really are. Breaking through this mask
is a labor that requires sacrifice and anguish, risk and many tears. It demands close attention to reality at every moment, and great fidelity to God as He reveals Himself, obscurely, in the mystery of each new situation. We do not know clearly beforehand what the result of this work will be.
Jeff Sharlet at The Revealer has reposted his 2005 Harper's article on Haggard and New Life Church, with some comments on this story. What stands out to me this evening is the tale of how New Life was built up from a small group meeting in a basement with lawn chairs to an epitome of the "seeker driven" megachurch. This was a time of relentless promotion, with Ted Haggard leading the charge. This kind of consumer Christianity revolves around giving people what they think they need, to salve their fears, using the techniques of modern marketing and customer service: uberpastor as brand. With themselves as their own product, having a carefully crafted public image that must always be in good repair, the danger of confusing that image with one's true and imperfect self is tremendous.

Well, ready or not, Ted Haggard's public image is now in pieces around his feet like an expensive vase dropped onto concrete. He now has a completely free choice -- he can embrace his "false self", to retreat even further from reality and try to find some way to patch over the damage he has done to himself. Or he can, perhaps for the first time, seek that mystery of his own identity hidden in the love and mercy of God. Seizing that opportunity could the best thing that ever happened to him.

Update: A clarification.

Reading over what I wrote above, I managed to leave something important unclear. In saying that it is Ted Haggard's choice now to seek his own true self, as opposed to his public image, I am not primarily taling about his sexuality, or how he expresses it. Whether he should or should not "come out" as a gay or bisexual person may not be the issue -- merely adjusting one's public or private sexual self-description could be irrelevant here. Moving quickly from one stereotyped public image to another, be it tearfully penitent or sexually liberated, is simply a way of avoiding the issue. All you are doing is switching masks, with the hope that you are not visible during the process, especially to yourself. It isn't a matter of finding a better mask that is a better fit for what the world knows about you -- it is trying to get past using a mask at all.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Quote: Brian Wicker

We may say that the characters in fairytales are ‘good to think with’…[and that] the job of the fairytale is to show that Why? questions cannot be answered except in one way: by telling the stories. The story does not contain the answer, it is the answer.

From A Story-Shaped World, via squeetus

Monday, August 28, 2006

The Jedi at the salad bar

I guess it was Saturday evening, sitting in the Hilton coffee shop. (Is that name still valid or useful with a Starbucks just down the hall? I wonder.) I looked up from my book, and saw a Jedi pushing a tray along the salad bar, peering intently at the choices for his dinner. He costume was perfect, nothing amateurish about it, but at the same time he had on glasses and a yellow plastic tag hanging around his neck.

That's one image I remember now from LACon IV, one of many. The formal close was yesterday afternoon, but I left before that, but I am sure that the parties would be continuing all night without me. I got back here at a reasonable hour, and I'm taking today off to catch up on laundry and sleep. As I get a little more distance from the con, I am feeling better and better about attending -- I was simply too tired some times and had to learn to take more time off.

I'm processing a lot of memories and images:

  • a silver robot carrying two coffees from the Hilton Starbucks to the Convention Center;
  • Anne McCaffrey and Karen Black in a reader's theater presentation of an old L. Ron Hubbard short story;
  • a theremin playing in the background while discussing natural disasters, the collapse of the Internet, and nuclear war at the General Technics party after midnight;
  • kilts, lots of kilts;
  • trying to find a particular room on the fifth floor of the Hilton, and getting lost;
  • being treated to Merlot and conversation by Joe and Gay Haldeman -- kaffeeklatches don't necessarily involve coffee;
  • costumes that ranged from the typical Star Trek recreation to some of the most detailed and beautiful pieces of work I have even seen up close;
  • corsets, lots of corsets -- but generally not in combination with a kilt;
  • watching the fireworks from the end of an Angels game (a bit better than the Disneyland show earlier) from the lanai at the Tor party;
  • electric scooters everywhere -- every session had at least one in the aisle;
  • the glow of cell phone screens in the audience, held up at Masquerade to catch pictures of the costumes;
  • being "recognized" as a Worldcon attendee in my (non-convention) hotel by another attendee before I had a chance to register -- "didn't I meet you last year at Westercon?"
  • Watching Frank Wu bound up to the stage to accept a Hugo for best fan artist -- then worshiping with him at the Mass the next morning;
  • John Scalzi proving how classy he is accepting the Campbell award;
  • and much, much more.
Prior to this, the closest I had ever come to a SF author was their dust jacket pictures. Well, that has definitely changed -- along with those mentioned above, I saw (and in a few cases talked with) Greg Bear, Gregory Benford, David Brin, Cory Doctorow, Harlan Ellison, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Tim Powers (just finishing Last Call), Mike Resnick, Kim Stanley Robinson, Robert Silverberg, Connie Willis, and Robert Charles Wilson. I'm also sure I have left somebody out and I wasn't even trying hard.

I didn't plan on kaffeeklatches and attending Masquerade, but these were some of the best moments at Worldcon. And on Sunday morning, when the designated location proved to be much too noisy, Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden guided those of us who had gathered for the kaffeeklatch up to the green room where we stole most of the available chairs for the session. The Hugos could not have gone better for them, and they were simply glowing, proud of the honors paid to their friends and co-workers. Teresa sliced up some dinosaur egg plums for us, and we found out that what looked like a leaf pendant had a better use.

Will I go to another one? I just don't know -- let's see what happens with BayCon next year.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Getting started

Well, I made it here, and made it through the rest of the day.

I made it into Anaheim before noon, and made it over to the convention center to register. The volunteer staff seems to be doing a very good job and things are running smoothly. Two things are making this a rather interesting experience:

  • This is my first SF convention of any kind, and
  • I am very familiar with this facility after years of the RE Congress.
In fact, some of my strangest moments so far was entering Hall A, which is usually crammed full as the vendor area at Congress. Here at Worldcon, all the organizational booths, the various art and artifact exhibitions (very impressive), along with the vendors are all there, with very generous aisles and room to spare. We'll see how crowded they get this weekend.

The opening ceremonies were packed and fun, with guest of honor Connie Willis pleasing the crowd, along with a kinescope of Tom Corbett, Space Cadet with Kellogg's Corn Flakes ads intact. I made it to Blogs & E-Fanzines and Nuclear Weapons Strategies (I'm an Air Force brat, so?) then grabbed some Chinese food and kicked back at my hotel. (I am not staying at the convention hotels, saving a little money and getting some welcome distance.) I did make it to the Babel Conference Ambassadorial Reception, a homage to the original series Star Trek episode Journey to Babel. It was great if you wanted to show off your Star Trek costume, or knew someone who did. Otherwise it was a fair size party with cake (too much sugar for me) and drinks you had to pay for. I quickly moved on.

The parties are all held on the same level at the Hilton, and the rooms all open onto one of the three lanai courtyards, which has the advantages of isolating all the noise from the rest of the hotel, providing expansion space for each party, and allowing a second door (which helps a lot). And you can wander around the lanai instead of the hallways. I made it to the bid parties for Chicago, Columbus, Kansas City, Las Vegas, and Denver as well as for my real favorite, Casa de Worldcon. Google also had a party to troll for geeks who could be future employees, but I don't think think they got too far with that. All the parties appear to have followed the various outlines for con parties, but I think they should consider the drink proportions posted recently by Teresa at Making Light, with some additional attention to diet drinks -- water and diet stuff seemed to disappear the fastest. Maybe it's the first night crowd that's older. I had fun, did't stay too late, and managed to pick up ribbons and stickers, but missed the Google flashing light stickon.

Talked with a lot of people, and met some people I was looking for, including the Nielsen Haydens (gracious as always) as well as Fr. John Blaker, the celebrant for the Mass here on Sunday. Things seem to be well organized and run, which seems to be partly due to the large amount of tribal lore about running cons, with lots or experience all around to draw from. The winner on this count is the Space Cadet Operations Manual, the pocket guide. It's a 4" x 5", 140+ page ring bound book with simply everything in it you need to know -- with the exception of party plans and daily changes. This beats the RE Congress guide all hollow, and does fit nicely in a pocket. Don't leave your home planet without it.

Today (Thursday)? I'm still not sure what at 10, but at 1 it will be Kevin Drum's presentation, and at 2:30 there is Post-Apocalyptic SF and Mars imaging from orbit. There is also a discussion about agriculture in California I may go to lob a few grenades in. I'm still working on the 4pm and 5:30pm sessions. The Chronicles of Narnia film is being shown at 6 and I haven't seen that yet. We'll see.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

We interrupt this hiatus -- for Worldcon

Things have been rather busy this summer -- lots of time at work, and teaching two sessions of basic catechist formation for the Diocese. But I'm taking this week off to attend LACon IV, this year's World Science Fiction Convention. It starts tomorrow the 23'rd and runs to Sunday afternoon. I'm going to stay at least through Mass Sunday morning (yep, Mass at a con -- this should be fun).

If I get a chance, I'll post some reactions each evening. My schedule for tomorrow (as far as I know):

  • arrive some time before noon, check in, and register
  • 2:30 pm - either Blogs & E-Fanzines, The Worst Future that You Can Imagine, or Okay, You've Got the Moon, What're You Going to Do With It?
  • 4:00 pm - Nuclear Weapon Strategies, My Life in a Time Machine, or The Future of Journalism
  • 5:00 pm (if nothing else from 4 works -- Reading by Joe Haldeman
  • 5:30 pm -- not sure yet, maybe listen to filksongs or hit the movies
  • 8:00 pm -- Babel Conference reception for Star Trek's 40th anniversary
And there are parties, besides.

The interesting part of this for me is that this is being held at the Anaheim Convention Center, which is quite familiar to me from attending the LA Religious Education Congress for a number of years. I already know my way around.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Quote: Thomas Merton

If what most people take for granted were really true—if all you needed to be happy was to grab everything and see everything and investigate every experience and then talk about it, I should have been a very happy person, a spiritual millionaire, from the cradle even until now…What a strange thing! In filling myself, I had emptied myself. In grasping things, I had lost everything. In devouring pleasures and joys, I had found distress and anguish and fear.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

So, who are you anyway?

The lessons for the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time:

  • 2 Kings 4:42-44
  • Psalm 145:10-11, 15-16, 17-18
  • Ephesians 4:1-6
  • John 6:1-15
Nobody is ever that eager to go to the DMV -- online reservations and such have only reduced the wait to an hour or so for your new driver's license. The other day I heard that it was only going to get worse here in California, once we implement the new Federal rules and make everybody come in and prove who they are every few years.

But that brought up the whole idea of credentials, how you prove who you are. This is something I am rather used to -- I grew up as an Air Force brat and had a DoD ID card long before I had a driver's license. My collection these days includes a passport (you need it to get back in the country from anywhere these days, including Canada), my state prison volunteer ID, and the passcard from work that gets me through most doors at work. Each marks who I am in reference to a specific organization or situation.

The gospel reading today from John involves credentials -- in fact much of the Gospel of John could be described as Jesus presenting his credentials to the world. One can say that the other three Gospels concentrate on what Jesus does, from different points of view, and presented for different audiences. In this Gospel, however, John concentrates on who Jesus is. The other Gospels are arranged in roughly chronological order. The first half of John's Gospel, which this story is from, is a series of stories, including stories of miracles. These miracles or signs are the credentials that Jesus presents to us so we know just who He is. There are always two sides, or two purposes to a miracle -- the first is the immediate good that is done. Hungry people are fed, sight is restored to the blind, the dead raised back to life. These things are all good in themselves, God reacting to our need.

But each is also a sign, pointing back to the source of all that is good. In each miracle God does something in an immediate, visible and concrete way that He already is doing in a less noticeable way all around us. St. Augustine of Hippo pointed this out:
Governing the entire universe is a greater miracle than feeding five thousand people with five loaves of bread, yet no one marvels at it. People marvel at the feeding of the five thousand not because this miracle is greater, but because it is out of the ordinary.

Who is even now providing nourishment for the whole world if not the God who creates a field of wheat from a few seeds? Christ did what God does.

Just as God multiplies a few seeds into a whole field of wheat, so Christ multiplied the five loaves in his hands. For there was power in the hands of Christ.

Those five loaves were like seeds, not because they were cast on the earth but because they were multiplied by the one who made the earth.

This miracle was presented to our senses in order to stimulate our minds; it was put before our eyes in order to engage our understanding, and so make us marvel at the God we do not see because of his works which we do see.
One thing that we can see is the nature of God's extravagance with us. Not only was everyone fed, but there were basketfulls left over. But look at what was multiplied: barley loaves and (based on the text) dried or preserved fish. Barley ripens faster, takes less water, and will grow in poorer soil than wheat. Barley was the grain of the poor in those times, and dried fish was a common but humble storable food. Jesus shows his identification with the poor and extravagant concern for their needs.

We also can see in this story that you can see this sign, but be able to understand it.
When the people saw the sign he had done, they said,
"This is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world."
Since Jesus knew that they were going to come and carry him off
to make him king,
he withdrew again to the mountain alone.
Some commentors on this passage have presented a more naturalistic explanation, that thee real miracle was getting the people to their food with each other. But that is now how the people reacted in this passage -- Jesus is recognized as not just a nice teacher but the prophet foretold by God, the successor of Moses and Elijah. The reaction of the people is rational, but mistaken. We cannot understand who Jesus truly is without knowing of the Cross and His rising again.

The gospel writers found this an important story -- it is the only miracle recorded in all four books. Its importantce is echoed by the bishop's choice of this selection as the beginning of several weeks concentrating on the Eucharist. Jesus is presenting his credentials showing not only who He was in the first century, but who He is now, present among us today.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Quote: Pope John XXIII

Differences of opinion in the application of principles can sometimes arise even among sincere Catholics. When this happens, they should be careful not to lose their respect and esteem for each other. Instead, they should strive to find points of agreement for effective and suitable action, and not wear themselves out in interminable arguments, and, under pretext of the better or the best, omit to do the good that is possible and therefore obligatory.

Mater et Magistra (1961)

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Quote: Albert Camus

Life's work is nothing but the slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence one's heart first opened.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Emotional consequences

A phenomena termed "waning of affect" or emotional "depthlessness" (notably in the arts) has been described by authors such as the philosopher Frederick Jameson. This is one of those areas of cultural criticism by postmodernists where one can find a combination of intriguing concepts and impenetrable terminology. My interpretation is that this refers to an apparent superficiality of emotional expression or affect, coupled with an attraction to intense experiences of sensation or emotion. The types of deeper emotional expression that a century ago would have been routine in literature, or for that matter religion, are difficult to find today. We have a preference for the cool or ironic in expression, while at the same time, having a taste for forms of entertainment such as increasingly graphic horror movies and intense video games. A wide array of traditional religious literature simply will not communicate adequately in this environment, and attempts to follow current trends will have interesting but unpredictable consequences - consider Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, which had tremendous sales and apparent social impact. As it turns out, that impact was rather limited, based on the research of several different organizations. Consider this report from the Barna group, which was very sympathetic to the religious goals of the movie:

Among the most startling outcomes drawn from the research is the apparent absence of a direct evangelistic impact by the movie. Despite marketing campaigns labeling the movie the “greatest evangelistic tool” of our era, less than one-tenth of one percent of those who saw the film stated that they made a profession of faith or accepted Jesus Christ as their savior in reaction to the film’s content.

Equally surprising was the lack of impact on people’s determination to engage in evangelism. Less than one-half of one percent of the audience said they were motivated to be more active in sharing their faith in Christ with others as a result of having seen the movie.
The anaysis of the shallowness of the consequences of this film refer to the same new world of communications cited before in examining social consequences:
George Barna, the director of the research, commented that many people would probably be surprised that there was not a more lasting and intense impact from the movie. "Immediate reaction to the movie seemed to be quite intense," he noted, "but people’s memories are short and are easily redirected in a media-saturated, fast-paced culture like ours. The typical adult had already watched another six movies at the time of the survey interview, not including dozens of hours of television programs they had also watched."
You can't counteract the emotional consequences of postmodernity simply by being more ironic, or cooler, or more intense. Just going further and faster does not help you when you are having problems with finding directions -- the proper treatment of ADHD may not include a new Gameboy.

These intellectual, social and emotional consequences of postmodernity have spiritual consequences as well.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Social Consequences

As I pointed out earier in this series of posts, telecommunications has been a key part of the modern transformation. Industrial telecommunications complemented the rest of the Industrial Revolution by promoting a kind of mass communication paralleling mass production and consumption. As this network of mass media has grown global, it is often easier to know what is going on thousands of miles away rather than down the block. There is less personal risk in turning on the TV or even signing on to an online conversation than in talking to your next-door neighbor.
Sociologist and political scientist Robert Putnam has written about the seemingly invisible changes to social participation over the past few decades, including religious participation:

In sum, over the last three of four decades, Americans have become almost 10 percent less likely to claim church membership, while our actual attendance and involvement in religious activities has fallen by roughly 25 to 50 percent. Virtually all of the postwar boom in religious participation – and perhaps more – has been erased. This broad historical pattern in religious participation – up from the first third of the century to the 1960’s and down from the 1960’s to the 1990’s – is very much the same pattern we have noted earlier for secular community-based organizations as well as for political organization.

What is more, in all three cases, the more demanding the form of involvement – actual involvement as opposed to formal membership, for example – the greater the decline. In effect the great institutions of American civic life, both religious and secular, have been “hollowed out.” Seen from without, the institutional edifice appears virtually intact – little decline in professions of faith, formal membership down just a bit, and so on. When examined more closely, however, it seems clear that decay has consumed the load bearing structures of our civic infrastructure.

From Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000)
One important point, that Putnam stresses, is that these trends can be seen across almost all religious groups, as well as most voluntary membership organizations in North America and Europe. He found that most groups have tried to understand these trends in terms of the recent history and actions of each specific group. Each group wondered what had caused their drop off in membership, and each group formulated their own individual response (which often could be very different than the response by some other organization). According to Putnam's reseach, it made little difference. Most organizations' pattern of membership and involvment over the past half century look the same. It's not what each organization is doing, it is a change to the society that all these organizations are in.

This particulary applies to the Catholic Church. If we look only at recent Church history, it might make sense to put the blame for this hollowing out of participation on Vatican II in general or a vernacular liturgy or reaction to Humanae Vitae. But how would these events cause nearly identical changes in other religious groups (including non-Christians) and non-religious groups? Many of the explanations as to why the Church "has gone wrong" lately may be largely irrelevant, as would be many of the solutions proposed. Powerful anti-cancer chemotherapy may not be a good idea if the patient does not have cancer -- you get all the side effects of the treatment, but are no closer to a cure. In addtion, you probably will not be any closer to a diagnosis.

The next post in this series will look at the emotional consequences of postmodernity.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Why ministry is more than a job

Over the years I have been involved in youth ministry on and off, in more than one denomination. If you do youth work it's hard to avoid Youth Specialites and one of its founders, the late Mike Yaconelli. As part of an article: What I Wish I Knew When I Started Youth Ministry, Mike made a major distinction between ministry as a job, and ministry as a call:

  • Youth Ministry The Job is about wider. Youth Ministry The Call is about deeper.
  • Youth Ministry The Job is about more. Youth Ministry The Call is about one.
  • Youth Ministry The Job is about program. Youth Ministry The Call is about relationship.
  • Youth Ministry The Job is about being in your office. Youth Ministry The Call is being wherever young people hang out.
  • Youth Ministry The Job is about young peoples' souls. Youth Ministry The Call is about your soul.
I could easily paraphrase that to fit any other sort of ministry that I have been involved with, such as detention ministry.

Treating ministry as a job is a way of getting some distance, of lowering the risk, of trying to fit ministry into the rest of your life. Mike's point is that making ministry a job does just the opposite -- it will deaden your own spiritual life and make you ineffective as a minister. He has a lot of good points to make here, two in particular are: don't impersonate yourself, and the closer you get to Jesus, the less you know. Read the whole thing.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Intellectual consequences

Returning to the topic of ministry and postmodernity . . .

The consequences of the collapse of the modern and the reaction to that has intellectual, social and emotional aspects, and there are significant spiritual consequences as well.

The central feature of the intellectual reaction was expressed by Lyotard: "Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives" A metanarrative (sometimes master- or grand narrative) “. . . is a global or totalizing cultural narrative schema which orders and explains knowledge and experience." When looking at the history of science, such ideas have been called paradigms and the change from one major paradigm to another in one field a scientific revolution. Such a shift follows the increasing difficulty of explaining physical phenomena using the older paradigm. This is true for metanarratives in general – when a particular great story seems to stop working, people tend to find others.

Our perception is never completely naive -- we always bring some baggage with us when we examine and evaluate the world we look at. For example, I have a friend who teaches biology at a local college, who has spent years studying the plant and animal life of this area. I can look some water in a pasture in the hills to the east of here, and see a large puddle that will dry up to a mud flat as summer approaches. My friend sees a vernal pool, ringed with wildflowers, the water containing tiny animals that may exist nowhere else in the world. We have different experiences and expectations of what we will see, therefore we really see different things in the same place. How we perceiveve the world is affected not only by experience, but by expectations and desires. The old saying is more accurate when stood on it's head: "believing is seeing." And the most powerful way to affect all these things that we bring to perception is by stories -- narratives that tie together our experience and desire with meaning, embedding it into our memories and emotions. Change the metanarrative, and in a way you change the world.

One relevant example of a metanarrative is the idea of progress. After almost unlimited trust in secular progress starting in the 18th century and extending into the 20th, experiences over the past century seem to have destroyed the faith of many that we are on the way to anywhere we really want to be.

This distrust of metanarratives is reinforced by the observation that social elites often have used the promotion and manipulation of such grand stories as a form of masked social power. Reaction has led to the attempt to replace grand narratives with smaller, local, more individual narratives. The personal is preferred to the universal.

This presents challenges to Christians, Catholic Christians in particular. Over the past two millenniaia, the Gospel has been the source of foundational metanarratives, first within Europeanan cultures, then globally. If one mistrusts metanarratives in general, one can specifically mistrust Christianity, often without really encountering its message and claims. Part of these ruling stories from the Gospel (and the Old Testament before that) is the idea that God is not on the side of the powerful, but on the side of the poor. The Christian message is not intended to protect the powerful but to subvert unjust power -- which makes it a "sign of contradiction" when compared to all the metanarratives that serve to keep things as they are and the powerless in their place.

That is why historical episodes such as the Spanish Inquisition continue to cause Catholicism trouble in this current situation. The proper apologies of the Church (which were overdue) and the revision of scholarly opinion on the Inquisition (which now appears to be that it was a much more limited and secular institution than often thought) do not seem to be relevant to the world in general. The problem comes from the perception that the Church, the bearer of the Gospel message, lent its approval to what, to 21st century eyes, was a program of ethnic cleansing. Arguing over who did what, when, does not address this problem: the identification with the Spanish Inquisition paints the Church as just another institution, and the Gospel message as just another metanarrative serving power, not to be trusted.

It is useful to consider just how this affects how both Catholics and non-Catholics see such issues as liberation theology (and the Vatican's reaction to it), clergy sexual abuse and misconduct, and neo-Gnosticism in works like The DaVinci Code.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

All Flame

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, 'Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?' then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, 'If you will, you can become all flame.'

from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

I couldn't resist

I am nerdier than 93% of all people. Are you nerdier? Click here to find out!

I could not resist taking this test -- the results are published here as fair warning.

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Reaction

Back to the issue of postmodernity.

In saying that we are in a postmodern predicament we are discussing both reaction against as well as development from the modern. It is not a return to the medieval or a rejection of all things modern. Too often we use the analogy of a pendulum, implying that over time, things swing back to where they were before. Basic social changes such as the ones we are living through work differently – we react against some aspects of our lives while clinging to others, in particular economically driven changes. For example, some (inaccurately in my opinion) from time to time will assert that there is or will be a reaction against, and rollback of, the changes that came out of the feminist movement of the 1960’s-70’s. Various social phenomena are pointed to in support of that – but the percentage of women who work full time does not change, and is not expected to change. We are reacting against some parts of the modern world while clinging to others. If one is waiting for the return of the medieval world or the rise once again of the classical philosophers, one should either join the Society for Creative Anachronism or a university classics department, and get it out of one’s system safely.

Next: the consequences of the collapse of the modern.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Reveals to the nations his saving power

The lessons for the sixth Sunday of Easter:

  • Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48 (diff)
  • Psalm 98:1, 2-3, 3-4
  • 1 John 4:7-10
  • John 15:9-17
Why in the world should someone believe in God these days? We do not see the our world as "god-haunted" -- we have no problems explaining everything we experience in scientific terms, even those things we don't understand well. The things we can see and touch, these things we are sure of. God is a matter of personal opinion, at best.

When you look at the ancestry of the verb to believe you discover it does not mean to have an opinion about something. At its root it means to set one's heart on something. If we are to believe in God, we are to set our hearts on him, to turn our lives around to center on Him. But why would we do this? Is there an experience in this seemingly godless world that would make us thing that God is real?

There is -- the experience of being loved. The second lesson today is from the first letter of John:
Beloved, let us love one another,
because love is of God;
everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God.
Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love.
In this way the love of God was revealed to us:
God sent his only Son into the world
so that we might have life through him.
In this is love:
not that we have loved God, but that he loved us
and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.
When we say we have faith, that we will set our hearts on God, we are saying that the ultimate ground of reality, behind everything we see or feel or hear or touch, is love. If we do not know love, we cannot know God. And love is not something abstract, it is concrete, it is personal. We can believe that God exists, because somebody, somewhere, sometime, loved us in such a way that we could see that God could exist, that love really does make sense. Each one of us must have at some time, known that someone else valued us just for our own self.

Today's readings teach us three important lessons about God's love for us.
  • We can love, because God loved us first -- We were created out of love, and we were created to love. All of scripture tells the big story of God's love for His people, no matter what his people do.
  • Love makes us all equal before God -- In the first lesson, we hear Peter tell Cornelius, a Roman, that God accepts him just a fully as God accepts Peter himself. We are all equally dependent on God.
  • Our response to God's love is to do what He asks -- Jesus tells his disciples that if we love Him, to do what he commands and love one another. We are not to be passive receptacles of God's love and care. Our call is to lavish that same love and care on each other.
What can we expect if we answer this call to share the love that we first received? Loving as God loves is very inconvenient indeed, as it involves putting the needs of someone else ahead of our own wants. It necessarily involves sacrifice, and often the risk of loss and pain. Love is free, but it is not without a tremendous cost. But by giving others the knowledge that they are truly loved, we are making it possible for them to have faith in God. They can only see God if we make him visible in our own lives.

In his very first encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God is Love), Pope Benedict XVI teaches about this:
We have come to believe in God's love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.
God has loved us from the beginning, that is how we know who He is. We must decide whether we will do our part to make that love real for the whole world.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Quote: Henri Nouwen

. . Every human being has a great, yet often unknown, gift to care, to be compassionate, to become present to the other, to listen, to hear and to receive. If that gift would be set free and made available, miracles could take place. Those who really care can receive bread from a stranger and smile in gratitude, can feed many without even realizing it. Those who can sit in silence with their fellowman not knowing what to say but knowing that they should be there, can bring new life in a dying heart. Those who are not afraid to hold a hand in gratitude, to shed tears in grief, and to let a sigh of distress arise straight from the heart, can break through paralyzing boundaries and witness the birth of a new fellowship, the fellowship of the broken. . . .

To care means first of all to empty our own cup and to allow the other to come close to us. It means to take away the many barriers which prevent us from entering into communion with the other. When we dare to care, then we discover that nothing human is foreign to us, but that all the hatred and love, cruelty and compassion, fear and joy can be found in our own hearts. When we dare to care, we have to confess that when others kill, I could have killed too. When others torture, I could have done the same. . . .

By the honest recognition and confession of our human sameness we can participate in the care of God who came, not to the powerful but powerless, not to be different but the same, not to take our pain away but to share it. Through this participation we can open our hearts to each other and form a new community.

from Out of Solitude.

Friday, May 12, 2006

The march of the modern

In previoius posts, we reviewed briefly the nature and sources of the dominant modern Western culture. The positive achievements of this modern world, the world of science and the idea of progress, are easy to see. There are technical achievements in medicine, manufacturing and communications, and social achievements in establishing a new ideal of liberty and individual rights that is, at least in part, approached in a number of places around the world. But there are negative achievements as well in this modern world. Starting with the French Revolution and stretching on to global climate change, we have learned of the social and environmental cost of the “modern” world.

One particularly interesting area of modern change is communications. Two hundred years ago, printing still used human power to run the press, and messages could only move as fast as you could move a piece of paper. Over the intervening time, our ability to communicate expanded drastically in both speed and capacity. This process resulted in the creation, in the 20th century, of mass communications, where one person, in the right place with the right resources, could speak to an entire nation at once. This had effects throughout human societies around the world, changing the way we create and maintain organizations, including religious organizations and activities. Protestant churches, the mainline denominations in particular, are very modern in character, and often model their organizations almost exclusively on corporate models. (In fact, after some historical examination, it could be argued that many Protestant bodies are products much more of the Enlightenment and industrial revolution than of the Reformation.)

The Enlightenment and the modern paradigm was an outgrowth of European philosophy and culture – European culture (which includes American culture) developed along with these ideas and structures. Other, non-Western cultures encountered them through colonialism, or 20th century mass culture. These non-Western cultures have adapted to the impact of the modern in various ways, often involving rapid change and social upheaval. The apparent successful adaptation to some Western ideas in much of Asia in the 20th century follows tremendous dislocation and conflict during the 19th century. Islamic cultures have generally not been as successful, even though there have been numerous top-down attempts to force such adaptation over the past century and a half. These failures are partly responsible for the apparent conflict between western and Islamic states at the beginning of the 21st century.

The Catholic Church struggled with these changes throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The French Revolution (the ultimate example of both the bright and dark sides of the Enlightenment), combined with Napoleon, caused damage that the Church in Europe has not yet fully recovered from. For example, the 1,500-year history of monastic life in much of Europe almost came to an end at that time. The attempts to wrestle with the intellectual challenges of the era led in many ways to the “Modernist“ conflicts of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The centralization of control that started with Pius IX can, in many ways, be seen as a reaction to these political and intellectual stresses, as well as to the introduction of early forms global communications. Word now could and did get to the faithful by other means than the local bishop, which meant that the Church needed to find new ways to try to keep Christian teaching and ministry “on message”, beyond simply the control of the local bishop. (It is interesting to look at the First Vatican Council in this light.) By the end of the 19th century, the Church started its sophisticated reaction to the social and economic changes of the era , as shown by Rerum Novarum (1891) and the subsequent development of Catholic social teachings. In general, the Catholic Church has adapted to the modern era, with varying levels of success, but is less tied to these “modern” ideas than other Christian bodies. At times in the past, this sometimes seemed to be a problem — but in our new predicament this may be a significant advantage, along with the increasingly global nature of the governance of the Church.

Next -- after the modern, what?

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Quote: Luke Timothy Johnson

The basic decision, after all, is to let God be God, to say 'yes' to the work of the Lord, which goes before the church's ability to understand or even perceive it.

from Scripture and Discernment

Links: 5/11/2006

Enough with the heavy culture -- on with some links:

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

So, what does "modern" mean anyway

There are few words that have been more popular in use over the last century than “modern”. (The main rivals, I think, have been “new”, “improved”, and “scientific” -- perhaps I have watched too many soap ads lately.) For the past couple of centuries, those of us in the West have been living in what is usually called the modern world, a system of ideas and social structures that has transformed the world, or at least the part of it we live in. In trying to analyze the current challenges to Christian belief, the Rt. Rev. N.T. Wright, Anglican Bishop of Durham, England, outlined what “modern” means:

But, in case some feel left behind by all this jargon, what do we mean by 'modernity' and 'postmodernity', anyway? A quick thumbnail sketch is all we have time for. By the 'modern' world I mean, broadly, the western world from the eighteenth century to the present. The European Enlightenment at the intellectual level, and the Industrial Revolution at the social level, produced enormous changes both in how society worked, literally and metaphorically, and in how people thought. The large-scale shift from agrarian economies to factory economies had, of course, profound social consequences, of which some parts of New Zealand at least are, I am sure, very much aware. Those who learnt to think for themselves in the Enlightenment without fear of tradition, and then in the Industrial Revolution, those who learnt to make things for themselves rather than having to grow them, acquired a new confidence: they could take on the world.

Thus there grew up the modernist trinity: first, the confident individual who says, 'I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.' Secondly, there was certainty about the world and about our objective knowledge of it. We can look at the world and know things, and that is objective knowledge. (Someone said facts, like telescopes and wigs for gentlemen, were an 18th century invention.) Thirdly, and perhaps above all, there grew up a new mythology of progress; the belief that the world was actually going somewhere, was progressing, and was about to reach its goal. Reality was then conveniently divided up into facts and values; facts were objective, values were subjective. Or, in another of the great Enlightenment ways of carving up the world, there were the truths of reason 'out there' which the mind might be able to grasp, and the truths of the empirical world, the things that you could actually do business with. There was an ugly ditch, said the German philosopher Lessing, between the two of them. Split level reality, is what the modernist trinity purchased at considerable cost, and we have been paying that cost ever since.

The negative corollaries of all this are quite clear: the European world said we are no longer bound to traditional religions or ethics. We live in the real world, people said, and religion and ethics are a matter of private opinion. Part of the avowed aim of modernity was to get away from endless European wars of religion, by showing that religions were simply about what people did with their solitude, and that it was therefore absurd to fight one another about such beliefs. We have learnt to think for ourselves, and can use this ability to show up barbarity and superstition, to free ourselves from the tyranny of tradition.
This is from a 1999 lecture by Wright, and the whole thing is worth reading. More on modernity and the Church in the next post.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Our Predicament

I began my interest in this topic a couple of years ago, when I became interested in the phenomenon of Burning Man. I wrote a series of posts about it, including the perspective of one Evangelical pastor that has been to that festival several times. The final post in the series was to be my own reactions to BM in light of my own understaning of Chrsitianity. Well, I started following ideas about modern culture, postmodernity, the emerging church, and well, here we are. In many ways, the whole direction of this blog is a follow on to those posts -- an attempt to understand the current predicament we are in when trying to minister to others.

In my opinion, one of the realities that a minister must face is that we continue to live in a time of fundamental change and uncertainty. During much of the 20th Century, we experienced the consequences of the gradual collapse of “modernity” – the ideas and structures born of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution that are the foundation of the way we have all lived, at least here in the Western or European cultural world. Our “postmodern” predicament is that we seem to have no general replacements or successors for these ideas, with the result that we seem to be in a kind of “waiting room” between eras. We aren’t sure we know where we are going, but we do know we are going there faster and faster – and we do not trust those who offer directions.

Vocabulary is one problem when assessing this situation. The word “postmodern” has taken on many meanings, ranging from literary criticism to architecture to philosophy. The reaction of some to our current predicament, our uncertainty, is to say that there is not and has never been any certainty, only opinion and the attempt to impose these opinions on others by various means. The proper subject of philosophy or artistic criticism is no longer an examination of ultimate truth or beauty, but only of how we use language, and reuse images and symbols. This is an overly simplistic, but not entirely inaccurate way of describing the ideas of some of the best known “postmodern” theorists, such as Lyotard , Derrida and Foucault . We need to carefully distinguish between:

  • their assessment of the current state of our society, which can be uniquely insightful, and
  • their prescriptions for dealing with the challenges that our changing society presents us, which are often completely inconsistent with Christian experience and belief.
To use a medical analogy, while their diagnosis may be correct, we may not trust the treatment they prescribe. What we should concentrate on is not postmodernism, whether in music, art, or critical theory, but postmodernity, the predicament of living in a modern world in the middle of becoming something else.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Servants of the Word

As I mentioned before, one reason that I have not been posting as much is work on a long final paper for New Wine. Well, that paper is just about done, and a couple weeks late, but there you are. The requirement was 10 pages double-spaced, and I am probably going to hit 15+ pages, single-spaced.

The topic is the transition to a post-modern culture and its effect on ministry, with a particular look at the New Evangelism. The actual paper has a sizeable chunk of discussion of my own experience in ministry and New Wine, stuff I may pull from in the future for posts. But for now, the core material on what is happening culturally worldwide and the predicament we are in is what I will be putting up, in appropriately sized pieces. The title page of the paper includes the quote that gives the paper it's name: Servants of the Word

To nourish ourselves with the word in order to be servants of the word in the work of evangelization: this is surely a priority for the Church at the dawn of the new millennium. Even in countries evangelized many centuries ago, the reality of a "Christian society" which, amid all the frailties which have always marked human life, measured itself explicitly on Gospel values, is now gone. Today we must courageously face a situation which is becoming increasingly diversified and demanding, in the context of "globalization" and of the consequent new and uncertain mingling of peoples and cultures. Over the years, I have often repeated the summons to the new evangelization. I do so again now, especially in order to insist that we must rekindle in ourselves the impetus of the beginnings and allow ourselves to be filled with the ardour of the apostolic preaching which followed Pentecost. We must revive in ourselves the burning conviction of Paul, who cried out: "Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel" (1 Cor 9:16).

Pope John Paul II, Novo Millennio Ineunte, chap 40
The plan? First off, to look at just what "modern" means culturally, and to examine the signs that we are moving somewhere else. In particular, review the intellectual, social, and emotional effects of this transition, concentrating on the spiritual consequences of all this. There are some specific challenges and opportunities on the way, and some indications on the directions ministry may take as a result.

Basically, these are the topics I said that interested me at the beginning of the year when I moved to this space -- so there is no surprise here. Stay tuned.

Thursday, May 04, 2006


On with the links:

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Quote: Walter Burghardt, SJ

Our parishes and congregations often present a wide range of experience, income and education. You have to be able to use a vocabulary that everybody understands. This doesn’t mean that you are always using monosyllables. But most people will understand if you speak the language of ordinary conversation. Apart from the technical language, just talk to them so they feel that you are really talking with them. Somebody said to me that people don’t want to listen to homilies. My answer to that is that people don’t want to listen to bad homilies.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Links: 5/2/2006

How can you tell I'm back? Links!

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Discernment in Disappointment

So, where have I been lately? Let's see:

  • incredibly busy (60-80 hour weeks) at work due to a special project — check;
  • working on a rather involved final paper for New Wine (I will post pieces of it later) — check;
  • Holy Week/Easter Week — check.
So, there seems to be quite adequate reasons for being a bit short of posts here, especially posts of a more personal nature. I simply have not had the time. But there is another reason:
  • needed some time to deal with disappointment from not being admitted to diaconate discernment program — yep, check.
In October, 2003, 30 of us in this deanery began the three year New Wine program -- the primary lay ministry training program in our diocese. (More on that program another day.) I was talked into it Saturday night at the 2003 LA Religious Education Congress, while waiting for dinner while shivering around the swimming pool at the Marriott. Not quite half of us are left now, and our last session is this Thursday. We have grown into a tight community, and are now considering what effect this time together will have on our life and ministry in the Church.

New Wine, in addition to being a general training program, is a prerequisite for entering the diaconate formation program here. I did not enter with that intention -- my concern was to fill in some holes and to become a better at detention ministry. In fact, I was fairly sure that I was not quite what the Church had in mind when the permanent diaconate was revived. But a year ago, several people started to bring up with me the idea of my entering into discernment for that role. This group included some people in New Wine, along with some involved in the diaconate program itself. To tell the truth, I found the idea attractive for a number of reasons, but held back on committing to this for one reason. At that point, I did not feel any specific call to diaconal ministry, as I understood it then, and I feared trying to get too far ahead of God on something like this. It would not be fun to try for the diaconate and be turned down, but it would be much worse to actually make it well into the program (or, God forbid, through ordination) when it was not what I needed to be doing. At the same time it became clear that if I did not clearly determine for myself whether I could be called to be a deacon, I would be haunted by the question for the rest of my life. When the application process opened (it only happens every 3-5 years here) I got the papers, handed my wife her set of forms and questions and started writing. Questionnaires, essays, letters of recommendation and FBI background checks later, we were asked to the diocesan offices for interviews.

I'm still not sure if we did well or badly -- as a friend, who also was interviewed, said, "I'm not used to trying to sell my spirituality." Well, my wife and I were not asked into the year of discernment before the formation process proper begins. You are not told why you were not asked in, although there were a variety of interesting factors this time -- a far larger group of applicants for a limited number of slots, and a larger than usual number of applicants from my town. But that may have had nothing to do with it either. You simply don't know, and strangely enough I think that may be a good idea, even though it is not comfortable at all. And it is important that you remember that you don't know, because the human mind abhors a vacuum. If we don't know a reason for something, our minds will manufacture one, often based on our fears. For example, sometimes we end up worrying the most when someone is not happy or angry, but withdrawn or detached. With the latter case, we don't know where we stand with this person, and we will try to figure it out, often getting it wrong. Sometimes you just don't know, and may never know on this side of the grave. I think you have to get to a particular point in your life, to have certain kind of experience, to be able to deal with that.

And of course, it hurts.

It has become a commonplace that one goes through a grieving process after something like this, including all the various stages. I cannot really say that — nothing nearly that clear is going on. The two things that I know for sure at this point are that I am called to ministry, and that this will continue to hurt from time to time over the next couple of years as my friends move through the process to ordination. To really explore whether you need to do something, you have to take it seriously, you have to contemplate what it would be like and evaluate that for yourself. In doing that you cannot help but build up some kind of expectation about the future. That is a risk, because God is not bound by your expectations. But it is a necessary risk, as I do not believe that we just wait passively for God to somehow insert instructions in our minds. We have to figure out things as well as we can, and our figuring will sometimes be imperfect because of our own separation from God, from sin itself. But we learn about this, and learn how and where to change by these experiences, and by trusting God through them. As Luke Timothy Johnson has said about discernment, you have to let God be God. That is sometimes a painful process. In this imperfect world, pain is something you have to get to know as a minister, both because those you work with are often in pain from various causes, and because you will be there yourself time and again. Want to live a pain free life, don't get started in Christian ministry.

For now, I am learning about my other options and opportunities, and getting on with what I know I should be doing. And I will be posting a bit more now.

Note: Spelling checkers are dangerous things. I was sure I had said "diaconate discernment process" instead of "discount discernment process". It even scans, but is a bit weird when you think of it.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Quote: Rick McKinley

We tend to gravitate to people who are like us. People who look like us, talk like us, make about the same money as we do, believe what we believe, and enjoy the same entertainment as we do. Is that community? No, that's affinity. We're alike so we can be friends. What this really boils down to is self-worship. I like you because you are like me. We share the same tastes. I can hang out with you...

We may develop a circle of acquaintances this way, but we won't experience the deeper things that make belonging in community the beautiful, biblical thing that it is. Tragically, the church has bought into the culture's like of affinity. We go to churches that are full of people just like us. We don't go to this church because the members all belong to the same ethnicity or we listen to the same music or we vote the same or all of the above. We go to church because the people are just like us. It doesn't take an act of God to get people to like each other if they are all alike. You can find that in any subculture in America. To the world, the church looks like just another subculture.

from Jesus in the Margins: Finding God in the Places We Ignore
I think Rick is making a great porint here, that is, unfortunately, becoming more applicable to Catholics in this country as time goes by. Via brokenstainedglass.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

God's Grandeur

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
 It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
 It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
 And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
 And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, not can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
 There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
 Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs --
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
 World broods with warm beast and with ah! bright wings.

Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ
Why this? because it's Easter week, and it is finally looking like spring around here, that's why.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Quote: Thomas Merton

Sanctity does not consist in suffering. It is not even directly produced by suffering, for many have suffered and have be come devils rather than saints. What is more, there are some who gloat over the sufferings of the saints and are hideously sentimental about sufferings of their own, and cap it all by a voracious appetite for inflicting suffering on other people, sometimes in the name of sanctity. Of such were those who persecuted St. John of the Cross in his last days, and helped him to enter heaven with greater pain and greater heroism. These were not the "calced" who caught him at the beginning of his career, but the champion ascetics of his own family, the men of the second generation, those who unconsciously did their best to ruin the work of the founders, and who quite consciously did everything they could to remove St. John of the Cross from a position in which he would be able to defend what he knew to be the Teresian ideal.

Sanctity itself is a living solution of the problem of suffering. For the saint, suffering continues to be suffering, but it ceases to be an obstacle to his mission, or to his happiness, both of which are found positively and concretely in the will of God. The will of God is found by the saint less in manifestations of the divine good-pleasure than in God himself.

Suffering, on the natural level, is always opposed to natural joy. There is no opposition between natural suffering and supernatural joy. Joy, in the supernatural order, is simply an aspect of charity. It is inseparable from the love that is poured forth in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. But when sanctity is not yet mature, its joy is not always recognizable. It can too easily be buried under pain. But true charity, far from being diminished by suffering, uses suffering as it uses everything else: for the increase of its own immanent vitality. Charity is the expression of a divine life within us, and this life, if we allow it to have its way, will grow and thrive most in the very presence of all that seems to destroy life and to quench its flame. A life that blazes with a hundredfold brilliance in the face of death is therefore invincible. Its joy cannot fail. It conquers everything. It knows no suffering. Like the Risen Christ, who is its Author and Principle, it knows no death.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Quote: St. Maximilian Kolbe

No one in the world can change truth. What we can and should do is seek truth and serve it when we have found it. The real conflict is within. Beyond the armies of occupation and the hectacombs of the extermination camps, two irreconcilable armies lie in the depth of every soul. And of what use are the victories of the battlefield if we are defeated in our innermost selves?

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Quote: Thomas Merton

The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.

Why to love the lectionary

A couple of weeks ago, Dan Clendenin of Journey with Jesus had a good post at emergent, Lovin' the Lectionary. It's not too surprising as he features a lectionary essay, what I usually call a reflection, on the week's readings. He says that he has come to love the lectionary for four reasons:

Liberation: Pastors who follow the lectionary are forever freed from the onerous burden of dreaming up a sermon topic for every Sunday. The weekly readings decide that for you. Your creative energies are thus directed toward interacting with Scripture rather than wondering how or where to start. With four readings every week, there is also flexibility that allows for one's personal inclinations.

Discipline: When you follow the lectionary you can't "cheat" or cut corners by gravitating toward favorite passages, avoiding unpleasant texts, or choosing Scriptures that you consider more relevant or clear. Instead, you're forced to deal with the "whole counsel of God" that, in my experience, we honor only with lip service---from John 3:16 to Hosea 13:16 and the butchering of babies and pregnant women.

Thoroughness: When you follow a three-year lectionary cycle you will read and grapple with almost the entire Bible. Imagine what a lifetime of lectionary devotion might do to our churches or to our very own souls as we work through all Scripture every three years.

Community: Most Christians in the world follow the lectionary; those who do not find themselves in the minority. I love identifying myself with the communion of saints around the world who are all studying the same Scriptures at the same time. Together we read, meditate, and pray through the rhythm of the Christian year---Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and all the so-called "ordinary time" in-between feast days.
The last point is of particular note. Because so many Christian groups use some version of the Revised Common Lectionary, resources such as Textweek can exist.

The RCL and the lectionary put out by the US bishops for Catholic use a very similar, the main difference lying in the Old Testament lessons. All this grew out of the first new lectionary published in 1969 following the liturgical reforms of Vatican II. Other groups found the idea attractive, and ecumenical meetings around this topic grew into the Consultation on Common Texts. The bishops reserve the right to issue a specifically Catholic lectionary, but support a significant Catholic presence, with at-large Catholic members in addition to the two official representatives.

I grew up in the Episcopal Church, and still remember the prayer book with the Sunday lectionary lessons included. (Throw away missalettes still feel strange.) In my early 20's I attended many services with evangelical friends, and never could get used to not having that set rotation moving you steadily through scripture. As I work on reflections today (and yes, I have missed a couple from lack of time), I greatly appreciate the work that has gone into the lectionary, in its various versions and revisions. The commonality that we have achieved, where many Christians are hearing the same Gospel lesson preached on the same Sunday, is a true ecumenical achievement.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Quote: Flannery O'Connor

I write the way I do because (not though) I am a Catholic....I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it.

Just too busy

Why no posts or links? I've simply been too busy at work, and I have my final New Wine paper to finish. More when things slow down a bit in a week or two -- sporadic posts at best until then.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Quote: Galileo Galilei

I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Prayer: Teilhard de Chardin, SJ

Prayer for the Grace to Age Well

When the signs of age begin to mark my body
(and still more when they touch my mind);

when the ill that is to diminish me or carry me off
strikes from without or is born within me;

when the painful moment comes
in which I suddenly awaken
to the fact that I am ill or growing old;

and above all at that last moment
when I feel I am losing hold of myself
and am absolutely passive within the hands
of the great unknown forces that have formed me;

in all those dark moments, O God,
grant that I may understand that it is you
(provided only my faith is strong enough)
who are painfully parting the fibres of my being
in order to penetrate to the very marrow
of my substance and bear me away within yourself.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Quote: Lewis Smedes

You are deep, unfathomably deep.
You cannot be a shallow person; God does not make shallow people. You can, if you choose, close your own mind to the depths within you.
But you cannot be shallow.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

So much for that

The Comment-Spammer-Never-To-Be-Named dropped three little pieces of joy into the combox on the immediately preceeding post. Comments, of course, are still on, but you will have to type in that distorted word first.

I will not call this progress.

In memory of Nick Barnes

Those of us who work in detention ministry around here got some shocking news last Friday morning. Stanley "Nick" Barnes, senior chaplain at US Penitentiary, Atwater was killed in a head-on collision while driving home Thursday night.

For a year, while the Bureau of Prisons was searching for a Catholic chaplain, I was one of the volunteers keeping some kind of Catholic presence at USP Atwater, and its associated minimum security camp. (I no longer work there -- we concentrate our time at another facility. For security reasons, I would rather not post about any facility I currently visit.) In a federal maximum security prison, volunteers are escorted in and out of the facility, and often Nick was our escort. There are facilities where the various Christian chaplains from different denominations feud. I think that is scandalous, and unprofessional. We volunteers never had a problem with Chaplain Nick or his staff, and they were often very helpful with the difficult task of trying to put together a consistent program with volunteers. He remains an excellent example of what a prison chaplain should be: a person of deep faith who remains true to their own faith tradition by making sure that all inmates have access to pastoral care appropriate to their own individual beliefs.

May light perpetual shine on him, O Lord, and bring comfort to his family.

Quote: Bruce Sterling

When they work well, new words like spime are like new brooms. They're good for getting rid of the old words that have turned into dust. New words can sound silly or dangerous, like empty buzzwords, gobbledygook, hype, but this should be understood as the innate nature of language in fast-changing circumstances. Hype is a system-call on your attention. If hype clearly aimed straight at your wallet, you are right to worry. But hype is only bad for you if you drink it unthinkingly, by the barrel and case. If you soberly track its development, hype is very revealing. Even mistaken and obscurantist hype shows that people are stupid and trying to hide something, which are always good things to know.

In politics, the opposite of hype is political reality. Political hype is BS, it's a campaign speech, it's meant to deceive the listener. But in technology, the opposite of hype is not the truth. The opposite of hype in technology is argot. It's techno-jargon. Argot is not reality, jargon is not the truth. Argot is a super-specialized geek cult language that has no traction in the real world. Argot is the deliberately hermetic language of a small knowledge clique. A small clique likely doesn't have enough people in it to successfully name its own inventions and practices, especially when those inventions and practices emerge from their lab and spread widely throughout a general population. It takes a whole lot of people to manage a popular language. If you know how to watch you can see them at work. You can even just join right in.

address at Emerging Tech Conference, 2006

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Quote: Martin Luther King, Jr.

May I say just a word to those of you who are struggling against this evil. Always be sure that you struggle with Christian methods and Christian weapons. Never succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter. As you press on for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the weapon of love. Let no man pull you so low as to hate him. Always avoid violence. If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in your struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos.

In your struggle for justice, let your oppressor know that you are not attempting to defeat or humiliate him, or even to pay him back for injustices that he has heaped upon you. Let him know that you are merely seeking justice for him as well as yourself. Let him know that the festering sore of segregation debilitates the white man as well as the Negro. With this attitude you will be able to keep your struggle on high Christian standards.

from Paul's Letter to American Christians, delivered November, 4, 1956 (with thanks to Natala)

Links: 3/15/2006

Don't beware the Ides of March, beware the links:


Well, it finally happened. I got my first piece of comment spam. It had to be a particularly stupid bot to post here, considering the low traffic this blog gets. I looked at it for a minute, considering it in the same light as the first scratch on a new car. Then I deleted it.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

From the mountaintop

The lessons for the second Sunday in Lent are:

  • Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18
  • Psalm 116:10+15, 16-17, 18-19
  • Romans 8:31b-34
  • Mark 9:2-10
When you or I go off on vacation or retreat, and have some intense and memorable experience that seems to reveal meaning about the rest of our lives, we tend to call it a "peak" or "mountaintop" experience. The Gospel lesson today recounts such a experience, known as the Transfiguration, and we need to explore together why such a peak experience is important for us during Lent. To do that, we need to look at more than just this story by itself, we should look at why Mark put this story where it is in the Gospel record.

The lectionary takes the Sunday Gospel lessons this year generally from the Gospel of Mark, and during the year we will cover much of this book. During Lent, however, we are zooming in on particular stories concerning our own journey to the cross and Easter. The lesson last week, the first Sunday in Lent, was from the first chapter, immediately after Jesus is baptized and we experience God confirming Jesus's ministry. In that lesson Jesus is then driven out into the desert where he is tempted and returns proclaiming the Kingdom of God. This week we jump to the middle of Mark, from the first to the ninth chapter, and there are only 16 chapters in this, the shortest, simplest, and probably oldest of the Gospels.

The eighth chapter, the one just before our lesson this week, contains the "hinge" of the Gospel of Mark. Just before the story of the Transfiguration, Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus begins to teach of the suffering and resurrection to come, and Jesus rejects Peter's attempt to turn him away from that path. For the first time, Jesus teaches not only that the Kingdom is at hand, but the way to the Kingdom also leads to the cross. From this point forward, Mark is telling about the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem, and Golgotha.

The very next thing to happen is the Transfiguration:
After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them. Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses, and they were conversing with Jesus.

Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, "Rabbi, it is good that we are here! Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified. Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them; 4 then from the cloud came a voice, "This is my beloved Son. Listen to him."

Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone with them.
For just a moment, on top of this mountain, the reality of just who Jesus is becomes visible. We again, just as at Jesus's baptism, hear the Father declare Jesus his son. By appearing with both Elijah and Moses, Jesus is revealed truly as the anointed one of God, the Messiah. And the change in appearance foreshadows the change that will come with his resurrection and ascention.

The disciples present are terrified — and who can blame them? In just a few days their world has been turned upside down again. In answering Jesus's call, they have already left behind much. But now they discover their new path will take them places they never dreamed about. This is not just some good teacher or intinerant miracle worker, Jesus is the One foretold by the prophets. This is not a matter of incremental change, becoming better, more moral, nicer people. These disciples were just told that nothing short of complete commitment, complete transformation will do. And now, this mountaintop experience confirms that.

And that is where we are today, this Lent. We often prefer a more rational, more reasonable Jesus. A wise teacher whose words we can ponder, and carefully apply to our lives where feasible. We want God to be on our terms, in a way that we can understand. We must be reminded, again and again, that nothing short of our whole lives, cast before the Son of God, will suffice. And we must learn again, as these disciples learned, that we must follow him, even to the Cross. That is the journey we are on this Lent.