Tuesday, August 15, 2017

There but for the grace of God, go I

There have been some interesting culture events that have happened over the weekend. There was a political rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that ended in a crazy person running over a bunch of pedestrians, killing one and injuring several. The rally was under the banner of "Unite the Right" and was sponsored by various groups that the media/political intelligentsia have labelled the "alt-right"-which I am not exactly sure what that terms means exactly. It is sort of an omnibus boogeyman term for everyone in the supposed "alternative right" in the country that seems to encompass neo-Confederates, Neo-Nazis, Southern Nationalists, the Klan, and any other assorted racist goons, regardless of type or ideology.

Having grown up in a Southern county that is historically very economically depressed and had for many years an active Klan presence (they used to have a lodge building at the county seat and march during parades and such), I have been amused at the media trying to use this narrative of "alt-right" and paint all Southern dissident groups (and all Southerners by extension) as these huge racist bigots. Ironically, the crazy man who ran down the counter-protesters and many of the Neo-Nazis were not even from the South. In fact, the Klan and Neo-Nazis generally hate each other. Neo-Nazis are National Socialists and often anarchists, which makes no sense philosophically, but fringe loonies are not well renowned as systematic philosophers, but that is neither here nor there. Both of those things are generally anathema to the worldview of most Southerners. I am not actually posting this entry to discuss any of that.

What I have found almost as disturbing as the mayhem, nonsense, and racism on display by Tiki Torch Nazis is the reaction by many of my Christian friends in response to all this. Many have gotten onto their sanctimonious high horses to condemn not only the violence and racism (which is totally justifying) but to outright condemn all the people in the alt-right altogether, basically as not fit to live. While odious, this rancorously snotty blanket condemnation has not set well with me for a number of reasons.

First of all, not all Southerners are racists or alt-right (for lack of a better term) folk. This is not to downplay the sad history of race relations in the American South, but I have been distressed at how hateful some of the social media blanket condemnations have been of everyone. We are all sinners, let us not forget.

Secondly, let us not forget Christian charity that we owe to all people, not just the kinds of folks we would like to invite to dinner parties. People in the alt-right need our charity and love, lest our blanket condemnations and hateful respites to them turn them more violent and extremist. For, always remember the aphorism: There but for the grace of God, go I.

I bring this up because what is missing in this whole discussion is the reason people join gangs. By gangs, I do not just mean alt-right groups like Neo-Nazis or the Klan, but criminal gangs of any sort that play on race identity.

How can people end up like those people waving Nazis flags?
How can people end up joining violent groups like the Black Panthers?
How can people join notorious criminal gangs like MS-13 or the Crips or Bloods?

The knee jerk response is to say that people join these games because they are ignorant, no account scumbags.

Actually, people join gangs not because they are no account lowlifes but because they are trying NOT to be lowlife scumbags.

To illustrate what I mean by this, let me tell you a story that happened to me when I was living up in South Dakota. I worked occasionally in my Anglican priest days at a youth camp in the Black Hills. I was chaplain one time for an elementary school camp, many of the campers being Lakota. I was giving a small group talk to some 4th and 5th graders about making good decisions that can affect your life. I had started the discussion by asking where the kids saw themselves in 10 years.

We went around the circle, and some of the kids said things like working or being in the military or what have you. I came to this one Lakota kid who could not have been  more than about 10 years old. He thought for a moment and said, in all seriousness, "I'll be drunk on a park bench somewhere."

At first, I was taken aback by this answer. I thought the kid was being a punk, but upon asking him why he said that, he appeared to be in earnest. He just said, "I'm Lakota. That's just what Lakota men do."

I do not remember exactly how I responded, as I was so taken aback by this matter-of-fact statement. But, eventually, we modulated back into a discussion of making good decisions like not doing drugs or joining gangs. One thing led to another and another of the Lakota kids basically told me, when I asked why people would join gangs told me one of the most amazing sociological insights I have ever heard, "People join gangs because they give you an identity. Something to do. It's like having a family, but a family that you are proud of."

In cultures where the family unit has disintegrated, parents or drunk, on drugs, or otherwise of no account, no kid wants to be a part of that family, but they are stuck with it. A gang, on the other hand, gives you that sense of family, of belonging, of worth, twisted and criminal as that may be. It gives you an identity, a horrible, twisted identity, but an identity of your own choosing nonetheless. People join groups like the Klan or Aryan Nation or MS-13 to escape the family they are ashamed of. Again, people join gangs not because they are no account lowlifes but because they are trying NOT to be lowlife scumbags. These groups give them the identity and a sense of pride and belong that their family and society has failed to give them. Therein, is the tragedy of it all.

This is why I repeat that people in these groups need no so much our undying scorn and reverse hatred, but our Christian charity and prayer. We can disavow their odious actions and beliefs, but these people need our love. They need to hear our message that God loves them, and that they can be a part of God's family.

The world needs less hate, not more of it, especially not coming from us.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Lectionary notes for Sunday 8/13/2017, part II

I would also be remiss if I did not comment on the Gospel reading for Sunday. It is also a very powerful reading of the storm on the sea of Galilee. Jesus comes walking up to them on the water, and the disciples, which on the surface seems somewhat hilarious, think he's a ghost on the water.

This is not, however, an unreasonable assumption on the disciples part, however. I was amazed when I was in Galilee. We got to go on a boat out on the Sea of Galilee. There are very steep extinct volcanoes that on on the northern end of the Sea of Galilee. Volcanic rock is black in color. So, these black mountains in the background reflecting off the water is very creepy indeed.

I was out on the water on a fairly clear, summer day, but even then, it was a weird feeling, like these dark mountains hovering in the distance. I can only imagine during a rain storm what a truly dark and foreboding place that must be.

To get a small taste of sailing on the Sea of Galilee, here is a little video I took on board. You can't quite see the mountains on the background, as I was facing the opposite direction, but you get the idea...


Lectionary notes for Sunday 8/13/2017, part I

Some really great passages are presents in the Sunday lectionary this week.

One of my favorite Old Testament passages has Elijah, having fled from Ahab, hiding out in a cave in a mountain. In a wonderfully vivid but minimalist story telling, Elijah is visited by wind, storm, earthquake, and fire...all the good primal elements. The catch line is "And God was not in the fire" or "God was not in the wind.

God is found in the what is sometimes translated as a 'small whispering sound.' The words in Hebrew are דַקָּֽה׃ דְּמָמָ֥ה ק֖וֹל, literally 'a still small voice.'  The term can mean silence, but a voice has to make some sort of sound, so translators are usually at a loss as to how exactly to translate the it correctly. Some translations do say "the sound of sheer silence" but the word voice/sound is clearly also used. It's intentionally ambiguous.

Regardless of whatever Elijah was hearing, the point is he heard God from this sound of sheer silence or small still voice. Whatever it was was NOT raucous storm thunderclaps or earthquakes or bolts of lightning from the sky, all the things we traditionally want God to appear from.

Some preachers will immediately pounce on this (I have heard it done more than once) and either lambaste people who claim to have had God speak to them in something like a bolt of lightning or other loud encounter or say that God only speaks to us in small, still voices or the sounds of silence.
I always chaff at this interpretation because it is not true to the text.  Elijah had just had such a raucous God coming down in fire and might experience at Mt Carmel in the famous showdown between himself and the prophets of the Baal.

Ahab was a ninth-century king of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. He married a Phoenician named Jezebel and joined her in worshiping Baal. Elijah appeared as the champion of the Lord (YHWH), announcing a drought. On a bet, the prophets offered sacrifices to Baal and prayers all day, and Baal had not appears. Elijah got up, soaked the sacrifice in water and asked God to intervene, and God did so in fire in one of the most dramatic scenes in the Old Testament. Elijah orchestrated the slaughter of the prophets of Baal. Jezebel was displeased and sent word to Elijah that she was going to have him killed. He oddly flees for his life after having just witnessed one of the most powerful displays by God since the Exodus, going into Judah, and so hopefully beyond Ahab and Jezebel’s reach. He travels forty days and nights through the wilderness until he reaches Mt. Horeb. There, Elijah has an encounter with God in the voice of sheer silence.

So, to say God never responds in sound, fury, or might is simply not true to the narrative because it had literally just happened to Elijah. However, sometimes sound, fury, or might does not always appease us in what we want from God. Even when God just show up very clearly and forcibly, we still run away or complain or think it is not enough.

Sometimes, for God to truly reach our hearts, he has to approach us in a muttering silence, like a trickle drip, continually dripping on our heads until we finally clue into the fact that God is speaking to us.

True Story

So, sinister tall guys wearing Hawaiian shirts while holding bouquets of flowers in mason jars get really strange looks in lobbies.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Thoughts on the Lectionary readings (08/06/2017)

Sunday is the Feast of the Transfiguration.

This is one of those Gospel stories that makes modern Protestants and others in the "historical Jesus" debate really go bonkers if they view Jesus as little more than a nice guy moral exemplar. If you have issues with the Trinity in any real sense other than as some weird theological abstraction, then this also makes you a bit twitchy. For those who think the Early church made Jesus more "divine" as time went on, then this story really gets you going.

Imagining Jesus in his true form apart from his humanity is a bit troubling if we picture Jesus as just a nice guy who died tragically or as some misguided rabbi floating here, there, and everywhere.

I am including here some pictures I took from the top of the Mount of the Transfiguration. You interestingly have to pile in at the bottom of the mountain in buses run by Muslims who jobs are to ferret tourists up and down the mountain. It's quite the gut wrenching winding road up to the top, as the drivers drive like Formula One race cars up to the top.

Once you get up there, there is a delightful Franciscan church built on the spot Western Christianity believes is where Jesus was transfigured. The Greek Orthodox have there own little spot about 100 feet away which is not open to the general public. The Franciscan spot was one of my favorite places you visit. you can go up to the main altar and then outside on a veranda that overlooks the plains below. Really lovely view.

One really feels something amazing once happened there. It has a unique feel to it, like a holy place that is hard to describe. Some modern theological writers use the terminology of "thin places"- places where reality seems very thin, as if the supernatural world is just right behind the veil in a way you can almost taste or see.

This is one of those times when I think the Church in the East runs rings around the Western tradition in terms of understanding the Transfiguration. The Transfiguration of Jesus is really quite central to Eastern theology of Light and Theosis. It is sometimes refers to as the Taboric light, from Mount Tabor, seen here, commonly known as the Mount of the Transfiguration.

In Eastern theology, the Light of God is a very central image. God calling us to the Divine Light and cleansing us from the darkness of sin and death. I will not go to far into that, but it is a good way of looking at the divine mystery of souls uniting to God's divine light of goodness and grace. I don't think it is contrary to Western theology actually. In some ways, I think it is helpful to preserve the mystery of Christ's Transfiguration and not to over analyze the miracle in a clinical scholastic manner.

Sometimes, we get to big for our britches and want to fit God and Jesus into a box we can understand, to turn God into a math equation that factors out neatly. That simply is not the case with an infinite God. We simply can't do that. That is the true beauty of the Transfiguration.

Or, as CS Lewis put it, "One minute you see him and another you won't. After all, Aslan is not a tame lion."

Monday, July 31, 2017

There is also #FakeScience

I was amused when I came across this bit here (also here), basically proving that there is also Junk Science out there just like there is Fake News. This was obviously a spoof, not trying to pass itself off as real science, but this is a major problem.

Just last night, I was watching a documentary on Netflix that seemed legit about the science of dogs, or what we understand about how they interact with the world. I started getting a bit skeptical when the narrator started going on in a very polite, scholarly sounding way about how "everything we thought we knew" about the subject was wrong.

That is usually code word for "sensationalism in the guise of journalism science is about to follow." I hoped I was wrong, but they were positing some interesting ideas about dog psychology (still not convinced that is actually a thing, but for sake of argument, I will go with it.)

The first half of the show seemed logical, even if I disagreed with a few of the premises. As the show progressed, it got crazier and crazier, saying in essence that dogs do not actually have an alpha dog hierarchy, and they are all just some sort of free spirit hippie dogs out having fun, and that somehow the wolfness of the pack herd mentality had been bred out of the domesticated dog. We evil humans (this was insinuated) had been misjudging how dogs see the world and all that. It devolved into some highly bizarre human racism judgmentalism that we were throwing at the whole of dogkind. Reverse Doggie Paternalism. That was a new one on me. Like I said, it got very strange.

The kicker was they had dug up all these supposed scholars with Ph.D.s from some university in Canada. I found the whole thing to be a big steaming heap of dog poo junk science because I could immediately explain away their hypothesis of no alpha male dogs because the humans were all standing around filming all this behavior, and in good dog training, the human is the alpha dog.

Everyone is talking about fake news. I think an even bigger problem is actually junk science. Most major news sources are not trusted by anyone with half a brain. Poll after poll of people asking the trustworthiness of the media is rock bottom. It makes President Donald Trump look like a popularity mega-star by comparison.

When science comes up with the equivalent junk/fake stuff, though, it is much more insidious. People are much more like to believe "experts" and "scholars" than talking head news media people. Ooh...look, he's got numbers and graphs, therefore it must be true.

This is not to say there is not good, solid science out there, or that I am going all "global warming is hoax" or whatever. That's not what I am getting at. What I am getting at is that one should always be a critical thinker. Logic is key. If it does not make logical sense, chances are, it's fake.

Don't be snookered. Always look at the facts. Always ask questions.

This is important.