Dam it

29 12 2013


Twenty years ago I was sitting in my parents’ home in Spokane looking through the Sunday paper. I use the word “looking” intentionally. I couldn’t possibly read the whole thing, and the point was to get through the whole thing. And mind you, this wasn’t the New York Times Sunday Edition. This was the Spokesman-Review. I remember thinking at the time how thoroughly overwhelmed and underwhelmed I was by the whole enterprise of making my way, page by page, through this printy juggernaut: overwhelmed by the sheer heft of the thing, underwhelmed by the content. Back then, already, I was feeling dumbed down by media. There was just too much information, and I felt back then, as I do now, that we humans weren’t created to care about that much information. And this was news.

Fast-forward to now and the daily dam-break of pixelated media, which is a step or two (or a thousand) beneath newspapers in quality by dint of its ephemeral quality: here one second, gone the next. And it isn’t even news, it’s gossip (aka advertising, or social media, or the latest status update). It’s no wonder we’re simultaneously getting more informed and dumber by the nano-second. We’re being drowned in gossip, pummeled by information; and this isn’t Chinese water torture, this is Old Testament deluge. It’s like having to learn to breathe differently when you’re scuba diving at 80 feet because you’re at a different pressure, only we’re now living at 80 feet of pressure all the time because we’re almost permanently exposed to multiple stimula vying for our attention and allegiance (aka money) and expected to negotiate the multiple messages, many of them contradictory. Our environment is almost perfectly tuned to always distract. What do you think TV and computers and radios were built for?

Mindfulness, which is a modern word for what used to be called living, is now a technique you’re supposed to master in order to really be alive.

Amazing that so many of us have bought into this whole charade hook, line, and sinker without even knowing it. We don’t know what it means any more to simply have our minds emptied long enough to pay attention to our lives, to really listen to the things around us that aren’t trying to sell us something. Ask yourself, what do you do when you get into your car? Turn on the radio? How about when you get home? Turn on the computer? The TV? How often do you check your email? Your FB profile? We’re now the machines, and it’s our lives that are being programmed every hour of every day.

I caught myself tonight, while making a quick drive to the local Vons to buy some whipped cream for the last piece of pumpkin pie, getting angry that there was no good music on the radio. I scanned the entire FM frequency in frustration. Then I woke up. What I was longing for was silence — I’d just forgotten in the cacophony of post-modern living. It’s what I most wanted. I’d just forgotten. Like when your body is really craving water but you grab a Coke instead.

My kingdom for the Real Thing.


Haiku (Unfinished)

23 12 2013

Pastoral Care leaf

Today I was here.
Away from the madding crowd.
But that was then…


24 08 2013


The question isn’t “How could this have happened?” but rather “How should we respond?” Life is filled with tragedies great and small, and though we can (and should) never get used to it, we shouldn’t finally be surprised, either, when it’s our turn to face the grim realities, the unexpected turn. Life is fragile, tenuous, fleeting. When tragedy hits, it will take our breath away, but it shouldn’t take our reason for living away. It can’t, lest death win twice. I think of the mother who lost her two sons in the rising flood waters of Sandy. As a parent myself, I can only grieve from a distance, only imagine the horror — the absolute abject horror — of trying to come to grips with that tragedy. But for the sake of her boys, if for no one else, she must live on, must see to it that, after a long and painful darkness, she forces herself to confront the light of another day.

God bless that woman and her husband, and may the sweet souls of her two boys be resting now in peace. The question most certainly cannot be “How could this have happened?” It must be, for the sake of Life, “How must I respond?” Life is fragile. We’re all just hanging on by a thread.

There are also times in life when things happen that you didn’t expect — a word gone awry, or a gesture misunderstood takes a turn you didn’t intend. At times like this, we shouldn’t to be too terribly surprised, either. Especially those moments between two people when all the tenuous strings that connect two souls are plucked at intervals that become dissonant. There’s no playbook for this sort of thing, no manual or guide. You fall back on the vagaries of wisdom and hope that for all your imperfections, you play mostly harmonies and melodies with those thrown into your path. And forgiven when you don’t.

In both big and small ways, with life’s unmitigated tragedies and unfortunate misunderstandings, we’re reminded again and again how fragile life is, how carefully we must tread through this maze of living. And this, I suspect, is why life is so precious, precisely because it’s so fragile.

We might be forgiven for assuming that, having made it this far, we’re indestructible, incomparably durable, masters of our destiny. But then that storm hits, or that letter comes, or that word is said, or that diagnosis is given, or that wrong turn is taken, and suddenly, things change in a flash. And when that happens, we shouldn’t be too terribly surprised. We may be the captains of our ships, but we are not the wind.

Such is life. Such is living. Welcome home.

Let Girls Be Girls

28 06 2013


The following excerpt from an article entitled “Emergency Contraception” by Eleanor j. Bade comes from an online journal called Z Magazine: The Spirit of Resistance Lives:

When Annie Tummino went on vacation two years ago, she forgot to take her birth control pills for several days. Despite three summers interning at the National Organization for Women (NOW) in New York and a post-college year as a counselor at Planned Parenthood of Western Massachusetts, she was terrified, desperate to get hold of the Morning After Pill (MAP).

“I was really freaking out,” Tummino recalls. “Luckily, when I looked online I found http://www.______.com, a hotline run by doctors. I contacted them and after a five- minute conversation with a counselor, they called in a prescription for Plan B Emergency Contraception [EC]. A few hours after contacting them, I went to the drug store, picked up two pills, and took them. I know I was lucky to get the pills, but it showed me how much crap and panic and how much rearranging of life goes on when the Morning After Pill is not available over the counter [OTC].”

At the time of her pregnancy scare, Tummino was already a seasoned activist. She had been involved in New York state NOW’s Reproductive Rights Task Force since 2003 and had participated in civil disobedience in support of OTC MAP access. Later, following leadership changes in NOW, she joined the Women’s Liberation Birth Control Project (WLBCP), part of the Morning After Pill Conspiracy.

Okay, so I have an almost 8-year old daughter. In just a few years, she will be at the age when puberty and adolescence begins, which is the point in everyone’s life when one’s body begins to outpace one’s judgment. Her body will be able to get pregnant long before her mind can even begin to appreciate the significance of sexual relationships. I’ll save you the suspense: I don’t think early teens should be having sex. Should this even be a debate?

So back to Ms. Tummino and her lack of birth control (or maybe just self-control). She obviously has zero qualms about having sex when and wherever she wants. But hey, it’s a free country, right? People can do whatever they want with their own bodies.  Adults are free to do what they want to do within certain legal limits, virtues and consequences be damned. BUT — and this is a big BUT — as a parent I sure as hell have a say over what my child is doing with her body. It’s called parenting. I try to be good about what my daughter eats by offering her healthy snacks and good meals, especially because, left to her own devices, she’d eat donuts and m&m’s all day. I also have a say over whether or not she spends hours watching TV or gets her homework done, or gets some exercise in the great outdoors, or practices her Tae Kwon Do or does her horseback riding lessons. But if Ms. Tummino and her colleagues at the Women’s Liberation Birth Control Project (sounds like they should be on some sort of watch list with a name like that) get their way, I’ll have a say over whether or not my daughter eats Nutter Butters before breakfast but will be legally barred from knowing whom she’s had sex with, consensual or not, or whether she may possibly be pregnant.

Okay, so what conceivable planet does that sound normal on? Since when is it okay to tell girls (note: not women, but girls) that they needn’t be under the authority of their parents, and that their bodies are their own to do with what they will? Since when is it NOT okay for parents to tell their tweens that they shouldn’t take drugs, or abuse alcohol, or pierce their tongues, or sleep around? Is the National Women’s Liberation (the organization behind legislation that would make it legal for any girl of any age to take the morning-after pill whenever they want to without knowledge of their parents) seriously advocating for girls’ “reproductive rights”?? Well, actually, yes:

Advocates for girls’ and women’s rights said Monday the federal government’s decision to comply with the judge’s ruling could be a move forward for “reproductive justice” if the FDA acts quickly and puts emergency contraception over the counter without restriction.

Annie Tummino, lead plaintiff in a lawsuit over unrestricted access to the morning-after pill and coordinator of the National Women’s Liberation, said women and girls should have “the absolute right to control our bodies without having to ask a doctor or a pharmacist for permission.

In early 2005 the Center for Reproductive Rights filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, and nine individuals from the Morning After Pill Conspiracy. The lawsuit seeks to make Plan B available over the counter for women of all ages…

This is true, Tummino states, regardless of whether the woman is a teenager, young adult, or middle-aged.

Note to Tummino: teenage girls ≠ adult women. And “women of all ages” means women, not girls, over the age of 18. And how about this euphemism: “reproductive justice.” Orwell couldn’t have come up with a creepier term. So now we have sexually liberated women with a completely jaundiced view of freedom fighting “on behalf” of little girls’ sexuality. Talk about the fox guarding the chicken coop.

Honestly, this world is getting crazier by the minute.

We have seen the enemy, and enemy is us. Do me a favor: let my daughter be a girl.

Life Tip #2: How to move from one column to another in Word

4 06 2013


Shift + Command + Return

That’s it. It’s that simple. You don’t need to make tables, insert columns, insert this and that, etc., etc… Why do all of these geeks who are online all the time make it so difficult for the rest of us who actually have lives? You should see the genius solutions these “experts” suggest for a simple question like that. Makes me wanna holler!

<sorry, just have to get these things off my chest from time to time…>

(Bonus life tip #3: If you want a ≠ sign, just type ALT + the equals sign.)

Okay, I feel better now.

The Shallows and the Deep: The Democratization of Truth

15 04 2013


I found myself in one of those awkward situations yesterday where I was leading a discussion that was getting sidetracked by sincere questions that I knew from experience would lead to nothing but a series of tangled dead-ends, all of which begin with the implied qualification, “For what it’s worth,” to which the answer in each case was, “Not much.”

Okay, let me get more specific. It was about evolution and whether humans are simply the product of natural selection, or whether, perhaps, there’s a little more to it than that, like… say… God.

(*Qualifier: I’m no fan of creationism or any other religious attempt to usurp the basic theory of evolution. Nor, however, do I buy into the naturalistic assumptions of Darwinian theory, given that I believe that somewhere along the path to full humanity, God saw fit to establish a loving relationship with his creation and did so by giving us spirits, which I consider to be a basic element of our humanity, and likely the place where our species began. How, when, and where, exactly, did he do this? Ummm… January 1st, 10,000 BC, 6am local time? Humans are irreducibly spiritual beings, which entails the simple fact that our core selves cannot be reduced to the effects of naturalistic evolution.)

Okay, right? So boring as hell, so pre-2008. But please note: this wasn’t a discussion at a local chapter of the Society of Skeptics. No, this was an after-church discussion group at my local parish made up of five people plus myself: three college students from the school where I teach, all of whom happen to be wicked smart and traditionally conservative believers (no, not an oxymoron); our priest; and a graduate student from Caltech. You get three guesses who my interlocutor was.

And no, it wasn’t my priest. Or my students.

Let me get specific-er. Caltech guy was saying (arguing) that 1.) the process of evolution in no way presumes that God could not be a part of such a process and that 2.) humans are in no way qualitatively different from other species of animals but only quantitatively so, due to the evolutionary advantage of coming late to the party called existence, which has the wonderful fringe benefit of a measurably larger prefrontal cortex. Ergo, there’s nothing terribly unique about us that can’t be traced back to the circumference of our brains.

I was saying (arguing) that 1.) the process of Darwinian naturalistic evolution, to which my Caltech friend was referring, actually does presume both that God is not a part of the process and that the totality of our existence can be explained by simple reference to naturalistic causes; and 2.) that contrary to this, I believe humans are qualitatively different from other species of animals due to the fact that we were created imago Dei and have thus been endowed with spirits, which I take to be an uncontested fact in a setting of Christian believers (the fact, that is, that we are bodies and spirits and not merely bodies).

Caltech guy was incredulous at this, “this” being my position that we are qualitatively different from other animals due to our being the only ones created in the image of God, a point which I take to be one of the least sexy points I’ve made in probably, oh, three or four years. He was incredulous not because what I was saying contradicted scripture, which it does not, but because it contradicted his view of evolution, which he takes to be a theologically value neutral proposition, which it is not. No matter that what I was saying is implied (or explicitly stated) from Genesis to Revelation, and that Jesus makes repeated assertions throughout the gospels of our being unique by dint of our unique relationship to God, or that Paul insists again and again on the ontological priority of the human-God relationship vis-a-vis the rest of creation (Martin Buber’s I/Thou idea). Is it even prudent at such a point to start trotting out texts that speak directly to this issue (Romans 8:29, 1 Cor. 11:7, 15:49, 2 Cor. 3:18, Colossians 3:10, etc.)?

Regarding the whole idea of the biblical meaning of imago Dei, I refer you to this careful study by John Piper:


A few years back I did a talk for a local church on the biblical evidence for animals having souls (nephesh in the Greek), which I gathered was a good enough reason to treat animals with respect and care, and I was practically run out of the church by my own species. My point then, as now, is that the bible makes distinctions between animals and humans, bodies, souls, and spirits; and this is but one reason why hard-core evolutionists have such trouble with the Christian position, because we insist there is a God in whose image we humans are created, which is a complete non-starter for them (and understandably so).

But it isn’t just our position anymore. Even among scientific ranks there is division. Ian Tattersall, paleontologist and curator emeritus with the American Muesum of Natural History in New York and a noted expert on evolution, has argued that humans represent a “totally unprecedented entity” on the planet, and that “Homo sapiens is not simply an improved version of its ancestors – it’s a new concept” (from his book Becoming Human: Evolution and Human Uniqueness, [1998]). It’s important to note that Tattersall is not coming from any particular religious perspective in saying this. He’s simply making the point that, scientifically speaking, “the notion of human evolution as being a linear trudge from primitivism to perfection is totally wrong” (from his Wikipedia page).

But back now to my Caltech interlocutor and our sabre rattling at yesterday’s church discussion. I found the whole give and take disheartening for a few reasons. First, I know precious little about what my Caltech friend is studying in the field of quantum mechanics, and given that he is the far more trained person than I in this area, I’d fully expect him to begin rolling his eyes if I started to put up too many objections if he happened to be leading a discussion on, say, whether light is a particle or a wave. So yesterday I tried to keep my comments civil and not roll my eyes as he continued to press me for answers to questions that, to be quite honest, betrayed any real familiarity with the issue beyond a casual grasp of basic concepts that could be gleaned from a close reading of one or two books on the subject. But secondly, and even more depressingly, was the tenor of his questions, the rank presumptuousness with which he questioned my position and the utter incredulity he expressed over rather basic and time-honored suggestions such as, for example, that human beings are unique in creation.

Why is it that when any topic related to theological concerns comes up, everyone thinks themselves an expert? Why? Because theology is, by design, accessible even to children. We begin asking deep theological questions at the age of five. The mistake comes in the presumption that its very accessibility allows anyone, regardless of training, to somehow master the more complicated ideas — which theologians have been thinking over and wrestling with for thousands of years — in a single afternoon’s discussion over Chinese food. It would be like my assuming I could question a physicist’s foundational assumptions about photons because I can wire a light switch.

This kind of presumption is rife in today’s know-it-all “scientistic” culture, where gigabytes of information can be gathered in a single minute’s Google search sweep. But information is not knowledge, and so the truth — of anything — is not subject to majority rule or the principles of democracy or the hegemony of the scientific method. There is nothing inherently democratic (or, for that matter scientific) about the truth. It is entirely autocratic, even despotic, it its exactitude, by which I mean that even though our knowledge of any truth may be partially or even entirely limited, the truth still stands on its own as is, willy-nilly. And yes, this means that I believe in objective truth. And for those who think this a trifle bit naïf, I offer this bit of wisdom from philosopher Roger Scruton who said, “The man who tells you truth doesn’t exist is inviting you not to believe him. So don’t.”

In our age of democratizing claims to truth, it seems that anyone can question anyone any time about anything. Self-critical scrutiny of one’s own position, on the other hand, is a scarce commodity. How sometimes I wish theology was not accessible to children. But then, what would it be? The provenance of scholars only? Indeed, St. Jerome was right when he said about scripture, which I extend here to the task of theology, that it is “shallow enough for a babe to come and drink without fear of drowning and deep enough for theologians to swim in without ever touching bottom.”

And, if I may add, deep enough for quantum physicists to drown in.

Trust vs. Mistrust: 0-18 months

8 04 2013

Papa Will Carrousel B

Fascinating to me that my son, almost 20 months old, has just gone through the first stage of development (according to Erik Erikson), Trust vs. Mistrust. What’s so fascinating — and poignant — is how a child at this (st)age has learned that the mother’s face is not always present, and so in a defensive posture, an ego is formed that separates the child from his environment so that the negation is manageable. The poignant part is how William is constantly repeating the names he’s come up with for his various caretakers other than Mommy: Poppy, Sissy, Ammi, Appa and so on, as if to say to himself and those around him, “Look, I have other people in the world, who I can count on one hand, who I can trust. Isn’t that great? Isn’t it? Isn’t it?” He says it almost in desperation, but also in celebration. It’s that tension we’re all familiar with, called being human.

It’s all a response to the loss of the Face, according to Jim Loder in his book “The Logic of Transformation.” Jim was my friend, professor, and mentor at Princeton Seminary, and my erstwhile spiritual guide. We met regularly over the course of 5-6 years and had many, many deep discussions about such matters, and I am forever indebted to him for making the whole business of parenting so much more interesting.

I remember the best piece of advice I ever got from Jim, which he said to a small group of us who were taking his doctoral seminar back in the early 90s. Never tell a child you love him or her after they’ve done something good, he told us. You can tell them you’re proud of them, Job well done!, etc, but never tell them at that point that you love them, lest they begin to believe that they are loved for what they do rather than for who they are. Instead, tell them you love them at the most innocuous moments, like when they’ve just walked in from the back yard to grab a snack, or when they’re ready to go to bed, or they’re in the back seat on the way home from your picking them up at school. If you do this, they’ll learn, slowly but surely, that they are loved for who they are.

In the end, isn’t that kind of what it’s all about? (And, I’m happy to say, Jenna and I have heeded that advice for both our daughter Belle, who is almost eight, and for Will.)

And so little William, having graduated from this first stage ready to be transformed but yet again into the image of Christ (the telios of all Christians), repeats over and over again the names of his ohana, of his peeps, somewhat in desperation but also in celebration out his growing sense of a growing reality. God bless that boy (and all little boys and girls at this stage in life). May little Will, as he moves through the years, be able to repeat those names in a growing sense of celebration, again and again, forever.