Tuesday, December 26, 2006

reaing 'the golden compass'

We're a small portion through "The Golden Compass," and I'm fascinated with just about every aspect of the book so far: not just the characterizations of Lyra, Asriel, the Master and others; but also with the imaginative setting he's created in Jordan College, a world where people's souls are visibly expressed outside their bodies; and the tremendously rich language, like alethiometer and anbarology.
Good book. Wish I could figure out what all the fuss is about.

the lost relic of calcata

I've heard of all sorts of holy relics before: the Shroud of Turin,  skeletal remains of one saint or another, splinters from the Holy Rood (enough  of them to make dozens of crosses), and so on.
Somehow it never occurred to me that anyone would claim to have the foreskin of Christ. Once you  accept that someone did, it only makes sense to think that the Vatican might have stolen it just to shut people up and get rid of the  embarassment.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

purpose-driven anger

I must be really slow on the uptake, but I finally realized tonight what I mislike so much about the Purpose-Driven books.
It's not the self-help aspect of it. Actually, that's the part that most makes it intimidating to criticize. As soon as you say something against a book like "The Prayer of Jabez," "40 Days of Purpose" or "The Purpose-Driven Life," a dozen people will spring up out of the woodwork to tell you how you don't understand, how you're being too hasty to judge the books, and how these volumes have revolutionized their spiritual lives. If the books really have had that tremendous an effect -- and I have to admit, I haven't seen any evidence to suggest they have, beyond mere anecdotes about personal internal spiritual states -- who am I to criticize or say that the books' proponents are misguided? More power to them.
It's also not the marketing aspect of it, although I have to admit that the stealth marketing of spiritual self-help books doesn't do anything to detract from the dislike and suspicion I heave their way. It seems like modern-day simony to beguile a pastor with hype about the latest big thing spiritually, into trying a sermon series that requires either the church or its parishoners to buy dozens of copies of a book.
And you'll note it's not just books like Rick Warren's bestseller doing this now. Last year, pastors could win $1,000 if they mentioned Disney's "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" during a sermon before the movie's release date. Earlier this year, there was a tremendous hoopla over programs and books churches could offer to counter the bad history and gnostic philosophy underlying "The Da Vinci Code," which of course benefitted tremendously from all the publicity.
No, here's what really bothers me about these books: They're a cheat. All too often they're the sort of Christianity that sticks around by shitting Hallmark cards in front of a live studio audience. They promise spiritual growth, expanded territory, righteous living and new purpose to life in five easy steps. "Experience a spiritual breakthrough in just under six weeks, or your money back!" Why bother wrestling with life's difficult problems, working through troubling passages of Scripture, or serious doubts about God's nature, character and existence? You don't need to follow God for years to develop spiritual discipline! Now you can do it in no time at all.
Eah. In other news, I've made six loaves of bread in the past two days to give to the girls' teachers for Christmas. I haven't made bread since I won a prize in the Cub Scouts bakeoff nearly thirty years ago, so it was actually kind of fun to do it again. We shaped the bread like teddy bears, in memory of that ancient bakeoff, and now that I'm out of yeast and flour but still have some buttermilk, I'm wondering how the bread tastes.
I guess I'll have to buy some more yeast and some more flour, and make some more today or Friday. Probably Friday. I have a school board meeting and a counseling session today.

hanukkah complications

If you're a Christian and you're thinking of adding Hanukkah to the holidays you celebrate, you might want to plan for a problem we ran into unexpectedly Wednesday night.
This is our third year celebrating Hanukkah, and overall it's been going more smoothly than ever. We've remembered to light the candles each night, we've been saying the appropriate prayer before we light the shamash, and the kids have been devouring the latkes like hotcakes. Each night, we've told the story of Judah the Maccabee and the legendary miracle of the oil, tied it into the coming of Christ, and the girls have remembered it in greater detail each time.
Still, we don't have it all down just yet. As Evangeline pointed out tonight with all the anger of Sally Brown on Halloween, if you're going to celebrate a holiday, you have do the whole thing. Unlike her best friend, who happens to be Jewish, Evangeline didn't get any presents for Hanukkah this year.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

media navel-gazing

ABC News recently had a news story about U.S. first lady Laura Bush being treated for skin cancer.

As I understand, a reporter noticed that she had had surgery on her leg, asked her about it, and discovered that the surgery had been to remove a cancerous mole. Not a particular big story, and apparently not one that the first lady had really pushed, since it's a fairly personal issue and not everyone (ahem) like to draw everyone in the world into their personal battles with cancer. Imagine that.

Still, she's first lady and therefore highly public, she got the treatment, and someone wrote a story on it. No big deal.

What was odd was that ABC News then did a story on the questions surrounding whether that reporter had made a private matter too public, and even was taking a poll of its online readers about whether the reporter had turned a personal matter into a public story needlessly. Geez guys, if you have to ask ...

A friend of mine complained that the media was being idiotic and too concerned with itself. Ah, how soon we forget. This was nothing.

The ultimate in media narcissism came back during Clinton's infamous Zippergate scandal. First came the tidal wave of coverage over the details of the scandal. Then came the surge of stories on how many media outlets were reporting all the salacious details. Lastly came an Associated Press story on how many media outlets were reporting on the oversaturation of news stories about the scandal.

The media can overdo their job, but that one really took the cake. I wish I were making it up.

Friday, December 15, 2006

happy hanukkah

It was a great evening, a holy evening, tonight. The girls loved hearing the story of Judah the Maccabee, they loved watching the flickering lights of the menorah.
Hanukkah is off to a great start.
Except ... the latkes I made came out green. Happy O'Hanukkah.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

what little girls are made of

I've heard a lot of weird things claims about what "makes" people gay.

The list has included a lack of sports, certain TV shows and movies, distant fathers, distant mothers, overly close fathers, overly close mothers, sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, no discipline, sexual curiosity and experimentation, overly strict religious upbringing, overly lax religious upbringing, genetics, environment, the erosion of traditional gender roles, exposure to Broadway music, participation in ballet, being a sensitive artistic sort, leg hair, and lack of friendships growing up.

Never have I heard someone pin it on diet. Until now.

Apparently, America's growing desire for health food is turning us into a soy bean Sodom.

You just can't make this stuff up.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

art at church

You know, I think my church is actually getting to the point that it's becoming some place neat to go on Sunday.

Don't get me wrong. It's been a good church for a while now. If it weren't, I don't think we'd have been going there for the past year-and-a-half or so that we've been attending. The worship always has been decent, if a trifle on the loud side; the preaching has almost always been pretty good to excellent; and the people have always been real, in our experience. It's a decent place to attend and be involved, and it reminds me in a lot of ways of the late, lamented Community Gospel Church, which was the last place we attended that we really enjoyed.

But The Point is becoming more than a good place to attend church. It's starting to become some place that's really interesting to go.

The big thing is the art. Actual art. Most churches I've attended the last 18 years or so paid lip service to art but didn't really embrace artistic expression unless it was "appropriate," which means that it's sanitized, prepackaged, not upsetting, not offensive, and is either by Thomas Kincade or is just otherwise uninteresting to look at or create. If it doesn't make people feel good about themselves and about Christ, it doesn't belong in church is the philosophy I think most churches operate on when it comes to art.

I've been pushing for more use of the arts at The Point, to the point that last year I convinced the leadership team it would be a good idea to create a worship station for a few weeks where people could come up and paint as much or as little as they wanted during the service. It was a neat idea, everyone agreed, but it didn't work well. About the only people to paint were the kids, and the pictures painted were (no joke) cute fluffy sheep, a cross or two, and something that might have been grass.

Back around Easter, they revisited the idea slightly by asking four different artists to paint whatever they wanted, on their own canvases, during the service. (Evangeline was one of the artists asked, which of course I enjoyed tremdously, as her father.)

The last few weeks, that sort of thing has been a fixture at both our downtown and suburban congregations. In addition to the band leading everyone in worship and the preacher doing his thing, there's been a painter working on a painting during the service, of paintings that were thematically related to the service but not explicity religious. This morning, when the sermon was about Hanukkah, a woman painted a cluster of candles. In the downtown service, for the theme of Hope, the artist painted a hand holding a winged sphere. ("Hope is that thing with feathers, as Emily Dickinson, although his finished painting looked something like a golden snitch from Harry Potter.) When the theme was Faith, the painting was of a blindfolded woman being led by the hand. And the paintings have been display on subsequent weeks.

Last week our downtown service included interpretive dance as part of the worship service.

The worship team, which has been a little too heavy on guitars -- three of them, to be specific, with two of them electrics -- for my taste, is branching out. The team at each congregation includes someone who provides vocals and vocals alone, and downtown the worship band now includes a flutist. As a result, the worship is being transformed.

I guess you can tell why I'm getting excited about this church. It's taking a step beyond what's traditional, what's expected -- or perhaps it's taken a step beyond what's expected, back to what's traditional, since the Church traditionally was the significant patron of the arts for the longest time.

And I'm seeing a church leadership that's willing to take risks. At the downtown service tonight, two other people and I delivered a sucker-punch drama that had everyone's full attention and provided a deeply attentive audience when the pastor got up to preach.

We're working through Advent right now, with the sermon this week on joy. Our drama began when Jonathan got up to read Luke's account of the angelic visitation to the shepherds. He had just read the point that the angels began singing their hosannas and Gloria-in-Excelsis-Deos when someone in the congregation snorted loudly and derisively, the sort of snort I've used once or twice when I heard a preacher claim that the book of Job mentions dinosaurs.

No one who wasn't in on the drama knew this was coming. For the next minute or so, everyone in the congregation had the look of the proverbial deer caught in the headlights as Glorianne talked about how uninvolved she was in worship, and that while it's a great story that angels came to shepherds at night, it doesn't really match her experience at all. Everyone was stunned, first at the impropriety of interrupting like that and then (from some of the expressions I saw) at her willingness to articulate something they all could relate to but would never think of sharing.

Following the script, but a little uncertainly because Glorianne hadn't given him the cues he had been expecting, Jonathan tried to explain something about the joy not being in angels' presence but in following God, and then I lit into him for throwing around the idea of joy when he has no idea what he's talking about, nor does just about anyone with our casual, drive-by Christmastime religion. And for a closer, we tied it all in to the poverty that's very real and very present in our city, and probably got the attention of the homeless people who come to our services each week.

(The associate pastor, knowing it was a drama, leaned over to the fellow next to him and said, "Boy, this is awkward." The other fellow nodded mutely, and said, strained, "You're telling me.")

It was a set-up, admittedly, a piece of experimental theater where the audience doesn't know where they end and the actors begin, but it had the effect we intended. The lead pastor started talking, and I think he did an excellent job addressing the issues we raised. Afterward, everyone was talking about the drama and what was said afterward.

Through our sucker-punch drama, we succeeded at doing something important. We spoke to people about real pain, real disappointment, real frustration, and then about real joy.

I love this church.

Friday, December 08, 2006

odd idea

It's cold, and the days grow darker, but we are well.
But still, I can't help but wonder: What if one of these years it actually didn't start getting brighter with the solistice, all because some pesky shamanistic priest somewhere forgot which day it was, or was at the hospital, and by the time he realized what had happened, things had gone too far for a simple ritual to fix.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

worst. hanukkah story. ever.

Yesterday I found what must be the worst Hanukkah story ever written -- worse even than "Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins."

Rachel and I were at the library yesterday, picking up the latest book for Niki's book club, returning some old books, and looking for a few new prizes. While Rachel busied herself first with picking out two new Christmas books that we could borrow, I headed over to the holiday section to see if I could locate any good Hanukkah storybooks. (You know that we celebrate Hanukkah, right?)

I wasn't expecting much in the way of bad stories. Hanukkah's picked up steam in America because of its proximity to Christmas, but most Hanukkah stories I've read have been either retellings of the story of Judah the Maccabee or they've been stories about how one person or another celebrated Hanukkah as a child, the personal sort of story that children enjoy hearing and that parents don't mind reading. Since the holiday hasn't been commercialized for that long, I didn't expect anything too hideous, say on the order of "Dora saves Christmas."

We found a couple of those -- one with a potato miracle that parallels the legendary miracle of the oil, and another about a child who comes to appreciate the beauty of her grandmother's homemade menorah -- but I was stunned when I found a Hanukkah story so bad that I think you'd have to be on LSD to enjoy it. (Appropriately, it was written in 1979.)

It's called "The Return of the Golem," a catchy enough title if you're familiar with the legend of the golem. If you're not, the golem was created in the Middle Ages to protect the Jews of Prague against a wave of persecution stemming from the blood libel that they were using the blood of Christian children to make their matzoh.

In this book, it's almost Hanukkah when children see a spaceship land just outside the village. A group of aliens gets out and soon are up to mischief. In no time at all, they head to the synagogue, where they throw books and push over chairs. They find the ark, remove the Torah and put out the eternal flame.

The children run to Rabbi Joseph to tell him what has happened. The rabbi exclaims, "This looks like a job for the golem!" At this point, I half-expected the rabbi to run into a phone booth and pull off his yarmulke to reveal the letters Aleph, Beth, Gimel and Daleth on his forehead, but instead he creates a golem by reciting the Hebrew alphabet. (That's now how it's done.) The golem chases away the aliens, and then goes haywire.

This was about the time I was too busy cracking up to read any more. I took the book up to the children's librarian, who is Jewish, and showed it to her. She read it in bewilderment and then declared, "We're throwing it out."

Still, I find comfort in this. If "The Return of the Golem" can be published, so can anything I write.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

letting the terrorists win

I did feel that one or two of the answer selections lacked proper nuance, but I'm sure you'll agree that this test still gauges the true levels of my patriotism quite accurately:
Your 'Do You Want the Terrorists to Win' Score: 94%

You are a terrorist-loving, Bush-bashing, "blame America first"-crowd traitor. You are in league with evil-doers who hate our freedoms. By all counts you are a liberal, and as such cleary desire the terrorists to succeed and impose their harsh theocratic restrictions on us all. You are fit to be hung for treason! Luckily George Bush is tapping your internet connection and is now aware of your thought-crime. Have a nice day.... in Guantanamo!

Do You Want the Terrorists to Win?
Quiz Created on GoToQuiz

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

post-rapture mail service

A friend of mine recently referred me to the Post-Rapture Post, a service that offers to deliver a message to your unsaved relatives when the Rapture comes and you are no longer available to point them toward Christ. It offers a wide range of messages, from personalized notes to simple premade cards that say "I told you so." It offers various Cafe Press sort of merchandise, and even a guide on how to navigate the difficulties of life now that the Great Tribulation has begun (an authentic Bible).

The site is absolutely stunning in the respectful way it goes about its business so quietly tongue-in-cheek. There are appropriate Scripture verses on every page, and down-to-earth explanations of basic Christian doctrine pertaining to salvation.

From the Post-Rapture Post's promotional material:

Just write your letter and it will be hand-delivered immediately following the exodus of the pure from the Earth. But you must be thinking to yourself, "How can the letters be delivered after the Rapture?" The answer is simple. The creators of this site are Atheists. That's right, we don't believe in God. How else would we be able to deliver your correspondence after the Rapture?"

I don't believe in the Rapture myself, so I suppose if I were to use the Rapture Post, my message might say something like, "Well, it looks my eschatology was wrong, but at least my theology was better than yours. Neener neener."

Be sure to check out their testimonials page.

the artist and colors

Last night at Evangeline's drop-in art class, one of the teachers and I were chatting, and I said that in a lot of ways, Evangeline is a teen already. She already has a lot of the agnst. So it shouldn't be a surprise that when the teacher asked her to name her favorite color, Evangeline said, simply, "Black."
"Why black?"
"That's just the way it is."

Saturday, December 02, 2006

christ the liberal

Behold, a story fom ABC News about whether efforts by some evangelicals to push their social action groups into dealing causes like global warming and poverty, which have greater meaning but less readily identifiable bogeymen than traditional evangelical causes like "Gays are corrupting our children" and "Abortion-rights advocates support murder!"

Not surprisingly, but still disappointly, those making these efforts are being pushed out of the organizations they're trying to take in new directions.

On the one hand, I admire the integrity of the fellow who resigned from the Christian Coalition when it became obvious that his broader goals didn't dovetail with their more narrowly defined agenda. And I agreed with the statement that anger and fear are more powerful motivators than compassion, which is why it's easier to raise the flag over gay marriage and abortion than over environmentalism and homelessness.

But I think the writer of the story, or the editor (or both) missed the point in this story, when it keeps talking about a divide among conservative Christians or conservative evangelicals. Hel-lo! The conservatives aren't split at all. The divide is between the Right and the Left in Christianity; the story is growing number of evangelicals and post-evangelicals who are identifying themselves with something other than the GOP; and it's the growing awareness of our responsibility to the whole message of Christ, not just to areas of morality that he never addressed himself.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006


I find myself wondering increasingly where I stand in terms of orthodoxy and wondering if I really care. Corporate worship for me for most of my Christian life has involved standing with my hands in my pockets wondering why I don't get anything out of it while virtually everyone else seems to be. Praying quite often has involved saying empty words into the air, wondering if anyone is there to hear. The Bible's got some great stories, but stuff like Judges 19-21 bothers the hell out of me, and I find myself wondering how I'm supposed to relate to a story that suggests God is OK with the mass abduction and rape of all these women.

Christianity's got bona fide spiritual roots, and they go deep, but the moral posturing of a lot of Christians, myself included; and the perversion of faith by evangelicals and fundamentalists to justify their ambition for power and control, to sanctify a desire to crush the spirits and lives of other people, and to grant their hate legitimacy; often makes me feel that we're no better than the radical Islamicists who beat women, strip them of their dignity and fly planes into buildings, all for the glory of God ... well, it makes me ashamed of the whole damn system, and I wonder why God doesn't just wipe us out. And then I wonder where I get this crazy idea sometimes that I'm fighting depression and
might need help.

I think of Soren Kierkegaard, too, and how he once wrote that faith is greatest when it's accompanied by overwhelming doubt, and I still feel like an idiot because, like Thomas Covenant, I don't believe, but I still do.

another world

I know nothing about art; je suis un Philistine.

For evidence, I submit the following: Tonight I was dazzled by the style of collage Evangeline art instructor showed her for the duck picture she's making. It involves cutting up a magazine into pieces of varying shapes and sizes and gluing them to the picture in lieu of coloring with traditional media. Evangeline said it's also called "magazine mosaic." (Evangeline had to drop her watercolors class owing to attitude problems at the end of the summer. She's now in a much-improved state, and we'll probably re-enroll next session. In the meantime, it's drop-in.)

Anyway, aside from this, the art instructor was trying to point me toward a painting of the Nativity by Titian that is associated with San Rocco, Italy. I (perhaps mistakenly) got the impression after a Google Images search tonight that I had found the piece she was talking about. Even if it's not, the piece I found is satisfactory for my twisted purposes -- if I can get it big enough. I want to make some Christmas cards around an idea I had last year, so I can guarantee my one-way trip to hell. Naturally, I've waited until very late again.

Double alas, even if I find the painting in an art book, my computer's speakers fell on my scanner a while ago and broke the glass plate. I'm hoping to replace the glass plate cheaply, but it'd probably be cheaper just to buy a new scanner.


In other news, I went to the therapist last week, and predictably, she wrote me a prescription for antidepressants at the end of the intial consultation. I said no thanks. She said, and probably with some reason, that if my depression worsens, I need to take the meds, although she claims to understand why I don't like that as my first solution. She actually seemed surprised when I said I was open to lifestyle and diet changes that would buoy my spirits.
Also of note: She said that the clinic has a number of patients who had their thyroids removed a year ago, and six months ago went through the radioiodine treatment that involved taking them off levothyroxin for six weeks. Going through that period where the body's energy supply dips lower and lower each day, where you get increasingly irritable and tired, and everything -- well, that apparently starts the ball rolling on depression. I'm not sure why -- it's not like I'm Frodo, yearning for the Ring and hoping to be reunited with the thyroid I destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom -- but she said it's the case.
So I'm now scheduled to meet with a regular therapist in the week between Christmas and New Year's. I was asked if I would prefer to meet with a man or a woman, said a woman, and then immediately thought to myself, "Hm.. what does that say about me?"
Oddly, the last several weeks I've been able to sleep just fine. Normally I suffer from insomnia, but apparently insomniacs start getting enough rest when they have depression. That makes it a tough trade-off, in some ways.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

war on thanksgiving redux

Here's a proactive approach to the decline of Thanksgiving as a national institution: sustainable agriculture.
Writing for Grist, Tom Philp discusses the growing trend toward prepackaged, ready-to-eat food and how it's eroding Thanksgiving, which traditionally has been America's premiere harvest festival and communal meal. It's true: With more of us than ever living in the cities, we have less connection than ever with food cultivation and harvest, and our familiarity with food preparation is also diminished.
The food industry caters to this by offering us meals ready to eat, and across the nation more people than ever will have professionally prepared Thanksgiving meals rather than one they made themselves; and, of course, the food industry eases the process of making these meals through poultry farms that churn out mass-produced turkeys in an endless stream of steroids and antibiotics. The genetic diversity of our livestock and our vegetables is going down the drain, and often the flavor goes with it.
Hence Philp's recommendation that we turn to sustainable agriculture to save the holiday. There are older "heirloom" breeds of turkey than those factory assembled by Butterball, and though they're rarer than their popular frozen cousins, often they have richer flavors than the bland fare we've grown accustomed to. Introducing guests and friends to these breeds -- and to the heirloom varieties of vegetables -- can be enough to raise the interest of others in these alternatives, and that in turn can fuel the market in sustainable agriculture.
I can attest to that personally. I'm not sure where I first tasted organic produce as an adult, but it was a homecoming for my tastebuds. I prefer to grow my own vegetables when I can, but if I have to buy them, I'll choose the organic varieties every time. The same is true of eggs and, when I've been able to find it cheaply enough, meat and poultry. I made a point this summer of visiting the farmer's market every Friday.
I wanted this Thanksgiving to find an heirloom turkey to serve my family and our guests. I didn't succeed at that, but I am going to serve homemade stuffing and gravy this year, rather than the stuff that comes from a box and a can, and I'm going to involve my children in the entire process.
That experience will renew the compact we have between ourselves and the land that provides our food, and among us ourselves. The time spent in deepening those connections will lead to a closer familial bond, and it will make us all more thankful for the things we have.

oh, good grief

Did you see the article on Christianity Today's web site about the supposed war on Thanksgiving?
If last year's histironics over the supposed war on Christmas weren't bad enough, now we're supposed to be panic-stricken that Madison Avenue is driving us to forget to be thankful in its push to sell Christmas loot. Sheesh. Hello? It's Madison Avenue. Of course they want to make a bigger buck, a faster buck, a greener buck, a more valuable buck, than they did last year. That's the nature of the beast, and the beast grows bigger because we keep feeding it.
It's really quite simple to stop the trend: Stop feeding it. Keep the Christmas spending in hand, don't go hog wild on the gift-giving -- I buy my kids two presents each, and my wife and I exchange one each, and we keep each store-bought gift down to $15 -- and we make a determined effort to keep Thanksgiving, Christmas and Hanukkah together, as a family. If Christians in America put half the effort into quietly keeping the holidays themselves that they did into screaming that everyone else is celebrating them wrong, we might actually see a redemptive influence on society.
Good grief. Enough with the war on this holiday or that one. I think God has enough dignity and glory that he's not going to be threatened by the self-indulgence and greed of a few overzealous capitalists.
I wish everyone would just get a grip.

Monday, November 13, 2006

i can relate

In me lived a sin
So strange, of such a kind, that all of pure,
Noble, and knightly in me twined and clung
Round that one sin, until the wholesome flower
And poisonous grew together, each as each,
Not to be pluck'd asunder; and when thy knights
Sware, I sware with them only in the hope
That could I touch or see the Holy Grail
They might be pluck'd asunder.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "Idylls of the King"
The Holy Grail, 769-777

Saturday, November 11, 2006

notes on joseph

I did a little study on Joseph recently for a dramatic monologue I was writing for church. Some notes I made:
  • Joseph was about 16 or 17 when he was sold into slavery. Benjamin was only 2 or 3.
  • By the time he became lord of Egypt under Pharaoh, Joseph was 30. Another eight years went by before the onset of the famine, when his ten brothers came to buy food.
  • In the 22 years that went by before Joseph's birth, he went from being a gangling youth to a full-grown man. His brothers also would have aged — giving them grayer hair, increased girth, and more lines in their faces — but their essential appearance is unlikely to have changed substantially, which is why he recognized them, but they didn't recognize him. Plus he wouldn't have worn a beard in the Hebrew manner, was dressed like a Middle Kingdom Egyptian (Hyskos), spoke to them through an interpreter, and ate separately from them, as an Egyptian would have done. Also, he was known as Zaphenath-Paneah — not exactly a Hebraic name like Yusef.
  • Benjamin is the first to realize that Joseph is telling the truth. I doubt he remembers Joseph all that much, given his age at the time of Joseph's disappearance, but as the two of them are full brothers, sons not only of Jacob but of Rachel as well, he probably sees similarities in their facial features, builds and personal mannerisms that lend credibility to Joseph's incredible story.
  • I can only imagine the unnatural fear that must have fallen on the brothers when they were seated in order not of height, but of age. They had to know something was afoot — there was no way a stranger could know their ages, nor could such an arrangement happen purely by chance — but there was no reasonable explanation for what was going on. I rather imagine that this put them so on edge that they must have been in absolute dread of the other shoe falling. And then to have the affair with the silver drinking cup ...

schoolhouse rock

I just know there's a full-length parody in here:
He cut short his objections
With a lethal injection,
Now the ACLU's shouting some interjections!
[What the hell!?]

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

treating depression

Finding a therapist is a bit like playing Russian roulette: You don't know if you've found the right one until after you pull the trigger.

I chose a fairly large practice within walking distance from the house, figuring it'd save gas and it would be easy to run away if I had made a bad choice. Unfortunately, after I had gone through the entire process on the phone of registering, explaining my problem in triplicate, and assuring them that I was not about to kill myself, I found out that no one at that office takes my insurance. So rather than go through the whole process all over again, I'm going to their other office, which is about 10 or 15 minutes away by car. At least gas has dropped $1 a gallon in the last few months.

My mood has brightened somewhat the past week or so, perhaps because Rachel and I've been walking over to Evangeline's school in the afternoons to pick her up, giving us a 3-mile walk four days a week with plenty of sunshine, or perhaps for some other reason. This brightened mood seems to have helped Evangeline, as well; she's been in a black mood a lot lately, and I suspect that part of it is due to me. No one suffers from depression alone, I've noticed. It's an emotional vacuum that pulls everyone around down as well.My own unmotivatedness lingers, however, in various forms.

Monday, November 06, 2006


From mid-1994 up until late 1996 or early 1997, I was active in the children's ministry at Ashton Assembly of God. Heading the ministry was Carrie Sweeney, who had grown up in the church and recently had graduated from Bible college.
Carrie was impressed with my knowledge of Scripture, doctrine and church tradition; she was impressed that I had been a missionary; and she was really impressed by my creative prowess, which involved writing the curriculum for at least two (maybe three) sessions by myself or in tandem with her.
But at the same time, Carrie couldn't understand why I would presume to teach children's church without ever having spoken in tongues myself. She couldn't understand why I saw nothing wrong with Spider-man (after all, she said, he walks on walls!) or even with Santa Claus, and was in complete disagreement when it came to my frequent disdain for the Christian subculture.
She loved Frank Peretti's "Darkness" novels, and I thought they were crap. When she told me how much she hated "The Oath," in part because it had a dragon, I told her I valued her recommendation, and immediately went out and bought a copy on sale at the Evil Bible Bookstore. It was a page-turner, and easily his best work to date. When I told I had thought it was pretty good, she laughed and shook her head.
The last two falls I was there, Ashton Assembly of God hosted hell houses, and urged members to invite their non-Christian friends, neighbors and relatives to them. I helped run children's activities that had nothing to do with hell houses, and made fun of the hell houses mercilessly. (For instance: "Invite your non-Christian friends, neighbors and relatives! They won't become Christians, but at least they'll stop talking to you.") Carrie of course disagreed, and I usually let it go.
I finally left Ashton Assembly of God at the end of 1996 when it became obvious that the church and I viewed the faith from essentially incompatible places -- I prefer to scrutinize church practice in light of established revelation, while the church was big on experience and urged critical thinkers of myself to stop questioning and just "have faith"-- and because of various other things, like the pastor's fixation on money.
Still, the church and the denomination continue to hold a place in my heart, and I remember people like Carrie fondly, even though I'm sure I bewildered the heck out of them.

childhood nightmare

Last night I discovered the source of one of my worst nightmares as a child.
When I was 5 or 6, I had a dream one night that my family was sitting around the table at dinnertime, when I asked a question. My question was directed at my father, but it was my oldest brother, Brian, who answered, by standing up, beginning to sing, and dancing his way sideways out to the kitchen. An instant later, he came back into the dining room, still dancing, holding and waving the sort of cheap hat we associate with ragtime numbers. Gone were his flesh, his muscles, and all his internal organs. He was a skeleton, plain and simple.
I woke up screaming, frightened so badly that I started throwing up on my pillow. Thirty years have gone by, and although I laugh instead of screaming when I remember the dream, it's as vivid now as when I first had it.
Last night, I put Rachel's "Schoolhouse Rock" DVD on -- given to her, ironically, by her Uncle Brian -- and watched, stunned, as the number "Bones" came on. Before my amazed eyes, a troupe of skeletons danced and sang about human anatomy. They had the same hats as in my dream. They danced the same way as in my dream. And they started all this by jumping out of people's skin.
Schoolhouse Rocky was supposed to reach us about science, math, grammar and social studies. And now I find instead that he taught me the meaning of fear.


I about cried when I read this in the newspaper yesterday. It's written by Taha Muhammad Ali, a Palestinian who fled from Galilee to Lebanon with his family in 1948, when their village came under heavy bombardment during the Israeli-Arab war. He slipped back across the border a year later, and now lives in Nazareth, where he writes poetry and runs a souvenir shop.
By Taha Muhammad Ali
At times ... I wish
I could meet in a duel
the man who killed my father
and razed our home,
expelling me
into a narrow country.
And if he killed me,
I'd rest at last,
and if I were ready —
I would take my revenge!

But if it came to light,
when my rival appeared,
that he had a mother
waiting for him,
or a father who'd put
his right hand over
the heart's place in his chest
whenever his son was late
even by just a quarter-hour
for a meeting they'd set —
then I would not kill him,
even if I could.

Likewise ... I
would not murder him
if it were soon made clear
that he had a brother or sisters
who loved him and constantly longed to see him.
Or if he had a wife to greet him
and children who
couldn't bear his absence
and whom his gifts would thrill.
Or if he had
friends or companions,
neighbors he knew
or allies from prison
or a hospital room,
or classmates from his school...
asking about him
and sending him regards.

But if he turned
out to be on his own —
cut off like a branch from a tree —
without mother or father,
with neither a brother nor sister,
wifeless, without a child,
and without kin or neighbors or friends,
colleagues or companions,
then I'd add not a thing to his pain
within that aloneness —
not the torment of death,
and not the sorrow of passing away.
Instead I'd be content
to ignore him when I passed him by
on the street — as I
convinced myself
that paying him no attention
in itself was a kind of revenge.
The paper notes that when he read his poem at the Dodge Poetry Festival in The Highlands of New Jersey, a crowd of 2,000 spontaneously rose to its feet and started applauding, and "when the time came for it to taper down, it didn't. We clapped on and on, as if we wished the sounds of our hands could carry the spirit of this man and the power of poetry out beyond Waterloo Village and into a fractured world."
The columnist notes: "I thought to myself, not for the first time, that art may save us yet."

Saturday, November 04, 2006

scorched earth

Wondering about the long-term benefit of contemporary politicking? Check out this recent op-ed piece from the Dallas News.

The editorial is by Frank Schaeffer, a longtime Republican and the son of Francis Schaeffer, one of the best-known Christian intellectuals of the 20th century. In the editorial, Schaeffer describes an e-mail he recently received urging voters to re-elect Sen. George Allen, R-Va., on the grounds that his Democratic opponent, Jim Webb, writes "sleazy novels" that indicate he's probably a closet pedophile.

Got that? It's not because Allen has done a great job representing the state, not because he's spearheaded important policy or legislation, not because he's a man of impeccable integrity, but because his opponent wrote "Fields of Fire," which includes as characters two sexually active teens.

I'll be first to admit that I haven't read Webb's novel, so I have no idea what the purportedly salacious details really are. But for Schaeffer, the e-mail was the proverbial last straw. According to his column, he and his wife have decided to change their registration from Republican to independent, ending a longstanding affiliation that included personal correspondence with the Bushes and visits to the White House under Ford, Reagan and Bush the elder.

Politics has been getting progressively uglier the longer I've paid attention to it. Walter Mondale was chided in 1984 for classless remarks over Reagan's age. In the years since, which have included the thoroughly racist Willie Horton ads used against Michael Dukakis in 1988, Bush the Elder calling Clinton a bozo in 1992, the demonization of Hillary Rodham Clinton, the attacks on Bush's intelligence and the character assassination of John Kerry two years ago. Today Mondale's remarks wouldn't even register, except to note that he was being unusually polite.

New Jersey is in the midst of a senatorial campaign where the GOP challenger, Tom Kean Jr., essentially has done nothing but scream that his opponent is corrupt, without providing any evidence for that claim. In one of the more bizarre twists, Kean tried to link Sen. Robert Menendez to a corrupt party boss Menendez helped to put behind bars twenty years ago. ("And his principled stand then just shows what a conniving, unethical bastard Bob Menendez is today.")

Politicians today are doing little more than appealing to our baser emotions to win election. GWB cashes in on fear, telling everyone, "We're the ones who will keep you safe. If you elect the Democrats, you might as well crash airplanes into buildings yourself."

Others try to cash in on a sense of moral outrage, over the Foley scandal or a congressman's less sensational peccadilloes, or they make an issue of the access lobbyists and special interest groups have to one party (while conveniently ignoring identical practices on their own side of the partisan fence).

Compare that to some of the great leaders we had in the past, who inspired us to nobility and virtue. There was Franklin "We have nothing to fear but fear itself" Roosevelt, who gave people hope during the Great Depression, and who spoke with such confidence, directness and honesty during his radio broadcast fireside chats that people started putting their money back into banks. Or Lincoln, who pulled the nation through the bloodiest period in its history, and reunited it against all odds, hope or expectation. Or Kennedy, who inspired people to look for ways that they could contribute to America.

I ran for the school board recently, and it occurred to me while I was delivering my speech to the school membership that if I lost, it wouldn't bother me a bit. My attitude was that I wanted to serve the school, and if I lost, the board members who were elected would do an excellent job, and I could serve the school in other ways.

For most politicians I see today, even at the local level (and definitely higher up), serving isn't their goal. It's power. That's why campaigns get so brutal and nasty, and why everyone votes in lockstep with their party. The goal isn't to serve the public anymore, except in name only. It's to retain and expand power, no matter what.

Sadly, this holds true for much of the church in America today as well. Men like James Dobson and Jerry Falwell, who have amassed great influence because of their prominence in the evangelical fold, can light up the Washington switchboards by the power of their broadcasts. All they have to do is say that the family is under attack from homosexuals, invoke our fear for our children's safety at school, or stoke the "righteous anger" over threats to homeschooling or other popular causes, and millions are galvanized into action.

And, to cite the recently ended season, is it any surprise that evangelicals so often get in an uproar over Halloween, even though the fears of out-of-control Satanism, witchcraft and occultism are virtually all manufactured? Fear, as Ebenezer Scrooge will attest, can be a powerful motivator for change.

I'm tired of being told to hate, and I'm tired of being told whom I should be afraid of. I don't want a spirituality or a political philosophy that appeals to my baser nature, and I don't want leaders like that either.

Maybe it's time we stopped scorching the earth and started reaching for the heavens.

Copyright © 2006 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Friday, November 03, 2006

tithing and economics

If I were working on a doctoral dissertation for seminary, I think I'd be interested in studying the economics of tithing.

Tithing is one of those topics that makes everybody uncomfortable, myself included. Even if you can shut out your memories of the faith-exploiting swindlers of the 1980s and the new crop of prosperity-driven televangelists today, it's still an uncomfortable feeling to have preachers more concerned with the contents of your wallet than with remedying social ills like racism, greed, debt, pollution and the disappearance of ethics from public life.

Personally, I'm not too big on tithing as a requirement for the Christian life. As instituted in the Tanakh, tithing was a system of taxation meant to support the Levitical priesthood. Popular sermons aside, I'm not inclined to believe that tithing is a requirement for 21st-century Christians. The legal emphasis on giving 10 percent goes against the grain of a grace-driven gospel.

What I understand God expects of us in terms of finances is to give — generously, sacrificially, and to those we meet who are in need. Sometimes that means buying food for beggars and helping someone pay the rent so they can keep their home, and sometimes it means giving money to the church to support its ministries.

There's a strong biblical precedent for preachers having a regular job to pay their bills — the Apostle Paul worked as a tentmaker so that he would not be an imposition upon anymore — but ministry often is a vocational thing these days. Hence the push from plenty of preachers to give a tenth of all the money earned.

(I regret to say I had a pastor once who wrote a distributed an eight-page booklet on how to be sure you were tithing the right amount. In it he addressed issues like whether to gross on net or gross pay, your tax refund, and gifts; and how to calculate your tithe if you were self-employed and made quarterly earning estimates. Not surprisingly, he had a prosperity bent and was always complaining that he didn't earn enough, even though he had a bigger house and was paid more than his predecessor.)

Still, whenever the subject comes up, someone invariably cites Malachi 3:8-12 as a promise that God blesses people who tithe; and there are always compelling anecdotes about people who began tithing and found all their needs met, and about impoverished churches that started making tithing a priority, and found that the wealth of the entire church increased, from individual congregants to the entire body.

I hate this kind of thing, partly because it's greed-driven (Give to God, and he'll bless you); partly because it suggests that God is some sort of cosmic bean counter who sees everything in economic terms, like an all-powerful Marxist; and mostly because it suggests that God's favor is earned rather than given.

Even so, I can see some of the mechanics to this sort of consequence to tithing.

First, look at the immediate effect tithing has upon a person. Setting aside a tenth of your income requires budgeting and financial responsibility. You no longer have as much disposable income, and as a result have to rank expenditures based on necessity. And once that first financial step has been put in place, it can lead to greater responsibility in other areas, such as building short- and long-term savings.

A more important benefit, though, is that tithing widens a person's perspective and helps them to discover the big picture. If you're giving $4,000 a year to your church, you're going to want to know what the church is spending it on. And if your church actually has a focus on the Kingdom of God and spends money in the community around it, instead of pouring it all into the building fund, utilities and staff salaries, that can lead members to discover things like the soup kitchen downtown, the shelter for abused women, or the literacy program, and those discoveries in turn can lead the church members to greater compassion and involvement in their community and its needs. (How much that actually happens is another matter, but I'm no one's idiot. I'm sure it happens a lot less than it should, particularly among suburban churches.)

Beyond that, tithing has an economic impact on the community as a whole. If a church has fifty adult members, earning an average salary of $50,000, the church's total donations will hit $250,000 a year, assuming everyone is giving a tenth of their income to the church.

That is, I realize, an enormous assumption in this day and age, since giving in the "good old days" was closer to two or three percent than to 10, but it's a stunning thought. An annual income of $50,000 is fairly average for professional America, and 50 members is a fairly average size congregation, but if each member is practicing a 10 percent tithe, they'll be generating roughly a quarter-million dollars every year.

And this is where the fun begins. In a healthy church, that money's not going to go into junk like a coffee bar, an oversize gymnasium with regulation basketball courts, and everything else that megachurches are notorious for. It's going to be headed back into the community.

Some of the money is going to provide the church with a place to meet. If the church is paying a mortgage, the money goes to the bank — preferably one based in the community and not a nationally owned bank — and the bank in turn invests the money in other businesses around town, though loans, mortgages and so on. If the church rents its meeting space from a school, the American Legion, or someone else with a large enough room for the congregation, that organization turns the money around some more, either to stay in the black and manage its utility bills and employee salaries; to undertake a renovation, maintenance or expansion project; to invest its capital; or just to put more profit in the pockets of the owners. No matter where that money goes, though, it's going back into the local economy.

The church may pay its pastor; but even if it doesn't, almost all churches of any size have an office with a paid secretary, and have some sort of regular operating costs, such as the cost of church bulletins, if nothing else. The money flows through there, too; the pastor and secretary's salaries presumably support their families, who spend their money in the area. Buying church bulletins and other resources sends other money into the revenue stream at local businesses.

And the best churches aren't just open for business on Sunday mornings. They do things in their community: providing food for area soup kitchens, giving abused women shelter, helping the destitute get back on their feet, rescuing people from addiction, and providing support when people are in need. I've read of a few churches that even provide grants to start-up businesses, finance job training, and manage low-income housing.

All those programs involve creating jobs, whether for administration or counseling, and they all work on a trickle-up principle that improves the entire community by helping people on the lowest rungs of the economy. The money people donate to the church is returned to the community through programs that give the money to people who are going to spend it immediately, and keep it in circulation.

I don't know about you, but that sounds to me like one heck of a proposal for an economic stimulus package, if only more people would get in on it.

Monday, October 30, 2006

halloween thoughts

In its classic pagan origins, Samhain is a day filled with meaning that finds its ultimate fulfillment in Christ.

At its simplest, Samhain was a celebration of community, a celebration that included members of the community both living and dead. I see in that a shadow of the communion we have in Christ, not just with believers around the world today, but with the entire church triumphant, which spans not only space but time as well. If Christ is the Resurrection and the Life, as he himself attests, our communion includes believers who have died over the two millenia since Christ, and those who awaited his coming.

Jack-o'-lanterns (originally carved in turnips or other similarly sized Old World vegetables) were meant as a ward against evil spirits. As I explained to Rachel today -- and as Evangeline chimed in, since she's familiar with my thinking -- Christ is the one who puts evil spirits to flight, once and for all. So when we carve a jack-o'-lantern, we do it as a statement of faith that Christ has defeated Satan, that Light has triumphed over darkness, and even though autumn is the dying season, we have no need to fear death.

The druids also wore costumes to lead evil spirits away from the towns and villages -- a commendable willingness to embrace self-sacrifice if needed -- by appearing in their costumes to be something other than what they were. And as my girls see it, the Halloween costume functions on two levels: one, it's a game of Let's Pretend, where they look like a witch, Spider-man, or Buzz Lightyear; but two, when we put on acts of righteousness, or we garb ourselves in Christ, God looks at us and sees only his son and his righteousness, not our sins.

Trick-or-treating? The Celts would leave offerings of food and drink out for the spirits of their departed loved ones, to make them feel welcome. Practically speaking, this was a way of ensuring that the needier members of the community would have food and drink in the coming weeks. I hope to perpetuate that attitude in later years by taking the girls to Elijah's Promise when Halloween isn't on a school night; in the meantime, I also remind that that the search for candy brings fleeting pleasure, but the search for Truth brings lasting joy.

Like any of our other holiday traditions, there is no meaning intrinsic in our Halloween customs beyond what we give them. I really don't understand why evangelicals prefer to live in fear that having fun trick-or-treating or carving faces in a pumpkin is going to set their children on the road to perdition.

At their simplest and most basic, these are harmless and essentially fun distractions when the weather starts getting cold; but when we take the same attitude toward them that Paul took toward actual idolatry on Mars Hill, we can find ourselves involved in the community surrounding us rather than deliberately isolated from it, and we can teach our children some valuable spiritual lessons that will serve them in good stead in situations that have nothing to do with a Superman costume.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Doing the math and getting the social nature of relationships

I never thought of it this way before, but love is actually pretty mathematical.

Picture the beginning where boy meets girl. We'll call this Point A. A little over the X-axis and a little farther up on the Y-axis is when they fall in love. We'll call this Point B. A little more to the right, a little farther up, they get serious and become a couple.

Once you calculate the slope, you can find other points on the line: the first time they kiss, when they meet one another's parents, when they marry and so on. It's so simple and so straightforward, it's a linear progression,

It was like that for me and my wife. We met Homecoming weekend at my alma mater in fall 1994, a little more than two years after I had graduated. Point A.

We bumped into each other a few more times over the course of the school year, mostly because I lived in the city where the college was located, and the following June our relationship had its proper beginning as a romantic one. Point B. Three years later we married, and now here we are.

Of course it's not that simple. I never realized just what into forming that linear progression until a friend of mine spelled it out recently, My friend Liadan is gay, and only recently found a romantic partner. Here are her observations:
Before all this happened, I had no idea that relationships between two people would involve so much strategy and networking on the part of so many other people. It struck me during all this how... social dating is. It's not just about the two people involved; all these social connections are intertwined based on who knows who and what their relation to each other is. It's hard for me to conceptualize, being someone who builds friendships one by one, but there it is in all its six-degrees-of-separation glory: society.

In this sense, gay marriage bans can be constructed as an attempt to exclude gay people and their relationships from the community, partly to delegitimize them, since relationships outside the general social network and the auspices of legal obligation can be seen as less "real", and partly to make it harder for them to exist at all-- I wouldn't have known Iris even existed were it not for the people I knew that did know her, and it wouldn't have gotten to even this tentative stage were it not for the encouragement and social support of my friends. (I was frequently threatened with bodily harm for being
waffly on sending the invitations.)

I didn't meet the woman who would be my wife until I was 24. During the long years before then, people reassured me I just hadn't met the right woman yet, and obviously that's true. I just never considered the social network that was required for meeting her.

Let's break this down. I didn't just happen to be at my alma mater that Homecoming weekend. I was there specifically because of social connections I had made in college that I was planning to draw on that evening. I was visiting a chapter meeting of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students because of a social network I had built in college. When none of the people I knew arrived, I stuck around because of a tenuous relationship I'd established with one student who was there.

Secondly, I continued to return to campus that academic year because of the ties I had there as an alumnus and as a former member of a social organization on campus. In fact it was because of Kirby House that I returned to campus as often as I did, and continued to come into contact with Natasha, who was friends with two of the new Kirbs I had met independently and hit it off with.

The third point of contact was an explicitly social event, organized by an acquaintance of mine who invited me. Her roommate was friends with Natasha, and invited her. And lastly of course a friend of mine pushed me to take the risk and ask her on a date.

It was this vast web of social contacts that made our relationship possible, a web where heterosexual relationships are accepted as the norm. We didn't just meet and become attached. We had a social network facilitating the relatonship at every step of the way, deliberately or not, and providing us with repeated opportunities to interact and then to pursue a romantic relationship with one another.

And realizing all the advantages that even I had at my disposal for finding a romantic life partner, I suddenly have a sense of what the absence of such a network would mean to a gay person like Liadan.

Liadan has a network of friends, but in networks where being gay is considered abnormal, immoral or weird, finding someone to be with can be a problem. People who assume that you're straight won't make a point of introducing you to their single gay friend whom they also assume is straight.

Thanks to hurtful stereotypes of gays, in fact, they might not introduce you to anyone, if they do find out that you're gay. They may even stop seeing you and either cut you out of their circle of friends, or encourage others to cut you out as well. The effect is to leave the gay person isolated and removed from the social networks that people rely on for regular day-to-day living and company.

The odds of finding a partner were in my favor just by the numbers. It's socially expected to be straight and it's also more common. Only about 6 percent of the population is gay, which means that of 100 hundred people I might have in my extended network, about 47 of them are going to be heterosexual women. In a population that same size, Liadan might have found three gay women, including the possibility that some or all of them remain in the closet.

That crowd will shrink a bit once we eliminate women who already are in relationships, but it still easily may end in the teens or twenties. Pairing off with one of them doesn't end the social network. If anything, it brings it together as two formerly separate groups grow increasingly intertwined as they interact with the new couple.

Liadan's potential matches easily could drop from three to zero. If she connects with someone and word gets out that they're a couple, their social network could grow closer. In more conservative areas, the trend is for it to get smaller as people cut off contact with them.

Now there are social networks and structures intended specifically for gays to meet one another and to socialize, but they exist as a subculture that the larger society often considers deviant and unhealthy. Until the 1970s they were illegal, and even now they may still be targeted for other social ills like drug use, depending on the biases of the police and the community.

The single gay or lesbian can look for a partner at gay bars, gay clubs or other establishments aimed at the LGBTQ community, but there are risks even without raids. If a single gay person is still in the closet, she can run afoul of her community's censure and disapproval once she is seen at a gay-friendly establishment. She could lose family, friends, social outlets like church and even her job, since many states offer no protection against wrongful termination for gay workers.

There's also an increased risk of abuse or being played. When I called Natasha and even when I first met her, there were other people around who knew her and who would watch out for her interests. Until she felt comfortable with me, there were a dozen people or more whom she could call and check with to see if I was safe or had a bad reputation. A person entering a gay bar, or visiting a club often is going to lack those resources.

In other words, not only do our social norms make it harder for gays and lesbians to find partners, we push them to find alternatives that aren't as safe, and then punish them heavily if they find a way to balance the scales. By getting together with someone they love, they risk losing social standing, good-paying jobs and the relationships they've had their whole lives with church, with family and with friends.

And the message from the churches that push this sort of ostracism is "We're doing it because we love you."

I don't know how we live with ourselves.

Copyright © 2006 by David Learn. Used with permission.

it's official

I've been elected to the school board of trustees.
Now I get to get up to snuff on school financing, attend a host of training workshops and seminars, attend monthly meetings that run to the point of boredom, listen to other parents complain about the school.
It's already started as I'm helping on short notice to publicize a visit the school is having from educators from South Africa.

school board

The speech I gave last night at the Gary Barker Charter School membership meeting, on why I should be elected to the school board:
Buenas noches and good evening. [That opener got a huge appreciative chuckle from the membership, which is at least 50 percent Hispanic.] My name is David Learn, and I'm running for the school board because I'm a believer.

I'm a believer in education. I taught middle school in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and in Pennsylvania; and when my daughter missed the cutoff date for kindergarten in her district, I homeschooled her for a year rather than waste twelve months, when she was already eager to learn to read and to discover the world around her.

I'm a believer in charter schools. With their innovations in education, charter schools lead students to see the real-life value in their lessons, and they give children work that matches their ability levels, rather than leaving them frustrated or bored. Thanks to the pioneering efforts of charter schools like ours, our children are making education a lifetime journey through wonder and discovery, rather than the dreary ho-hum of one-size-fits-all schooling and the tedium of low expectations. Our public school system is better, our communities are stronger, and our state is richer, because of charter schools like this one.

And I'm a believer in Gary Barker. My older daughter is a second-grader here. I've been impressed by the commitment of her teachers to see her reach her potential, and I've been impressed by all that they've done to keep her work challenging and at her interest level. In the time that Evangeline has been a student here, I've been a regular volunteer at the school. I've helped to lead a Girl Scout troop, I've worked with students on their reading and math skills, and last year I read poetry by Edgar Allen Poe to the middle-schoolers. My daughter's teacher no longer asks me to volunteer for school activities; she takes it as a given that I'll be there.

Being on the school board of trustees simply would be the culmination of that volunteer effort. I'm under no illusions; I realize that if you elect me tonight, you'll be entrusting me to something a lot weightier than showing up this Saturday for a few hours to add a new flower bed to help improve the school grounds. It's a job that will require a hefty commitment of time and energy, and it carries with it the heavy responsibility of ensuring that all our children get the high standard of education we expect the school to provide.

I don’t have an agenda that I'm setting out to accomplish if I'm elected to the board, except for this: I want our school to be the best it can be, to deliver the best education it can, in the best environment possible. If you place your trust in me and elect me to the board, I'll pursue that agenda with everything I have.

Because I'm a believer.

I thought my speech was well received; the highest praise I got was from a student I passed on my way to the bathroom, who remarked, "Nice speech." My wife told me I was one of the few candidates who actually could be heard in the back, even with the microphone, and she figures that alone will garner me a number of votes.

I won't know the results until at least tomorrow, I think. There were six seats open, with a total eleven candidates running. On the other hand, I've been down at the school so often volunteering that people I don't recognize call me by name. I also learned from Evangeline's teacher that a number of the teachers were discussing my candidacy yesterday evening, in a generally positive way. Certainly a number of them wished me well. So I probably won, and I'm not sure whether that's a good thing or a bad one.

Evangeline told me a few times that she hopes I lost. I realized this morning that she's probably serious, so I'll have to find out why.

Monday, October 23, 2006

bible first draft

Here's a piece a close personal friend and I wrote for the Wittenburg Door. Sadly, although the editor liked it, he declined the chance to publish it. Fair enough, I suppose; Bible "revisions" aren't the most original concept ever come up with. But that does mean I can post it here:

A recent inventory of the Vatican library has turned up what scholars believe may be the none other than Autographs, the original biblical manuscripts. Even a cursory review reveals that the Bible may have undergone extensive peer editing and revision on its way toward the familiar King James text.

Among the differences in the so-called "first draft" of the Bible:

1. Adam and Eve's lawyer gets a court order to delay their eviction from Eden, citing tenant's rights.
2. When Judas returns from meeting with Caiaphas, Jesus offers to double whatever they're paying him, to keep his loyalty.
3. After his affair with Bathsheeba breaks into the open, David releases a statement saying he feels "honored" to have been the object of God's wrath and is sure the people of Israel are also uplifted by recent events.
4. When Solomon orders that the baby be cut in half, both mothers shrug and say, 'Well, I guess we're both all right with that."
5. Elisha kills Elijah and burns the body, claiming the old prophet's mantle and "double portion" for his own. (And if anyone asks, he plans to stick with the old "a fiery chariot took my master to heaven" alibi.)
6. The whale spits Jonah out of his mouth because the old man hasn't taken a bath in weeks.
7. After destroying Sodom, God waits a few days to destroy Gomorrah, out of deference to local religious holidays.
8. Jacob, Rachel, and Leah end up on Jerry Springer: "In The Dark, They Both Looked The Same."
9. A group of ex-lepers sue Jesus for healing them because his actions have ruined their livelihood as beggars.
10. Pilate acquits Jesus for lack of evidence and finds the entire Sanhedrin in contempt of court.
11. After being raised from the dead, Lazarus berates Jesus for not coming sooner.
12. Following the death of Goliath, David gets heckled by the Coalition for Fighting Discrimination Against Really Tall People.
13. After a group of youths mock him as "baldhead," Elisha self-consciously begins combing his remaining hair over the top of his head
14. The angel's voice startles Abraham badly enough that he accidentally sacrifices Isaac anyway.
15. After Ezekiel sees the wheel of fire, he also describes how he was medically probed by aliens.
16. The walls of Jericho collapse onto Joshua and a hundred other Israelites who were standing too close.
17. Demoralized over Jesus' death, the disciples go back to being fishermen.
18. Faced with the risen Christ, Thomas believes he's having a post-traumatic nervous breakdown, and checks himself into the Betty Ford Clinic.
19. The old lady whom Jesus praised for giving away her last two pennies is kicked out of the Temple for making the Pharisees look bad and starves to death, alone and penniless, two days later.
20. Paul and Barnabas stop protesting their identification as pagan gods when the priests offer them their choice of the town virgins.
21. Noah takes a pair of unicorns on the Ark, but the cheetahs run them down and eat them.
22. Adam chews Cain out for wanting to marry his own sister.
23. At the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus hands out copies of "The Four Spiritual Laws."
24. Paul foregoes missions to the poor throughout the world; instead he goes on Imperial Television to spread the word to the wealthy, offering them prayer hankies and Shekaniah glory wallets in exchange for their faith offerings.
25. The Wise Men are detained at the border of Galilee when problems surface with their travel visas; eventually they are let through, but only after their gifts are seized by imperial agents.

And as a show of good taste, we decided not to include the following:

26. Faced with the prospect of raising a son by herself in a society that would scorn her, Mary decides to get an abortion.

Friday, October 20, 2006

war with north korea

A North Korean general has called war between the United States and North Korea "inevitable."

That's one of the problems with the Iraq war. Everyone knows that our resources are committed, thus leaving us little clout during political negotiations.What's interesting is that Bush is finally starting to admit that a lot of his war critics are right. He's admitted that a Vietnam comparison is supportable, and now some of his generals are admitting that they're stymied by the violence in Baghdad.

As far as North Korea goes, I read one commentator yesterday who made the case that a lot of the blame should go to Beijing, which has been supporting the North Korea regime for years in tangible and intangible ways, and could bring it down in a relatively short matter of time just by allowing North Korean fugitives across its borders. The ensuing flood of refugees would throw a lot of the North's infrastructure hopelessly out of whack.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


My kids are talking to me. It takes all I can muster not to yell at them to leave me alone.

They're leaning on me, touching my shoulder, sitting on my lap. They're looking at the birthday invitations we're designing on the computer, and I can't take it. The room is falling down around me, and I want to push them away, to "respect my space."

My back is hunched over, my arms and legs are pulled in as tightly as I can manage. I want to flee, to run far away from here, but I cannot. So instead I pull myself into a ball and try to hide.

Every muscle in my body is tight and hard. Every thought is racing, looking for somewhere safe. As I talk on the phone, my hands slide all over my arms and chest, trying to relax myself and to draw out the tension before I snap. A voice in the back of my head is screaming, and all I want to do is to run as far away as I can.

What is this about? What the hell is going on?

Copyright © 2006 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

my father's influence

I like to think that my father has rubbed off on me and how I related to my children.

To hear my mom describe it, my dad had no idea what to do with these four squalling kids that life had dropped in his lap; still, I think he did all right. When we joined YMCA children's program Indian Guides dad was a regular volunteer; and even though he hated camping, he almost always went when we did. I don't think he knew a thing about soccer, but he became an assistant coach when he and mom made me join a soccer team in middle school. And every Sunday morning for about 10 years, he helped my brothers and me deliver newspapers on our paper routes.

My favorite thing was walking the dog with him. We did that most nights when I was in high school, and when I came home from college I would still go walk the dog with him. I did it all the way up until about two years ago, when their black Lab died of cancer. It was a great bonding experience.

These are the sorts of things I like to do with the girls, even when their help is counterproductive. It's time spent together. That makes conversation easier and more organic, and it also just plain undergirds the relationship we have. It also teaches them responsibility.

When we look for ways to add meaning and value to our lives, especially the time we spend with our children, we're asking the wrong questions. The question isn't what to do to make life meaningful, the question is, "How is my life meaningful?"

The meaning is there. It's already inherent in life, and invariably the divine meanings are expressed through and in the relationships we have here on earth.

Friday, October 13, 2006

over 30 syndrome

I am increasingly convinced that I suffer from Over 30 Syndrome, a condition that affects people some time after they have children, usually in their mid-30s.
It's pretty dreadful, really. If you were cool, you stop; and if you weren't, you're totally screwed. Pop culture references are lost on you, your own pop culture references are hopelessly obscure, the newest technology fascinates you in an abstract way but not in a way that makes you go out and get it, and you start to realize that you're still in the same place you were 10 years ago, even in ways that do matter.
I think I've had it for going on six years or so.
Some of the symptoms I've manifested:
  • I have one of those superslow Dial Up connections. There are no plans to get a cable modem or DSL.
  • I don't have an iPod. If I did, I probably would consider it my widescreen TV set.
  • I have never burned a CD of music I downloaded from the Internet.
  • At church, I often feel that the worship is too loud and hurts my ears. (I also miss the good old days when we sang hymns.)
  • Not only do I lack a cell phone, I'm constantly amazed to hear the new things they can do. (Did you know that you can use them as calculators? My wife just told me.)
  • Rather than buy new books, I visit the librarian.
Despite having Over 30 Syndrome, I'm generally able to hold my own in most conversation. I can talk politics, religion, the environment, literature and several other topics with a degree of competence, and comport myself respectably.

When the conversation drifts into pop culture, though, I'm at something of a loss. I don't go see the new hot movies -- I usually wait until they come out on DVD -- so I recently was left cold when someone alluded to "Pirates of the Caribbean 2." I responded with my own allusion to "Ghostbusters 2," and unfortunately I looked like a doofus in both cases.
Now I know why you should never trust anyone over 30. It's because they're hopelessly out of touch with reality.

red son

How differently might things have gone had Superman landed in the Soviet Union instead of Kansas?

That's the question explored in Mark Millar's "Red Son," a comic that reimagines Superman as a Soviet superhero rather than an American icon. Elseworlds comics like this one take place outside regular DC continuity and reimagine the characters in a new setting. Precisely because of this changed background, Elseworlds comics can be a lot of fun.

"Red Son" is an interesting take on Superman because he's still an essentially good guy who doesn't want anyone to be hurt, and has unimpeachable moral character. He's still Superman. But because he grew up in communist Russia, he's not the Superman we remember. He still defends truth and justice, but it's no longer the American way he upholds. And in the DC Universe, that's quite a game changer.

In the comic, the adult Superman emerges into the public consciousness during the presidencies of Stalin and Eisenhower. The fear and paranoia of the Red Scare are further inflamed by this superhuman champion of communism and Soviet values. In a compelling section on the reaction in America, the comic shows people in the street terrified at the thought that a superpowered Soviet can him to watch their every move from orbit.

Superman's chief nemesis has always been Lex Luthor, and Millar sticks with the classic characterization of Luthor as a scientist, but not as a mad scientist. This Luthor is in the employ of the U.S. government, giving as a rare scenario where Luthor comes off at least as sympathetically as Superman.

The conflict between the two men continues over the next 40 years or so moves along standard Superman lines, however abridged, as Luthor gets Braniac to put Stalingrad in a bottle, and creates one superpowered patriot after another, like Bizarro and the Parasite, in attempts to destroy his foe.

Other D.C. heroes and world history get reimagined along the way. Wonder Woman arrives on the scene, and declares her support for the Soviet Union rather than for capitalist America, With Superan on the scene, nation after nation joins the Warsaw Pact, and America's fortunes ebb lower and lower. Soon states start to secede, and the U.S. government is unable to stop them.

The most interesing aspect of the story, thematically, is when Superman succeeds Stalin as president of the Soviet Union, and makes the nation run like clockwork. Everyone has absolute security, and everything they need. There is no crime, no hunger, and no freedom. Dissidents are rounded up and given brain surgery to make them compliant with Superman's regime. (There are shades of Doc Savage here, but it also reminds me of Mark Gruenwald's "Squadrom Supreme," a comic where a pastiche of the Justice League assumed total control of society to build a utopia.)

The story breaks down for me in the final act. Batman in this world was left an orphan when the KGB shot his parents for publishing subversive anti-Superman material. When we finally see him as an adult, Batman's absolute obsession is to bring down Superman and his Soviet system. As it continues, the comic fails to maintain the energy it had in its opening pages.

In a rare twist, Luthor does win in the end, and outsmarts not only Braniac but Superman as well. Except Superan survives as well, and manages to live long enough to see the earth's sun grow red, and hear reports from one Lex Luthor's descendants that the Earth is going to blow up because of pressure building beneath the planet's crust.

The comic was all right, but none what I would want to buy. But that's why I didn't buy it. Gotta love library cards.

sheep without a shepherd

So far I'm 0 for 2 on the Girl Scout troop.

With last year's leader unavailable this year because of scheduling conflicts, and myself barred from being the full-fledged troop leader, we're now in the second week of October without having a single troop meeting. I've asked two mothers of last year's Scouts if they would be interested in helping as leaders, and neither one was available.

This is frustrating, especially when you consider how much their own kids liked this.

So now I need to expand the radius of my search: ask around the school, ask at church, ask complete strangers who don't even know what Girl Scouts are but who might want to scarf a box or two of cookies, if they would like to lead the troop.

Rassafrassa rassafrassa.

I just hope we can get it together by November. It's already too late for the regular cookie sale.

worms at work

Here's an interesting story from the Houston Chronicle: The California Integrated Waste Management board is encouraging people to keep worms at the office.

It works like this: With an employer's permission, an employee brings in a worm bin, and sets it up some place accessible. Co-workers feed the worms apple cores, uneaten lettuce and other such things. (You can also add shredded newspaper, but it's best to avoid dairy and meat products because of the smell.) As the food decays, the worms eat and reproduce. When the compost is finished, it goes home and goes into gardens, flower beds and lawns.

This isn't a joke. It's actually No. 2 on their list of ten ways to reduce, reuse and recycle at the workplace.

I'm not ready for a composting bin at work, myself, but I'm always surprised how many people throw away leaves, grass clippings, bad produce and other organic material. I grew up with a compost pile in the back yard and a successful garden that my father tended, and I've maintained that composting tradition here in my own house now that I'm an adult.

Composting just plain makes sense. Given the finite space that exists for landfills, it makes no sense to send resources into the waste stream when we can reharvest them. And make no mistake -- bad lettuce, moldy fruit and used coffee grounds are a tremendous resource. Broken down into finished compost by worms, molds and bacteria, these things make a tremendous natural fertilizer for the soil, all for free, while commercial fertilizers cost money.

We recycle paper, cans and bottles -- discarded food should go too.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

the magic tree house

Let me tell you what I am going to do with that freaking tree house the next time it lands in Frog Creek, Pa. I am going to destroy it.

I'll begin at the bottom of the tree, with the sharpest ax I can find. As soon as a flash of light signals that the tree house has arrived, I am going to begin chopping that tree with my ax as hard as I can. The ax will strike a steady rhythm and chips will fly. If those little twerps Jack and Annie come near me, I'll growl at them angrily and bare my teeth, and I'll keep on chopping as they watch, helpless to stop me.

Eventually the tree will creak, and there will be loud cracks from inside its trunk as the wood starts to give. I'll keep going for a while, until I reach the point of equilibrium, when the tree is perfectly balanced. After that, it's only a matter of time.

The wind will start to blow. The tree house will begin to spin. Faster and faster.

And then everything will be still. Absolutely still.

By that point, I expect, the tree house will be shattered beyond repair. If not, I have the ax, I have a stack of dry newspaper, and I have matches. That treehouse will burn, and with it will burn the frustration of every parent who has read those drivelous books to their children.

The magic will be gone, it's true, but so will be the curse: the curse of insipid little happy moralizing that everyone in the world is your friend and wants to help you; that animals are our equals and little girls can talk with them; that it's fun, safe and exciting to run into dangerous situations without telling your parents; that if you do get into trouble, a Deux ex machina will come to your rescue; and most of all, the curse that compels children to have their parents read those insult-your-intelligence books every night and then act them out

every --

single --


I will burn the treehouse to cinders, and I will dance around the coals until they dissolve into ash. I will urinate on the embers to put them out, and when the fire has finished, I will rake everything up, pour lighter fluid onto the pile, and light another match.

In the end, there will be nothing left but ashes. These I will put in a box and mail to Mary Pope Osborne with instructions to mix the ashes with her garden soil, plant cucumber seeds, and never, under any circumstances, send one of the resulting cucumbers to anyone within a 100-mile radius of my house.

And then I will be happy.

Copyright © 2006 by David Learn. Used with permission.

bsg: the cylons

Exactly what is the plan that the Cylons are supposed to have, anyway?

In the original 1978 series, their plan was fairly straightforward. Those Cylons had been created by a lizard race and were bent on humanity's total destruction. In the new "Battlestar Galactica," the Cylons were created by humanity but rebelled, and now have agents who look human and who have infiltrated human society.

Watching the show, whatever the overreaching plan is, it's pretty clear that the Cylons actually have several different agenda where humanity is concerned, genocide being only one of them.

The big one remains genocide. That was established pretty clearly in the miniseries, where the Cylons wiped out most of the human population of the Twelve Colonies in a surprise nuclear bombardment, and then went about picking off every ship that was left until Galactica led the Colonial fleet away from the Cylons at space station Ragnar.

Genocide has continued as a goal ever since then. The episode "33" put the survivors through a harrowing ordeal as they would make their faster-than-light jump, only to have Cylons appear 33 minutes later, for days on end. In "Water," a Cylon sleeper agent planted a detonator in the Galactica's water tanks and blasted the primary water supply of the fleet into space.

In Season 2, a Cylon boarding party landed on the Galactica and tried to vent the entire ship into space. Once everyone on board had asphyxiated, it's expected the Cylons would have turned the Galactica's weapons on the civilian fleet and exterminated humanity once and for all. Another large-scale Cylon attack was the one that Boomer disabled with the computer virus she transmitted into the raiders. And when the Pegasus appeared halfway through Season 2, we discovered (not surprisingly) that the Cylons have been trailing the Colonial fleet for ages, and even brought along a resurrection ship so no Cylon lives were permanently lost.

That's one plan, obviously. But there's also the unusual relationship between Six and Baltar, which has led him to believe in a singular God, as opposed to the polytheistic beliefs of the other humans, and to believe that God has a special role for Baltar to play in some ineffable plan. And since Baltar and Six each have risen to positions of prominence among their own peoples, it's hardly reasonable for that plan to advance if humanity is driven to extinction.

And then there's the relationship between Helo and Boomer. She's said that the Cylons have been unable to reproduce naturally, they suspect because they are unable to love. So they went to great length to lure Helo into a relationship with Boomer, and to father a child with her. Baby Hera obviously is of tremendous importance to the Cylon plan, given the attention that her birth received, and given that we saw her at the end of Season 2.5, she'll have an important role to play in Season 3.0. And obviously that plan wouldn't work out right if the Cylons exterminate humanity. (Nor would breeding farms like the one Starbuck escaped from, since those require human females.)

But what is the plan? Do the Cylons even know the whole of it, or is it being fed to them in dribs and drabs? "Download" showed the Cylons on Caprica restoring the capital city, and it also showed a monumental revolution beginning in Cylon culture when Caprica Six and Boomer agreed to use their celebrity status to raise awareness among Cylons of humanity's better traits, particularly their capacity for love.

"Lay Down Your Burdens" took that revolution to the next order as Brother Cavil revealed that the Cylons realized they had made "a mistake" in trying to destroy the human race, followed by a second "mistake" in following the Colonial fleet. And of course that episode ended with the Cylons occupying new Caprica, presumably with the intent of helping to repair the damage they had done to human civilization. (No, I haven't seen any of Season 3.0 yet. I don't have cable TV, so I'm waiting for the next DVD set. Please don't spoil anything for me.)

Is the "benevolent occupation" of New Caprica a change in the Cylon plan, a new wrinkle in the plan that doesn't alter the end result, or was it part of the plan all along?

My best guess is that the Cylon plan is to become fully human — witness the concern over reproduction, Six's talk in the first season about the renewal of the human race, and the arms smuggler's speech in the miniseries that God had chosen the Cylons to replace humanity — perhaps even to become better humans than humans themselves, as seen in their desire to lift up humanity and improve its lot in New Caprica.

Part of the key to understanding Cylon nature may lie in the number of models of Cylon there are. (No, I'm serious.) The original series used twelve Colonies to invoke images of the twelve tribes of Israel, who left Egypt in search of the Promised Land. In the Israelites' case, it was Canaan, which had been promised to their ancestor Abraham 400 years earlier; in the case of the Colonials, the Promised Land is Earth.

No doubt in part because of changing sensibilities over the last 30 years, the new series has no immdiately apparent biblical significance to the number of Colonies there are. But as I've noted before it has made use of the number 12 enough that my liberal arts education has noticed: twelve Colonies (named after the Zodiac), twelve Cylon models, and 12 lords of Kobol named after the Greek gods.

It could be coincidence, but I can't help but think there's something there. With the exception of the Pegasus, whenever we've seen Six, she's been extremely sensual. In addition to her longstanding affair with Baltar, we've seen her hit on Adama and Helo. The weapons smuggler, when he resurfaced in the fleet during Season 1, made an effort to sow suspicion and doubt in Starbuck and Roslin's minds. Simon, who appeared on "The Farm," is a healer and often appeared with strong lighting in the background.

If we lean toward a mythological reading here, that gives us:

Zeus King of gods n/k
Hera Queen of goddesses n/k
Hades The dead n/k
Poseidon The sea n/k
Artemis The hunt n/k
ApolloGod of light, healers Simon
Hephaestos The forge n/k
AthenaWisdom, combat Boomer?
AresWar n/k
Hermes Messenger Arms dealer?
Aphrodite Sexual love Six
Hestia Home n/k
Ceres Harvest n/k
Observant readers will note that there are thirteen Greek
gods listed. This is because there are various ways of depicting the
lineup of the big twelve Olympians. A matchup from deity to Cylon is
complicated by the different facets of each deity. Apollo, in addition to
being a god of light, was also a god for healers, musicians and

The other known Cylons include Boomer, the telejournalist who filmed the documentary on Galactica, the man Baltar correctly (if randomly) identified as a Cylon in the miniseries, and Brother Cavil. I'm not sure how to line them up; Boomer is a warrior type, which would make her Athena, except that she's clearly not the virginal type. I've wondered if the journalists might be Zeus and Hera, but that seems unlikely since the Cylon god is more likely Zeus, and think that's probably Baltar. Cavil just plain doesn't fit, from what I can see, which means I'm probably barking up the wrong tree.

We also have Boomer and Helo's daughter, whom they named Hera, but whom Pegasus Six said just should be called Thirteen. (Thirteen being Earth, I suppose, since Earth is the lost thirteenth colony.)

I still it's amazing how good "Battlestar Galactica" is, not just because of the original series, but also because of where it's broadcast. After all, this is the Sci-Fi Network, the same cable network that made a wreck of "Earthsea," ran "Sliders" into the ground, and once even padded out Classic Trek episodes with so many commercials that they ran about 90 minutes each.

So what is the Cylon plan? I don't know, but I am intrigued enough to keep shelling out the money for the DVDs as they become available. I'm sure that plan belongs to Universal Studios, but I'll go along with it.

In the meantime, I'm interested in hearing anyone's thoughts as they want to share them. And if anyone wants to record the episodes and send them to me, I won't say no.