Tuesday, September 26, 2006

brownie troop

It looks like it's going to be my responsibility to get the Brownie Troop going this year. To be honest, I don't know which bothers me more, the responsibility, or the suspicion I have that I'm just going to blow it off.

I'm serious. I've noticed lately that I have an increased tendency to blow off things that take a lot of work, or that move me outside my comfort zone. Things like administration, planning, and coordinating lots of things. That's a rather destructive dynamic in my personality, and while I think it's always been there to an extent, I can't say I'm pleased with how strong it's become lately.

The task of leading the troop, rather than merely providing backup and pitching in, became mine last week, when I was talking with E.E., the leader, troop organizer, and woman involved with the troop last year. E is planning to take some adult education classes, for professional development, making it impossible for her to lead the troop this year. So I'm in the hot seat.

That means it's up to me to:
  • Get last year's Daisies-turned-Brownies to re-enroll;
  • Push for new troop members;
  • Drum up a new co-leader or two;
  • Organize meetings and trips; and
  • Probably take a few more training courses.
E.E. is giving me the contact information for last year's girls, and I've already spoken to a parent or two about the possibility of stepping up to a co-leadership position, but I'll still need to talk with our council rep about a number of other things and get the ball rolling.

I hope I pull it off. It's about time I grew up.

my footprint

So I took the test at www.myfootprint.org, and while I'll agree that I'm not as environmentally sensitive as I should be, I think the recycling, composting and other day-to-day things we do here at the house make us a little better than this.

Nah. I'm probably just being defensive.

Food 6.9
Mobility 1
Shelter 7.4
Goods/Services 5.7
In comparison, the average ecological footprint in your country is 24 global acres per person.

Worldwide, there exists 4.5 biologically productive global acres per person.

If everyone lived like you, we would need 4.7 planets.

Monday, September 25, 2006

moral value

A friend of mine asks, "What is the moral value of someone essentially good, who does evil actions, based on evil/corrupt/confused intentions, and yet have his actions actually be good, despite the intent? (And can you translate that?) I may develop this later into a more cogent essay, but in the meantime, I'm posting my response to him here, mostly so I can remember it and find it later.

Someone essentially good (i.e., loves children) who commits evil actions (broadcasts Barney and Elmo TV specials), based on evil/corrupt/confused intentions (plans to warp children into mindless zombies/hopes to make a fortune through licensing deals/things it might be educational), and yet his his actions actually be good (children develop an appreciation for fine music and literature)?

I would say the moral value of the person lies more in the intentions than in the actions or the results of those actions, since actions are not solely determinative of the effects, and they flow naturally from the intentions, or inward being. To paraphrase a line of Christ's, "Wash the inside of the cup, and then it will be clean." If what's on the inside is corrupt or evil, it will manifest itself on the exterior as well.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

oh. my. goodness.

"The Eye of Argon," for those unaware, is a classic piece of fantasy writing, but not in a good way. Written in 1970 by 16-year-old Jim Theis, it is widely regarded as the worst fantasy story ever written. It's not just the absence of characterization. It's not just the turgid prose, like "escaping drops of life fluid" or "green orbs." It's not just the absurdities like "red emerald." And it's not just stunning misuse of the thesaurus in every single sentence. Do you understand what I'm trying to say here? The story is so bad, it's mythic.
Theis wrote the story as a serious effort for Osfan, a science fiction and fantasy zine for a group that he belonged to. Just about anyone who has become a capable writer has a skeleton or two like this in the cupboard, but Theis was unlucky enough that his skeleton jumped off the coat hook, walked down the hallway, opened the door and started inviting everyone in the neighborhood to come see it.
Through the ultimate samizdat experience, "The Eye of Argon" was photocopied, retyped and widely distributed at sci-fi conventions, where it is used for midnight round-robin readings. Thanks to the Internet, it has been more widely circulated than ever, and has been posted on one web site after another, and even has received its own MST3K treatment.
The idea in reading "The Eye of Argon" is to see how long you can read without bursting into laughter; I tried it myself here at home for the benefit of my wife and made it as far as the fifth paragraph.
So now it's going to be published. In some regards I sympathize with Theis. From what I've read, the fellow went on to become a journalist, and if the structure and pacing of "The Eye of Argon" is an indicator of what was to come, he probably became a decent writer in time.

But even if he never wrote again, it still would bite to have something you wrote as a 16-year-old held up and ridiculed as often as this story has been. I read that Theis only became aware of the prominence of "The Eye of Argon" a few years ago, shortly before he died, and he was a little annoyed by the treatment.
At the same time, I can't help but wonder if his estate's going to receive any money from sales of this book. Who holds the copyright after all this time? I also wonder if there will be any illustrations included in the book. Supposedly the issue of Osfan that contained the story had illustrations that were as memorable as the prose.
The lucky bastard's getting published. I can think of a few people I want to buy copies for.

Friday, September 15, 2006

christianity and cults

I came across a rather interesting (and rather long) article from the Dallas Observer last night, about The Trinity Foundation. It's compelling reading if for no other reason than it's the first even remotely negative piece I've read about Trinity, and in this case the negativity isn't all that remote.

Several former members liken it to a cult, describing situations where Trinity members were put, one a time, into a hot seat where they were verbally abused and excorciated until they were broken. They also describe fairly demanding standards of submission to Ole Anthony's leadership, something that reminds me of the Shepherding movement I've heard about before in charismastic and evangelical circles, where believers are allowed to make no significant decisions without approval from a pastor or other anointed leader. And of course, members who leave the fold reportedly are regarded as anathema and are to be shunned.

My own impression, after reading it, is that there's probably some truth to the allegations, but I'm not sure it rises to the level of a cult, if you know what I mean. Trinity may be a toxic community in some ways, and it's quickly that if Ole is as charismatic as I've heard tell, then that probably lends to abuse, a personality cult (as opposed to a theological one) and so on.

On a personal note, as I read the article, I was struck by some parallels between what ex-Trinity members were describing and some of the stuff I remember from the Lackawanna Christian Fellowship, back in college. It's no exaggeration that the Leadership Team and the Exec largely did what Mark wanted. I remember at one meeting that he said something about people shouldn't just pick dorms to live in on their own, but they should turn that over to God and figure out the "best place" to advance the kingdom.

That's true, I suppose, but what I remember it meaning, practically speaking, was that there was a meeting where LCF leaders decided where everyone on the leadership team should live. Much of the leadership development and selection was done in secret; i.e., each of the next year's leaders was hand-picked in a meeting run by Mark and usually resulted in Mark's people getting onto the team. I seem to recall you even saying something about Mark being annoyed when Jennifer Neeves was picked to be on Exec.

And of course I can tell you plenty of stories about being marginalized and being branded as unteachable because I didn't subscribe to Mark's eschatology, his views on predestination, biblical inspiration, and because I decided I preferred involvement in my church to involvment in the LCF by my senior year. (my best friend refers to this individualism as my gift of martyrdom.) And people who dropped out of the LCF generally weren't socialized with any more, despite the great protestations of friendship and love that had existed before they dropped out. I believe the standing consensus was that such drop-outs weren't really Christians.

But of course, I don't regard to the LCF as a cult. It was deeply, horribly flawed, and for some people it was a coral reef that they steered away from or ran aground on and took years to recover from, if they ever did. I remember Block did some sort of research for a religion paper where he found strongly negative reactions to the LCF from many members of the college community, including some avowed Christians.

Some of the flaw existed in Mark, and his need to ensure that everything went the way it needed to; and some of the flaw existed in members like me, who either lacked the willingness to call something wrong or the wisdom to voice that criticism well, or committed the same exact sins as Mark in different ways.

Chances are that if you survey all the churches and parachurch organizations in North America, even they meet all the tests for orthodoxy of doctrine, they'll still run afoul of other tests that mark cults. Every church I've been in has had vocal critics who, with sound reason, see monumental and un-Christlike failings in those churches. We're all alike in sin.

We all stand guilty, and God will judge.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

happy endings

She spent the first day packing her belongings into boxes, crates and suitcases.

On the second day, she had the movers come and collect her things.

On the third day, she sat down for the last time at their beautiful dining room table by candlelight, put on some soft background music, and feasted on a pound of shrimp, a jar of caviar, and a bottle of spring-water. When she had finished, she went into each and every room and deposited a few half-eaten shrimp shells dipped in caviar into the hollow of the curtain rods. She then cleaned up the kitchen and left.

When the husband returned with his new girlfriend, all was bliss for the first few days.

Then slowly, the house began to smell.

They tried everything; cleaning, mopping and airing the place out. They checked the vents for dead rodents, and steam-cleaned the carpets. They hung air fresheners everywhere. They called in exterminators to set off gas canisters, while they moved out for a few days. In the end they even paid to replace the expensive wool carpeting. Nothing worked.

People stopped coming over to visit.

Repairmen refused to work in the house.

The maid quit.

Finally, they couldn't take the stench any longer, and they decided to sell the house. A month later, even though they had cut their price in half, they couldn't find a buyer. Word got out and eventually even the local Realtors refused to return their calls.

In the end, they had to borrow a huge sum of money from the bank to purchase a new place.

Around that time, the ex-wife called the man and asked how things were going. He told her the saga of the rotting house. She listened politely and said that she missed her old home terribly and would be willing to reduce her divorce settlement in exchange for getting the house back.

Knowing his ex-wife had no idea how bad the smell was, he agreed on a price that was about one-tenth of what the house had been worth, but only if she were to sign the papers that very day.

She agreed and within the hour his lawyers delivered the paperwork.

A week later the man and his girlfriend stood smiling as they watched the moving company pack everything to take to their new home -- and  to spite the ex-wife, they even took the curtain rods.

deuteronomy 25:4

The sweat that pours down
From this man's brow
burning down
But all you see
Are the pears
In a bowl
at the center of
your table

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


The official word from the doctor is that I have not been depressed long enough to be depressed, since you need to be depressed for at least six weeks in order to really be depressed, and I have been depressed only for four weeks.

Apparently I can't do anything right, not even get depressed. How depressing.

In all seriousness, she said that depression is a possibility, given my family history, and since I've gone through these cycles before -- although everyone has mood swings and blue periods from time to time. But the clinical definition requires that the blue period last a minimum six weeks before it counts, so there would no meds. Also, since I'm getting 200 mcg daily of Synthroid, hypothyroidism (or even my lack of a thyroid) is unlikely to be a culprit.

That, as I told her, was fine, since I really don't want a pharmacological solution unless one proves necessary. If I can amend my problem through exercise, diet or lifestyle changes, I'd prefer to do that. So her suggestion was to get more exercise and make sure I do a few things that interest me, including seizing opportunities to spend time with other adults and exercise my mind.

That's all good. I need to lose the weight I've gained the last four weeks, and the weight I've gained the last several years as well. So more exercise and better eating habits would help. I'm now accepting suggestions for alternate lifestyles that I should consider.

Oh, and she suggested I find a mental health counselor on my insurance plan, to see if there are any emotional difficulties underlying the nondepression depression. So now I'm off to find a psycho therapist, probably ax-wielding, and find out in two more weeks if I'm actually, officially depressed.

It's a depressing outlook.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

wardrobe malfunction

I suppose I've always had a strange taste in clothing. This is particularly evident when one considers the example of the outfit I bought back in 1988, shortly before high school graduation.

As I recall, my mother,with whom I was not getting along particularly well at the time, had decided that I didn't have enough decent clothes. This is due primarily to an attitude I still possess, that not only do clothes not make the man, the truth is that they really never had anything meaningful or relevant to say about the man in the first place. My mom's attitude, while by no means vain, lies more along the lines of, "No son of mine is going out in that."

In order to see that I was appareled correctly, my mother took me to the Monroeville Mall, to visit the clothing section of J.C. Penney. Her first mistake was taking me there against my will. The second is that she told me to pick the clothes out for myself.

My pick? A pair of pink pants with a matching pinstriped shirt. My defense now, when pictures surface on the Internet, or at family get-togethers: It was the 1980s. Everyone who was alive then has something to be ashamed of, even if it's just listening to Rick Astley or buying Tiffany's album of remakes on 8-Track.

Still, as my friend Liadan puts it, "The eighties is perpetually its own excuse now, but what was your excuse DURING the eighties?"

Justification must be threefold.
  1. I never had much fashion sense anyway. These days I've worked it out to "Everything goes with blue jeans" and "Honey, does this look OK?"
  2. The pink pants and pin-striped shirt were in the men's section of J.C. Penny. Surely that counts for something.
  3. As I told my mother, "I picked the most degroding pair I could find." Not the best reason for picking an outfit, but when your mother is yelling at you for an hour or more at a stretch, at least once a day, every day, you find ways to annoy her, and damn the consequences. (It was a church outfit anyway, because she insisted I had to have "nice clothes" to wear to church.) This was the same period when I registered Democrat just to annoy her. I've stayed with the Democratic Party out of conviction, but I don't think I wore the pants and shirt a single time after I started college.
It must have been very troublesome for mom.

spelling reform

Back when I was teaching Evangeline how to read, I was struck by how many written words you "just have to remember" how to pronounce.

No wonder spelling -- and reading -- can be tough. You have to memorize practically half the written language. So I guess it's not surprising that there are groups that push for spelling reform of written English on a massive scale, to boost literacy and to ease the torment of spelling.

It's a long and storied history. No less august a man than President Theodore Roosevelt, who reportedly had spelling problems himself, pushed Congress a hundred years ago to adopt some 300 simplified spellings, such as thru and program. Congress wouldn't budge, but a number of those simpler spellings became the accepted American spellings anyway, from curb and jail, to the words we dropped the British U from, such as honor, color, rancor and armor.

Sight words, which defy "standard" spelling rules, come by the truckload in written English. Some follow auxiliary rules of their own, like silent E, the -ight ending, and "I before E, except after C, or when sounded like A as in neighbor and weigh," but plenty don't.

Depending on the region, T can be pronounced like ch in tree or like D in kindergarten; the D in dress sounds like a J, making a phonetic "jress"; and almost no one ever pronounces the first R in February. (Let's not even touch Wednesday.) And regardless of region, come and home don't rhyme, and neither do bomb and comb.

Whatever the intent of these latter-day reformers, their goal of widespread reform is unattainable.

That's partly due to regional variations in pronunciation. In New England, the word aunt phonetically would be spelled ont. Elsewhere in North America, its homonymous with ant. Similarly, roof can be pronounced with the double-O sound in whoops, or with the long U sound in rude.

Those are picayune examples, but they illustrate what I'm talking about. Relying on phonetics to produce proper spelling either would create multiple spellings that would complicate written communication, or it would require establishing a uniform pronunciation as well.

Logistics aside, the best reason not to alter the spelling of English words lies in the threat such reform would pose to our linguistic heritage. Changing our written language, even if only a fraction of the scope outlined by advocates of simpler spelling, would sunder us from Chaucer, Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson and other giants of the English language, except "in translation." Given that words derive their meaning from their use in literature, with such a loss, we might as well not even bother having the language anymore.

Also lost would be the history embedded in the words themselves. Candidate has the Latin root candida, white, because those seeking public office in ancient Rome wore white to announce their candidacy. That golden nugget of history would be buried with a spelling like kandidaet; in the case of Wensdae, the day's etymological roots in North myth would be wholly obliterated.

The English language still has literary roots as far back as "Beowulf," an Anglo-Saxon poem written about 1,500 years ago; within its vocabulary -- and yes, within its spelling -- it carries nuggets of history pertaining to trade, politics, religion and a vast panoply of culture and literature. Remove the spelling, and you eradicate that record for all but the most scholarly.

The measure of reform that American English saw a hundred years ago wasn't due to the advocacy of men like Roosevelt and Andrew Carnegie, another advocate for simpler spelling. Rather, it was an organic process that grew out of the popular sentiments and attitudes of the American public. This is, after all, the same sort of unconscious force that produced the English language in all its richness and depth in the first place, by mingling Angles and Saxons, who later fell to French Normans conquerors in 1066, and who over the years have begged, borrowed and stolen phrases and words from all over the world, often adding new words and almost as often jettisoning an old word in favor of a new one.

And as a tangent, I've noticed that even the feminine forms of many nouns are fading out of use, as the masculine forms become gender-inclusive. The Motion Picture Academy now refers to "male actors" and "female actors," and even professional writers have stopped referring to women as comediennes. Similarly, even scientific writing increasingly doesn't use plurals like indices, appendices and formulae.

The spelling reform most likely to succeed already is underfoot by virtue of already being in use for effect. Words like tonite, nite, lite and brite -- all of which take advantage of the Silent E rule to replace the -ight -- have gained some limited acceptability, thanks to advertising and marketing gimmicks, along with other shortcuts like thruway.

I have to admit that my own sensibilities see the appeal to phasing out PH to make way for F (fotografy), replacing more C's with S's and K's (sirkle), and eliminating the soft G in favor of an old-fashioned J (jiraffe). And like playwright George Bernard Shaw, I can see the wisdom in eliminating apostrophes from contractions where its absence will not change the word's pronunciation.

Still, if the goal is improved literacy, I'd suggest the would-be reformers find better means to that end than demonstrating at spelling bees and lobbying dictionary editors to list spellings like altho and hanus.

New spelling rules won't make half the difference that spending more time writing and reading will, particularly when done with children. That we do that less than ever is a far greater cruelty and a far worse tragedy than any of the spelling headaches written English has ever afflicted us with.

Copyright © 2006 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, September 11, 2006

the shadow of 9-11

Today is the fifth anniversary of 9-11.

At its simplest, this is the anniversary of the date that terrorists flew two planes into the World Trade Center, and a third into the Pentagon. A fourth plane, intended for the U.S. Capitol, crashed near Shanksville, Pa., when the passengers on board rose up and tried to seize control of the plane. It is a date that affected America as profoundly as Dec. 7, 1941, did.

I was asleep when the towers fell, after a late night at the newspaper where I was a copy editor. It wasn't until almost 11 o'clock, when I was walking the dog, that I learned from a neighbor what had happened. At the time, stories were flying faster than facts, and my neighbor told me that there were still at least four planes airborne, and the Air Force had been ordered to shoot them down.

Some people say the earth moved for them. For me, it was as though the world had disappeared, as though the solid ground I had been standing on suddenly had pulled away, and I was plummeting into the void with everything and everyone around me. I remember sitting with my wife as we tried to digest what was happening. My older brother flew regularly for his job. Was he —? A friend of ours worked in the New York financial district. Was he —?

The answer proved to be no to both questions, but that wasn't enough to pull me out of free fall. I was still in a daze when I went to work that afternoon and plunged deeper into the chaos. Our own television set had stopped receiving signals

The television in the corner flashed the same nightmare in a repeating loop, as jet planes crashed into the World Trade Center time and time again. Every time I checked the Associated Press wire, there were more updates, minute-by-minute reactions from around New York and the world, details of what had happened, and lists of the dead.

The overload was staggering. I cried like a baby, feeling the fear of the people on the hijacked flights, hearing the screams and tasting the despair and terror of people I had never met. I asked myself over and over again what kind of a world we had brought our daughter into.

Five years later, I remember that horror freshly, but I don’t know what I am supposed to feel anymore. 9-11 has become so politically charged that it no longer belongs to us anymore, let alone to bereaved families. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, some of the pundits further to the Left used it to blast U.S. foreign policy, trade and hegemony. Since then, it's been invoked as a cover for warrantless spying on Americans, the war in Iraq, and increased suspicion of Arabs and Muslims.

And of course, 9-11 has been invoked to call people traitors and cowards for challenging the Bush administration's policies, and it has been invoked to accuse Bush of dishonoring the memory of its victims.

The terror attack on 9-11 have fundamentally altered the way we view ourselves and other people. It has become the defining event of the Bush presidency, it has intensified the emotion and the rhetoric surrounding immigration, and it has radicalized the political voices in our nation.

Some of those killed were innocents. Others, like the firefighters and Port Authority officers, were heroes by occupation. They rushed into darkness and danger to save others, not knowing if they would return, to save strangers. Others, like the passengers on Flight 93, became heroes when circumstance drove them to take the offensive against their attackers.

But I want the dead to be able to rest in peace rather than being dragged around as an excuse for someone’s current pet political project. I want the families to be able to carry on with their lives without constantly being seeped in misery.

A week ago, 9-11 meant little and a week from today we will think about something else; but for the space of this 24 hours, the United States and the rest of the world has what it needs to occupy its attention so that it is not forced to deal with its own existential meaningless. We do not have to grapple with the pointlessness of our cheap attempts at success, at our obsession with entertainment and technology, at our lack of inner foundation as individuals and as a culture.

Instead, we can unite in grief over something that everyone sees as meaningful, and that will give us a bit of strength to carry on, at least for today. Something that is relevant to the families of the dead, and something that feels relevant.

For myself, I mourn the dead – both for what they lost and for what we have not yet gained. I don’t know what to tell my kids. I just want them to have something in life that they value. I want them find something worth believing in, something they themselves have chosen and committed to.

Copyright © 2006 by David Learn. Used with permission.


No, not mine. This time I'm writing about my mother-in-law.

Natasha got a call last night from her mother, who was at the hospital receiving a chemo treatment. She had noticed some odd lumps on her neck and wisely went to the doctor. To make a long story short, the diagnosis is that she has small-cell carcinoma in her lymph nodes.

You may remember that once I got over the initial impact of hearing the C-word in connection with my own health that I lost no time in cracking jokes about it. I'm not doing that here because, quite frankly, the prognosis is not good, judging by what Natasha's been able to find out about this particular kind of cancer. They caught it early, which is a definite advantage in treating it, but this is an agressive cancer. The two-year survival rate for women diagnosed at this stage is about 20 percent, from what Natasha can tell; in other words, there is about a one in five chance that her mom will be alive in three years.

Natasha is taking it about as well as you could expect, all things considered, but she is fairly upset. I spent a while this evening, just holding her. Her mother didn't provided much information beyond the diagnosis and that she was on chemo; Natasha has had to deduce from that the carcinoma has spread to her lymph nodes from her lungs. (Google the phrase "small cell carcinoma," and I think you'll agree that's a reasonable deduction.) In Natasha's words, "She doesn't have the guts to tell people that her cigarettes have finally killed her."

I suspect there's a lot of wisdom in that statement; i.e., that Natasha's mother is afraid. She's in her mid-50s, and while I don't think she expected to live into her 90s or even her 80s, I don't think she expected the real possibility that she might die before she turns 60.

Cancer sucks.

spiritual journey

I'm on a spiritual quest, marked by increased dissatisfaction with the moralizing, comfortably wealthy Jesus who pounds the drums for our government, who treats immigrants with suspicion, views the Spanish language in America as a threat to our culture and the English language, and who defends the powerful, the middle-class and promises salvation when we die.

I'm wondering more and more what the real Jesus is like, how to view a Bible that seems to show God progressing from a tribal deity who orders the genocide of an indigenous people and whose prophet calls for the slaughter of prisoners who already surrendered, up to a transcendent God who desires all nations to come to him. I've never liked the gloss-overs I've heard in churches, and I'm no longer willing to push it to the side while I deal with other questions and purposes.

I'm also wondering what the proper response to war is, particularly the Iraq war.

Is war between nations in Christ's nature? Our government -- our nation -- we -- committed a horrible injustice when we invaded Iraq without provocation, in defiance of international law. How do we, as Christ's representatives on earth, respond to that?

The Kingdom of God -- when we beat our swords into plowshares, lay down our swords and shields by the riverside, and study war no longer -- isn't a far-off event. Jesus said it has come, it is here, it is in him as we are in him. If we believe that to be the case, then what response to war should we have?

Some can claim it's necessary but I think that's because war is easier than peace and we'd rather not expend the energy it'll take to find ways to wage peace wisely and intelligently, and no one's offered a proposal that seeks peace as much as a proposal that calls for more war, or for abandoning Iraq to the mess that we made.

If the Kingdom of God began in my life when I decided to follow Jesus, what does that mean for how I respond to the war? What does that mean for how I respond to poverty? To the guy on the street who asks me for fifty cents, or who asks for train fare, when I know all he really wants is beer, cigarettes or drugs?

Because the Kingdom of God has arrived, and what happens in eternity has echoes in what I do here in my life.

praying for the troops

I'm not praying for our troops.

That's not exactly true. I am praying for our troops, just as I'm praying for Iraq, and for the members of the insurgency there. I'm not praying for coalition troops to visit a crushing defeat on the heads of their enemies, and I'm not praying that President Bush will bring our troops home tomorrow, nor that he'll announce a timetable for a withdrawal from Iraq.

And I'm certainly not praying that the quagmire we've turned Iraq into will continue as it has been, sucking in more lives every day as neighbor turns upon neighbor and the holiest, most sacred and most mundane duties become life-endangering.

What am I praying for then? If you rule out a decisive victory, a sudden or gradual withdrawal, and the perpetuation of the mess we've made of Iraq, what is there left to pray for?

I've realized something over the last few days: War is outside the nature of Christ. Completely outside. Not just this abominable mess where people are raping young women and destroying families to cover it up, where suicide bombers are blowing up religious services, where one person cuts off another one's head and calls it a righteous act, but war itself -- where one member of the family of Man fires a weapon at another member in hopes of ending his life -- is a horrible abrogation of what God intended his creation to be. It is outside the nature of Christ. It is not what God desires for his creation.

The prophets, looking ahead to the Kingdom of God, saw a time when the nations would lay down their swords and shields, when we would beat our weapons into plowshares and study war no more. They saw it coming from far off, and they rejoiced to see it, if only at a distance. I realized today that I've been doing the same thing, waiting for a pie-in-the-sky time when the poor would receive the Kingdom of Heaven, when the meek would inherit the earth, and when peace would come.

There's no need to wait. The Kingdom is here. It's now. It's arrived.

Speaking to the stunned congregants of his hometown, Jesus declared, "'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.

"Today this scripture is fulfilled in your presence."

If we believe that the Kingdom of God is incarnated in the person of Jesus, and if we also believe that Christ is in us and we are become the Body of Christ, then there is no need for there to be war, poverty, hunger, or other such afflictions among us. They are there because we allow them to be, because we accept that they are a part of life, and because we have failed to engage the world around us and address the root causes of these problems.

Peace — note that I did not say appeasement — is not easy. It is far harder to maintain the peace than it is to go to war. Peace requires understanding your foe, meeting his needs and making sacrifices yourself, something we are woefully unprepared or unwilling to do.

Peace, not war, is God's dream for the Middle East, just as it is his dream for every tribe, nation and language.

I'm not praying for victory in Iraq. I'm praying for peace.

Copyright © 2006 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, September 10, 2006


"Worship is what church is all about." That's what the preacher said during church today. "Worship is what church is all about."

That's a wonderful aspiration. Just about every church would agree that worship is its core mission, but at least in my church it doesn't feel like that is the case. Worship is an active, dynamic encounter with God that can leave us euphoric, remorseful, contemplative or moved in some other way, but it should not leave us fundamentally unchanged. How often does any part of the church service affect us like that? It's a rarity, in my experience.

We generally equate worship with the musical component of church, and while some will quibble with that, since our entire lives are meant to be worship, I think that's a good place to start. It's when we sing in church that we begin to worship with our voices, our minds and even our bodies.

If that's the definition we're using, then in my experience at least, the focus at church is not on worship or on ritual but on teaching. In contrast to worship, which engages the spirit with God; teaching is a passive experience. We hear about God and what our response to him should be, but we don't actually engage with God in that way.

To the extent that anything is broken, I've no idea how to fix it. Should we make services longer? Church services in the United States are short. We schedule an hour of our mornings for God, no more, and resent if services run over. Maybe allotting more time from our Sundays would allow us to relax into God's presence more and to respond accordingly.

The misson that Jesus gave the church was to disciple the nations, and worship can support this, since music prompts meditation and reflection. Many's the time I've found myself or my children singing a song I learned at a past church, and many's the time those songs have started me thinking along new and unfamiliar lines of thought about God.

I've often complained that the songs we use at our church are shallow lyrically, and too focused on our experiences, what we've gained from God or what he's done for us, particularly through the Crucifixtion. Should we allow more time for musical component of the service? That would give worship leaders a greater opportunity to have a progression of themes and to incorporate more songs. Maybe they also could draw from other branches of worship music with new arrangements to make them feel fresh, contemporary and accessible in a new way.

I often feel like worship has become something like a component of a cheap Disney movie. When the talking has gone on long enough, it's time to throw in a song. The worship team may sing the song well, and it may even be popular with the congregation, but if it's the difference between "Be Prepared" and "Kiss the Girl," there's really no comparison. One of those is OK, but the other is excellent, and when it comes to worship, we only want the best.

Services in church these days are very much about the teaching. At least at the churches I've attended, the sermon runs for about half the service, and if anyone is talking about the service afterward, it's the sermon that they're discussing.

Even sermons would benefit from a stronger focus on worship. After all, worship contains a dynamic element absent from straight teaching, and songs used in worship will remain in our memory and on our lips long after the Sunday sermon has been forgotten.

Copyright © 2006 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Friday, September 08, 2006

bad father

I continue my war against all that is decent and joyful in my daughter with our most recent choice of bedtime stories, "Old Yeller."
"Old Yeller," for those who don't remember, is the classic story by Fred Gipson about a boy naed Travis and his dog, Old Yeller. Set in Texas in the mid-19th century, the story follows Travis' experiences the summer when he's fourteen and his father has left on a cattle drive. Soon after his father leaves, Old Yeller arrives. A thieving, one-eared dog who gets under Travis' skin something fierce, he soon becomes an indispensable part of the family, making it all the more painful when Travis has to shoot him because of rabies.
It's one of the books I remember most vividly from my childhood, which is why I wanted to share it with Evangeline. She's been enjoying it immensely, as I've been enjoying reading it with her. We've been reading a chapter a night; tonight, we're going to read two chapters, since I don't want to put her to bed on the note, "and then I shot my dog." That might be a little too hard for her.
Actually, I have to note that Gipson's given plenty of warning that Old Yeller's in for it. One of the first sentences of the book reveals that Travis had to shoot the dog; in the chapter we just read, where Ma and Lisbeth go off to burn the body of the rabid heifer Spot, Travis laments that he didn't stop them all from leaving after what happened afterward; and he's really been hammering home the hydrophobia scare and Old Yeller's weakened condition from the hog fight a couple chapters ago.
Still, I'm sure Evangeline is in for an upset tonight when we read about having to shoot the dog. Travis' father comes home in the next chapter and gives him some pretty sound advice on keeping the bad times of life in perspective, so I want to make sure we read that as well. She knows there's a movie version too, and wants to see it; I told her we'll see if she still wants to after we finish the book, with the caution that movies are almost never as good as the books they're based on.
And if "Old Yeller" doesn't get her down, we're going to start on Kafka and Soren Kirkegaard.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

back to school

Evangeline started her first day of second grade today at the charter school. I'm in one of those mixed-feeling moods about the whole thing. I'm happy to see her with her friends all that -- when I left, she was working happily next to one of the girls she had a few playdates with this summer and with whom she has a lot in common, interestwise -- but I still have some ambivalence anchored in the fact that I have little control over what the school teaches her, that her unique sense of humor and individual interests make her a target for bullying, and that she's one of the brightest stars in my sky, and she's not going to be around a good chunk of her waking hours now. I suppose I should just grow up about it, already.
I did establish today that I have been typecast as the helpful parent. Evangeline's teacher didn't tap me for anything today but on my way out I bumped into the principal. He told me about an upcoming landscaping project the school was going to undertake that would build on what the Girl Scout troop did in the spring, and asked me if I would be interested in volunteering for it.
And the lack of sustainable interest I have in pretty much everything that requires effort, combined with my inability to focus for substantial periods of time on things that I used to enjoy quite a lot, makes me wonder if I am suffering from some form of depression. I never did see a doctor about that way back when, so I probably should make an appointment. It'd help if I had an actual regular doctor and not a whole practice.

Friday, September 01, 2006

dream a little dream of me

I had a dream last night, that I was in Rotorua, New Zealand, for some sort of return visit to the former Edmund Rice College, the high school I attended while I was an afs exchange student. While I was there, I apparently decided to visit the church I had frequented.

For reasons I still can't fathom, my sister-in-law was there, along with Natasha and the girls. I remember looking at my sister-in-law while we were working in the church kitchen, and asking, "Wait a minute. You're here at St. Andrew's with me. This is a dream, isn't it?"

She agreed that it probably was, whereupon I shrugged my shoulders and simply kept cleaning the dishes I was working on. Nothing fazes me anymore, apparently -- not even realizing that I'm dreaming.