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.