Thursday, August 26, 2010

Viet Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan

Cheryl and I have been listening to The Things They Carried, a very powerful novel about Viet Nam, based on the authors real experiences there. I have to say that I was very hesitant to "read" this book. I was born in 1954 and grew up hearing the body count on the news every evening. I didn't have a lot of friends who served but I did know some folk who were there and that war was always at the edge of my generation's consciousness. The final year they drafted was 1972, the year I graduated high school. They continued to assign numbers for the next 4 years, just in case they decided to reinstate the draft. FWIW, info regarding the draft and links to charts of the draft numbers can be found here. My number was 32. Had the draft been in effect, I would have seen sunny South Viet Nam... or had to make some other life changing decision. I remember thinking about cutting off a toe, leaving for Canada, doing something to make myself ineligible. I do not know what I would have done - whether I would have served or not.

If I had ended up there, I don't know how the experience would have affected me. I have friends and acquaintances who have adjusted to the experience as well as anyone can. Like a scar, it has left something behind but doesn't impair their ability to function. In some ways it may have even helped them come to terms with the fragility and arbitrariness of life. Or there may be a cold, numb place in their hearts that will never completely heal. I know others who never recovered and as the John Gorka song, Semper Fi says, "Sometimes the wounds that never heal are easiest to hide," and "Some of the men who did survive were not the lucky ones." Our streets and homeless shelters are still littered with those men. I do know that as I listen to this powerful book, I feel a constant ache in my stomach as I imagine myself there, and I do imagine myself there. I feel a sadness at the dreams lost, at young men who never became old men, at families that never happened.

And then I think about Iraq and Afghanistan and the men and women there... those who will not come home... those who will come home with horrific injuries... and those who will come home with wounds we cannot see. Then, along with the ache in my stomach I feel an anger, a disgust, a profound sense of emptiness. I think of those who make decisions to go to war and wonder how they can sleep at night knowing the pain and loss and destruction their decisions have caused and I wonder whether they truly understand the cost...

what is a book?

Just what constitutes a book these days. I have shelves full of paper bound with glue and thread, covered in ink... I know those are books. Some of you read on Kindles of Ipads. Are those books? Cheryl and I listen to "books" on disk as we commute back and forth to Santa Barbara from Buellton along the Gaviota Coast. Are those books?

We've read or listened to some wonderful books recently and I've found myself wanting to blog about a few or at least mention them in my blogs but wasn't sure how. Should I say, "we're reading The Things They Carried" or do I say that "we're listening to...?" Frankly, something inside me is a little embarrassed to say that we're listening to whatever book as if that is cheating somehow. And in some ways it must be a different experience. The reader does impose himself or herself into the text and does interpret it with their inflections and tone of voice and somehow that does remove part of the experience we get when reading a bound document, providing the voice, the inflections, in our minds. Clearly it is not as different an experience as watching a movie made from a book, but it is still different in some way.

How significant is that difference? Is that audio book, whether on disk or MP3 or whatever, still a book or is it a different medium altogether? And how about an i-book? What do we lose when we don't hold the paper and flip the pages? What do you think?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

guitar cases

I haven't had a guitar related post for a while so here we go...

Cases... not very sexy but absolutely critical and full of options. There are gigbags, cardboard cases, wooden cases, plastic cases, fiberglass cases, and carbon fiber. Each kind of construction has strengths and weaknesses and can come in a wide variety of quality and price levels from cheap to very expensive. You can get a gigbag or cardboard case for $20... or you can pay $1400 for a custom carbon fiber case... and there are lots in between.

For normal use, I prefer a gigbag, essentially a backpack like arrangement made of some kind of fabric with padding and backstraps. All of my guitars live in medium to high end gig bags. The least expensive one I own cost me about $75 and the most expensive was just under $400 for a custom leather bag from Cronkhite Custom Cases made for my Lowden guitar. Gigbags don't offer the same kind of impact protection as a hard case, but they are generally lighter in weight and smaller so it is easier to be careful with the guitar. For general use, because of the ease of handling, I find them more protective than a hard case. I wouldn't trust an expensive guitar - the only kind I have - to a baggage handler in one though.

There are a few touring pros who do recommend flying with gigbags, arguing that they are easier to get onboard a plane. The downside though is that if that is refused, you have a very expensive bag of exotic wood toothpicks at the end of the flight. So, many players fly with a normal hardshell case as provided with most guitars when purchased. In general, I find those cases a poor compromise. IMHO, they are too heavy and clumsy for general use but not heavy duty enough for the rough handling a guitar may get on a baggage chute. For that you need a serious road case.

Until recently, that meant expensive and heavy. It still may as there are some wonderful fiberglass road cases that provide excellent protection. They are expensive and very heavy. I had one for a while, built by a great company called Calton. It was a great case and I loved it until my car broke down and I had to carry it two miles... my arm was 4 inches longer at the end of the walk. I bought a high quality gigbag for that guitar and sold the Calton.

The newest generation of road cases are just as sturdy or more so at a lighter weight but often considerably higher price. These cases are built from carbon fiber. I believe a company named Accord was the first to build these cases and they are wonderful... light weight, extremely protective, even elegant... and very pricey, i.e. more than many folk spend on a guitar. Since Accord pioneered these materials a number of other companies have begun using them as well including Calton, mentioned above, in their higher level cases.

I recently read about a company based in Chicago that is building very sturdy, carbon fiber cases at a much lower price named Hoffee. The cases look amazing and are very reasonably priced for what you get. Indeed, if I ever need a road case, they are at the top of my list. Watch the video below and you'll see why.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Ground Zero Mosque

I have not posted on this topic yet, largely because there are folk who have expressed my thoughts better than I could. At the foundation, I believe in freedom of religion. It is a core principle of our nation and one of the bedrocks of my tradition as a Baptist. The state has no right to interfere in religion at all... and that includes telling a faith community where it can or cannot worship. That said, there are so many other issues raised in the discussions surrounding the "ground zero mosque." The fact that approximately 10% of those killed on 9/11, including some first responders were Muslim... The fact that if "they hate us for our freedom," then the very best way to fight "them" is to exercise and live that freedom... The fact that the families of those who died at ground zero are anything but unanimous in their response to the proposed community center... And the fact that the proposed "ground zero mosque" is not at ground zero or even visible from the site.

A few days ago, Keith Olbermann commented on the controversy. It is well worth watching.

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Saturday, August 14, 2010

Cordoba House and Mosque at Ground Zero (Michael ...

Bob Cornwall pointed to this excellent article by Michael Kinnamon, the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches... good words

Ponderings on a Faith Journey: Cordoba House and Mosque at Ground Zero (Michael ...: "I saw this statement from Michael Kinnamon, General Secretary of the National Council of churches and a Disciples of Christ minister, and d..."

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Big Tent Christianity

Big Tent Christianity, a conference coming up in September has called for a synchroblog this week, addressing the following questions - What does “big tent Christianity” mean to you? What does it look like in your context? What are your hopes and dreams for the Church?

I have to say upfront that I was a bit taken back by the question. My first reaction is what other kind of Christianity is there? I truly don't understand how anyone can look at Jesus and see anything other than a big tent. As soon as I say that, I have to admit that many who call themselves followers of Jesus envision a very small tent with rigidly defined borders.

A few years ago in my denomination - American Baptist Churches, USA - there was a big discussion regarding whether the church is a bounded set or a centered set. The conservatives saw a bounded set wherein the members of the church fit clear parameters. They had to believe certain things, had to have experienced certain things, and need to have made specific commitments. If an individual fell short in any area, they were out. If congregations fudged on any area, they were out. Those left of center saw the church as a centered set with the person of Jesus as the focus. There was no list which one had to check off, only a relationship to Jesus to be lived. Individuals and congregations were more free to define that relationship within their context as their journeys led. The discussion has largely ended with an uneasy truce being made. The denomination has chosen a bounded set with less restrictive boundaries. Many conservatives are unhappy with the decision and one region withdrew from the denomination. For them the boundaries are too loose. Many liberals and progressives are equally unhappy, chaffing at any boundaries set by external authorities, and have sought new connections with more open groupings of churches such as the United Church of Christ and/or the Alliance of Baptists.

So what should a big tent Christianity look like? Some thoughts...

It will be different from place to place and time to time. Context is the key to incarnation and big tent Christianity is incarnational if it is anything.

Other words that are important for me are "welcoming," "compassionate," and perhaps most important of all, "humble."

It will be Big Tent both in terms of a welcome to a wide variety of people but also to a wild mix of ideas and questions. A few years ago we had an adult Sunday School class on the Baptist tradition where we wrote confessions of faith (we do not have creeds). One of the small groups wrote a confession that began, "All confessions of faith must be written in pencil." I like that a lot. It feels right to me.

The final descriptor that strikes me is, "difficult." To hold together a community of faith is difficult when there is no list of doctrines to which one must adhere, no enemies to revile, no list of do's and don'ts to which one must ascribe. Instead we have a common lord to follow and a common journey to walk. I believe that can be enough to hold us together... if we want to be held together. And I believe that is the only Church worth being held together in... and the only church worthy of the name, Christian.

Friday, August 06, 2010

household gods

In the Hebrew scriptures there are a few passages that reference household gods - those little deities that are kept in the home and secure blessings for the inhabitants. When someone moves, they take the household gods along to keep the blessings coming. You make offerings, visit the high priest, do what you can to keep them happy and they perform their duties.

I think the closest thing we have today to a household god is a car. Think of it for a second... Before we can receive their blessings, we have to go through training and receive a certificate that tells everyone we have been initiated and know the rules of caring for and operating our little god. When we make use of them, we begin with a series of ritual movements, each of which must be performed in a specific way at specific times. If we do not follow the prescribed patterns, we are punished either by the god directly or by a special society of men and women wearing special clothing and carrying magical implements who watch to make sure we comply with the rules. Once a week we make an offering of the remains of dead animals and plants to them to keep them well fed. Every few weeks we perform personal rituals - washing them, checking fluids... and a few times a year, when they get cranky, we take them to visit the high priest who, for an offering of cash which often is significant, takes them back into the holy of holies where we cannot venture, waves magical implements, applies special ointments, and when finished, returns our household god back to us, happy and ready to serve.

Over the past few weeks both of our household gods - a 2002 VW GTI and a 2003 Honda Accord have been to visit the high priest. The GTI required a significant offering. Oh well. I love my GTI and it serves me well. (FWIW, that is not my car but looks exactly like it)

Thursday, August 05, 2010


What motivates you?

Prop 8 yet again...

First the obvious disclaimer. I was against Prop 8. I think it reflects poor law, poor sociology, and poor theology. I think it should not have passed and it should have been overturned. Still, I think my understanding of theology (or anyone else's) is irrelevant to the question. I shouldn't have a say in the issue.

31 states have had popular votes regarding same sex marriage and in all 31 cases, same sex marriage was outlawed. In the case of my state, I have often heard, "The people have spoken. They passed Prop 8. The courts should not be involved. Don't we live in a democracy?" That argument is specious. Rights are not legislated by popular vote. Indeed, the majority has often worked to repress the rights of the minority, often violently. US history is ripe with examples of that taking place. It was so visible a problem that the 14th Amendment to the Constitution specifically addresses it: "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States" Indeed, it is the proper role of the courts to step in and stand against popular opinion or states' rights when the majority abridges the rights of any minority.

The lawyers working to overturn Prop 8 sought to show three things:
1. that marriage is a fundamental right
2. that depriving gay and lesbian citizens to that right harms them and harms their children
3. and that depriving gays and lesbians of the right to marry does not help heterosexual marriages at all.
The judge ruled that all three propositions were right and that even the witnesses for keeping Prop 8 as law had admitted all three propositions in testimony.

As for the folk who are afraid that this ruling will force them to act in ways contrary to their beliefs... again, the argument is silly. As a pastor, I am not forced to perform a wedding for anyone or to recognize any particular couple as married. The Roman Catholic Church does not recognize a second marriage as a marriage and will not perform one. Still, as a civil matter we allow legally divorced people to marry. Some churches will not recognize marriages between people of different races or different religions. Such couples are free to find a clergy person or a justice of the peace who will preside over their ceremony. It is irrelevant whether or not a religious group recognizes or doesn't recognize the union, it is legal. On the other side of the coin, I have presided over weddings of gay or lesbian folk in states where such marriages were not legally recognized. It didn't matter what I did or said, the union was not legally recognized. The religious act and the legal reality were separate issues. The bottom line is that a religious group can remain true to its beliefs regardless of what the law says regarding same sex marriage. The legal issue is a separate one and in this case, if marriage is a right, the Constitution is clear that gay and lesbian folk cannot be denied that right.

I'm sure this ruling will be appealed and will make its way to the supreme court. I am hopeful that they will see their way clear and stand for the rights of the minority and for the Constitution, ruling that all people are free to marry and enjoy the legal protections and obligations of marriage in all states.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010


A few weeks ago I was listening to a TED talk by Dan Buettner about longevity. (Watch the talk it is great!) He references a study of populations with extraordinarily long life expectancies and ends up with a number of characteristics that are reproducible. One piece really caught my attention. The people in each of the populations had a clear sense of purpose. The study looked at one group in Okinawa who have a concept - ikigai - that he roughly translated as "the reason I get up in the morning." He went on to say that you could ask anyone on the street, "what is your ikigai?" and they would be able to answer you without a moments hesitation.

I've been chewing on that thought ever since. What is my ikigai? What constitutes a worthy ikigai? And what about people who don't have one? In my culture many people assume that the dominant ikigai is to make money and accumulate stuff. I don't think that is true. I think as a people we know that is not a good enough reason to get up in the morning. I think the problem is that we don't have clarity as a culture and even less so as individuals.

Clergy are supposed to have a bit more clarity. We talk of a "call" to ministry. We expect a similar level of self understanding and call among physicians and maybe lawyers too. Certainly I know pastors, rabbis, doctors, and lawyers who have a clear sense of ikigai tied to their profession and who find joy, purpose, meaning, and a reason to get out of bed each morning in what they do. Sadly, many do not. There have been many studies about burnout among clergy which is usually blamed on overwork. I think more likely the cause is lack of a clear sense of call... a lack of clarity around one's ikigai.

Today I saw a talk by Gary Vaynerchuk where he basically says, if you don't love what you're doing, stop doing it. I think he is getting at the question of ikigai...

What is your ikigai? Is it a worthy one?