Saturday, March 26, 2011

dancing about architecture

Steve Martin reportedly once said that "talking about music is like dancing about architecture." I understand that. Music can be described and analyzed. There are rules and formulas that can be written down and passed on. There are techniques that can and must be learned in order to make music. Still, when it is all it should be, music becomes a spiritual experience that truly is beyond words... indeed, if what we say with music could be said with words, we'd do that. But we can't because there are things that must be communicated that are beyond words. So we make music. And music - vibration/harmony/melody/rhythm - is built into the very fabric of creation.

Zoe Keating is a cellist who makes sublime music using a cello and looping technology. This video is a short interview where she talks about her music and expands upon the ideas implicit in the Martin quote.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Will the real....

_______ please stand up?

Back in my childhood, I remember watching the television show, To Tell the Truth. An individual with an unusual occupation or experience would be joined by two impostors and a panel of celebrities would question them and try to decide who was the real person. For some time I've struggled with the question, Would the real Baptists please stand up? or, Would the real Christians please stand up? And recently, Would the real Muslims please stand up? How do we decide who is the real thing? Who gets to define the term?

Let me give some examples. Early Baptists had four commitments that distinguished them from other Christian groups. They believed in soul liberty (an individual is responsible for his or her own faith), church freedom (no outside body can tell a church what its ministry must look like), freedom of the Bible (the scriptures speak for themselves and nobody can assign an official interpretation), and the separation of church and state(much more complicated than many people think, but that is another post). Those four commitments led to a wide variety of theological stances from fundamentalist to Unitarian but all stood within the tradition. Few Baptists today are willing to live with the implications of that freedom - think especially of the Southern Baptist Convention. Are they still Baptists?

How about Christianity in general? All Christians would presumably say they are trying to follow Jesus but their understanding of who Jesus is would differ to the point that, at least in some cases, they clearly are not talking about the same person. Let me give an example that is close to my heart and about which I'm willing to live with significant differences... but it is a real difference. The early Christians were pacifists. They followed the teachings of Jesus and understood the things he said about enemies as absolutely prohibiting participation in the military or acting in violence under any circumstances. Rather than take up arms against enemies, they chose to watch as loved ones were tortured and killed and to endure the same. Most in the Anabaptist traditions in the Church continue to understand the teachings of Jesus that way. Beginning with Constantine, Christianity began to identify more and more with the empire of the day and military service was seen as a appropriate way to express one's faith. There are movements in the US military today that absolutely identify themselves as followers of Jesus even as they launch missiles against Libya or attack enemies in Afghanistan. It is difficult to imagine a more different understanding of how to follow Jesus. Are they both Christian? Who decides and how? What does the term mean?

More recently there has been a great deal of discussions about the nature of Islam. We often hear statements like, "For Muhammad, religion and politics were one and the same so any Muslim is automatically against separation of religion and government and is out to impose Sharia law on the entire world. Convert or kill is the mandate." Whether or not that was Muhammad's original understanding is another discussion but it clearly is the understanding of some visible Muslims today. It also clearly is not the understanding of the overwhelming majority. Indeed, all of the Muslims I know are absolutely committed to freedom of religion and to a more peaceful expression of their faith. So, who gets to define the term?

I don't have any good answers. I find myself wanting to define the terms as I prefer they be used. Of course, that may or may not coincide with how you prefer they be defined or how the general population understands them. A good friend of mine was involved in a Black Muslim organization back in the 60's where they had a saying - "he who talks loudest gets over." Often these terms are defined by the most visible or most vocal groups... Do we allow the crazies (or at least the folk who don't think like us as they might define me as a crazy) to own the terms or do we keep trying to re-frame the discussions and redefine the terms? I have to admit that I'm growing tired of those battles... but they still feel worthwhile to me.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


I feel deeply for the people of Libya. I respect the hunger they feel for freedom and self-determination and I think I understand both the optimism and the despair that led to their uprising. My heart breaks for the violence perpetrated by their own leader against them. I feel disgust at mercenaries willing to enter another country and kill the people there because the leader s afraid that using his own forces will alienate the military and turn them against him. Something in my gut resonates with the old Bruce Cockburn song, "If I Had a Rocket Launcher..." and the myth of redemptive violence calls me like a siren call.

All of that said, we should not be involved. There are at least three good reasons for that. The first is that we cannot afford to be involved in yet another war. I understand that on the first day, the US launched 112 cruise missiles into Libya. Those missiles cost $1 million each. Just for comparison sake, NPR receives about $5 million a year in government funding. Imagine how many teachers, college scholarships, meals for the poor, health care for the needy we could fund with $112 million dollars, and that was one day... there is no end in sight. Today, an F16E crashed. Evidently the pilots are safe but there are reports that US service people were injured in the rescue. I tried to find prices for an F16E and the ones I could discover ranged from $31.1 to 43 million in 1998 dollars. Add in the other costs and I can't imagine it is costing us less than $500 million a day. This is at a time when many are saying we're broke and those on the right are calling to slash programs for the poor, for children, for the elderly... We cannot afford to engage in yet another military adventure.

Second, we have seen that whether our intentions are good or not, we can't seem to get things right in the Middle East. No, I do not believe the lines we were fed by the Bush administration as we went into Iraq and Afghanistan, but at least some folk did... so even if I give them the benefit of a doubt, IT DIDN'T WORK. Why in the world would we think this would turn out any better?

The third is what war does to the participants, the human costs. Taking a human life destroys a piece of your soul even if the act is justified. For some folk, it is a small bit, for others, it is a huge piece and some never are the same again. I can't help but think the number of vets living on the streets has something to do with the condition of their souls when they got back... and healing a soul is not an easy thing. And there are the horrific examples of destroyed souls that we saw in the photos from Abu Ghraib and now from the "kill squad" in Afghanistan. I would never begin to imply that all soldiers turn into monsters... but some do. Were these evil kids before they went off to war? Perhaps some were, but what about those who were so damaged by their experiences that they became less than human. Again, I am not implying this is the norm or even common, but I do not believe these young men and women would have acted that way had they not been sent off to war. Yes, I know Obama has said we will not send in ground troops and at least to some degree that may mitigate some of the human costs to our side, but as today showed, even an "air war" sometimes requires boots on the ground and there are men and women firing the missiles and flying the planes who know their actions end in death and destruction. Plus, there are the traumatic brain injuries, the missing limbs, the deaths, collateral damage to civilians and infrastructure in foreign lands, and the destroyed families there and here.

I am a pacifist and do not believe war is justified, period, but for those who believe that at times war is a necessary evil, these human costs must be weighed seriously. This is not the time or place to send our young men and women.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

NFL lockout

You all know that I'm a football fan... well, not exactly a football fan, I'm a Steelers fan. Growing up in Pittsburgh, football is as present as the air you breathe and the Steelers are religion. Watching football on television, it is easy to forget just how violent the sport really is, how big, strong, and fast those players are. Imagine a 300 pound player with reflexes like a cat, wearing pads and a helmet, running at you at the speed of a high school sprinter with one thing in mind... and you're not at the happy end of that event.

My son, John, is built like an NFL defensive lineman and is stronger than a bull. His arms are significantly bigger than my thighs and as hard as rock. He is very athletic although not terribly aggressive. He started to play football in 9th grade and dislocated his knee in a scrimmage before the season even began. He decided not to play again.

There was some pressure on him through high school to join the team again and then even more when he attended City College where one of the coaches told him that with his size and strength and a bit of coaching, he'd have a good shot at getting a scholarship to a division one school when he was finished at City College. And they had a slot at nose tackle just waiting for him. He was very, very tempted but decided against it. I have to say that I was relieved. Even as I experienced a bit of a thrill, picturing him in my mind running out onto the field, pushing his way through the middle of the line and sacking the opposing quarterback, stopping a run up the middle to deny a touchdown, my imagination went back to the dislocated knee and imagined so much worse.

Those thoughts take me to the possible lockout of NFL players. Yes, many of them (not all) get paid huge salaries and it might be easy to see them as overpaid, spoiled brats. While some, no doubt, are, there is a lot more to the story. The average NFL career is only 3.6 years long and a very large percentage of those players leave the game with permanent injuries. Some will have permanent brain damage. Some will have leg injuries that will make walking painful or difficult for the rest of their lives. Many will struggle with weight issues and its attendant heart problems and diabetes. Depending on their length of play, they may or may not have significant health care benefits as they struggle with what are often lifelong problems.

During the lockout, the players will not be paid and they will lose whatever portion of that 3.6 year average career the lockout takes. In the meantime, the owners will continue to receive revenue from television contracts which pay whether or not the games take place. So, because of reduced costs and continued income, the owners will make a profit even if there is no season. The players, all of those who work in the stadiums, and the franchise cities will suffer.

So what do the owners want? They want an increased percentage of the total revenue. They now get approximately 50%. They say they are losing money but refuse to allow the players union to see the proof. They also want to increase the season 2 more games to 18. This would increase the likelihood of injuries to players and shorten their careers at the same time that their salaries would be cut. There are other details as well that would seriously impact the players.

What do the players want? A fair cut of the revenue, health care, basic rights, and to play the game they love. They are not asking for more of anything and indeed, had a collective bargaining agreement that the owners are choosing to back out of.

From what I can see, the players have tried to negotiate in good faith and the owners have done anything but. You can go to NFL Lockout to learn more and to sign a petition urging the owners to negotiate in good faith and allow the season to go ahead.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

ahh springtime

Yes... I know it isn't spring time many places. And yes, I know that what passes for weather in Santa Barbra is pretty much perpetual spring. It took me a couple of years before I could figure out that there actually are seasons here, even though the differences are very, very subtle.

When spring comes, many flowering trees go into bloom and many of them are fragrant. The airs smells of flowers everywhere. We have a few pittosporum trees on the church campus that go into bloom in spring and are flat out amazing. They are bout 150 yards or so from my office but all I have to do is stick my head out the door to be intoxicated by them. Even cooler than that, as you would expect, they attract bees by the thousands. They are alive with them. Last year I discovered that if you stand under the trees in the morning and remain quiet, the trees actually buzz from the bees flitting from flower to flower, gathering pollen.

It is an amazing experience...

Thursday, March 10, 2011


I'm a Baptist. One of the core commitments of all true Baptists is separation of church and state. Religion must be freely chosen and the government has no role in either curtailing or supporting religious practice. Essentially, religion must be invisible to government.

Today, Rep. King, a Republican from NY state is holding hearings to look into the "The Extent of Radicalization of Muslim Americans." While there is no doubt that there are radical Muslims in America and it might even be possible that the number is growing, to paint with such a broad brush is clearly a swipe against freedom of religion, a core principle upon which this nation was founded. When one faith group is singled out for attack, all are threatened.

Representative King, this is as un-american as it gets. You should be ashamed.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Time for Jubilee?

A few pieces fell together for me the other day and I have to admit, the constellation both horrified and frightened me.

Piece #1. There has been a concerted effort to mobilize the religious community in greater Santa Barbara to reach out to and care for our neighbors without homes.

Piece #2. I've read stats and seen charts about the economic division in the US... that the gap between the rich and the poor is growing wider, that the rich are getting richer at an alarming rate and everyone else is stagnant at best, that the wealthiest 400 Americans have about the same wealth as the poorest 155 MILLION people, that the percentage of children living in poverty is approaching 25% (here are a few graphs that point to some of this data)

Piece #3. Just when it is clear that more children are slipping into poverty, many of our political leaders call for cutting programs to help children. Just when it is clear that we are falling further behind much of the rest of the world in education (we're 9th in the percentage of YA's with college degrees), those same politicians are calling for cuts to education spending. Just as we're starting to crawl out of a terrible recession, they call for cuts in government jobs and spending which will put more people out of work. At a time of record deficits when a larger percentage of government receipts comes from regressive payroll taxes, they call for cuts in progressive taxes and for cutting the very programs that the regressive payroll taxes were put in place to fund.

Piece #4. The people seem to be rising up in response to the actions of the Wisconsin governor.

All of this got me thinking about the Year of Jubilee in the Bible. During the Year of Jubilee all debts were canceled, slaves were freed, and land returned to the families who had originally owned it. No family would permanently benefit from the hard work or luck of an ancestor nor would any family permanently suffer from the misfortune or laziness of an ancestor. There would be no trust fund babies and no permanent underclass. Every 50 years, wealth would be redistributed and everything would be equalized.

Now, as a person of European descent living in the US, I'd be more than a little leery of calling for a literal Year of Jubilee... that would put all of the property back in the hands of the Native Americans... Clearly though, it is God's plan that everything regularly be redistributed so everyone truly has a fair shake. I don't know what that might look like, but I think it begins with progressive taxes, includes programs for the poor, and values education and infrastructure above military might.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Love Wins

I've posted before about universalism... and I clearly believe it is the only reasonable option. I've been interested to see the topic being raised in evangelical circles lately. I think they struggle too hard against it, but more and more, especially younger evangelicals, seem to be embracing the idea.

Here's a video promo for a new book by Rob Bell

LOVE WINS. from Rob Bell on Vimeo.

If you want to think a bit more theologcally about the subject, check out this excellent short post from Richard Beck on his blog. In a comment on that post, Tyler Priest remarks that at a conference he had attended, Jurgen Moltmann was asked if he was a universalist, Moltmann replied, "No no, there are some people I've met that I do not wish to meet again. But God, now God might be a universalist."