Ramblings, Brokenhearted Theology, Global, Church, Stories, Meaning, Advent, Calendar

Fearing Advent: Who is Coming To Our House?

My son has a book that we read to him during the Advent season. It’s called Who is Coming to This House? and it’s told from the perspective of animal narrators preparing their house (the stable) for the arrival of Mary, Joseph, and the soon-to-be-born Jesus.

Who is Coming To Our House?As the story progresses, each of the animal has a page featuring what they are doing to prepare – the goose puts feathers in the manger, the horse gets the door open, and the spider spins new webs. I am not sure how new spider webs are a welcoming and inviting feature for a manger-birth, but I guess the point of the story is that we all have something we can do to prepare our homes (in the broadest sense – our hearts and homes and spheres of activity and influence) for God’s Arrival.

When Advent began, we pulled the book out of our Christmas box and began to read it in our nightly bedtime routine. The Boy loves books, and for the first few days this was no different. He loved the different animals and occasionally would recite the simple rhymes found throughout the book. He was especially fond of the squeaky voice of the mouse who, throughout the story, reassures the other animals that “someone, someone” is coming to the house.

And then he stopped wanting to read the book. He would suggest other books or say he was ready for a story or a song.

After a few days of this, I pressed him. Why don’t you want to read this book?

It’s too scary for me,” he insisted.

Huh? Too scary?

I got curious and asked him for details but he had none to offer. He insists the book is too scary for him and refuses to read it. If we pull it off his shelf and hand it to him, he’ll grab it and slip it behind his chair, perhaps in the hopes it will disappear until next Christmas.

Advent is a season of wonder and expectation. A season of waiting. But it is also a season of arrival.

Someone is coming to our house and this house of ours is a mess.

Our justice system is broken;
Our biases and prejudices are brutally on display.
Our ocean is full of garbage;
Our world is overheating.
Our hearts are stingy;
Our hands are idle.

This house of ours is a mess. We’re not ready for a guest – not an innocent baby and not a God-in-flesh.

Maybe a dose of fear is appropriate for Advent?

But the beauty of Christmas is God-in-flesh-disguised-as-an-innocent-baby arrives in the midst of the mess and because of the mess.

Someone is coming to our house:

In the midst of and because of a broken justice system;
In the midst of and because of brutal prejudices.
In the midst of and because of our trashed ocean.
In the midst of and because of our warming world.
In the midst of and because of our stingy hearts.
In the midst of and because of idle hands.

As Advent draws to a close and makes way for Christmas…
As our language shifts from ‘Someone is Coming to Our House’ to ‘Emmanuel has Arrived’
As we realize our inability to clean up our messy house…

…perhaps we learn to heed the words of every angelic messenger ever sent:

Fear Not.

Books, Brokenhearted Theology, Contemp Culture, Global, Meaning, Peacemaking, Quotes, Race, Ramblings, Reading Reflections

The New Jim Crow (Reading Reflections, Part 2)

I’m continuing to read and process through Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness. Here are some continued thoughts – largely ideas and statistics offered by Alexander that I’m taking special notice of and lingering on.

The first reflection I posted followed Alexander’s historical narrative of race relations in the United States; in the next two chapters she moves to a discussion of the current criminal justice system in America.

Some terminology:

War on Drugs: a declaration and collection of anti-drug policies championed by the executive branch leading to harsh mandatory sentencing, increased searches (with or without warrants), and federally-funded/incentivized militarization of police.

Mass incarceration: It is worth repeating that Alexander is not simply looking at people in prison, but those who are caught up in the criminal justice system at all levels (those who are detained, in parole, probation, etc. in addition to those in prison)

And some quotes from Chapters 2 and 3:

“Despite the fact that most drug arrests are for nonviolent minor offenses…the percentage of drug arrests that result in prison sentences has quadrupled” (59).

“Up to 99 percent of traffic stops made by federally funded narcotics task forces result in no citation and that 98 percent of task-force searches during traffic stops are discretionary searches in which the officer searches the car with the driver’s verbal “consent” but has no other legal authority to do so” (70).

“[Madison’s Capital Times] explained that in the 1990s, Wisconsin police departments were given nearly a hundred thousand pieces of military equipment…justified to city councils and skeptical citizens as essential to fight terrorism or deal with hostage situations, [but] were rarely deployed for those reasons but instead were sent to serve routine search warrants for drugs or make drug arrests” (77).

“Suddenly, police departments were capable of increasing the size of their budgets, quite substantially, simply by taking the cash, cars, and homes of people suspected of drug use or sales…Between 1988 and 1992 alone, Byrne-funded drug task forces seized over $1 billion in assets” (78).

“Never before in our history have such an extraordinary number of people felt compelled to plead guilty, even if they are innocent, simply because the punishment for the minor, nonviolent offense with which they have been charged is so unbelievably severe” (86)

A few thoughts:

As the situation in Ferguson has continued to unfold, the protesting voices are naming Ferguson as a microcosm of a wider, systemic issue. The voices speaking out against the protesters seem to suggest Ferguson is an isolated incident – one man, one police officer, one situation. From all the conversations I’ve had, these are the two most common “camps” people find themselves in (realizing that there are, of course, radical positions stemming from both of these).

Michelle Alexander’s picture is nothing less than a widespread, systemic issue in our law enforcement and criminal justice system. Even if you took the racial thread out of her argument, the narratives of implementation/enforcement and statistics comparing sentencing in the USA compared to global norms are still pretty shocking. Though as I mentioned in my first post on this book, Alexander’s work is intended to name mass incarceration as a racial caste system, not simply an unjust or unnecessary obsession with fighting drugs.

Her work continues to push into statistics, research, and accounts suggesting this is not simply a widespread, equal-opportunity injustice, but this amounts to the new Jim Crow. I think there’s still work to do in order to communicate across the two camps mentioned above. How do we not simply continue moving forward with the status quo if our population is so divided on whether there is, indeed, any kind of systemic issues at play in all this?

Thoughts? Questions? Oversights? Objections?

Books, California, Church, Contemp Culture, Equipping, Future, Global, Meaning, Peacemaking, Quotes, Race, Ramblings, Reading Reflections

The New Jim Crow (Reading Reflections, Part 1)

A group of us at Open Door are moving through a Circle focused on the black-white race divide in the East Bay.

One of the resources offered to provoke thought and conversation is Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness. As I read through it, I’ll be posting some of the thoughts, quotes, and questions I encounter.

First, some foundational terminology:

Jim Crow: Historically, the series of laws and policies allegedly implemented to maintain social and economic order (“separate but equal”) in the aftermath of the Civil War and Reconstruction

Undercaste: “a lower caste of individuals who are permanently barred by law and custom from mainstream society” (13)

Racial caste system: “a stigmatized racial group locked into an inferior position by law and custom” (12)

Mass incarceration: – Broader than our physical prison system, Alexander talks about mass incarceration as encompassing the “larger web of laws, rules, policies, and customs that control those labeled criminals both in and out of prison” (13).

And some quotes from the Introduction and Chapter 1:

“The plight of African Americans is that a huge percentage of them are not free to move up at all. It is not just that they lack opportunity, attend poor schools, or are plagued by poverty. They are barred by law from doing so.” (13)

“The War on Drugs, cloaked in race-neutral language, offered whites opposed to racial reform a unique opportunity to express their hostility toward blacks and black progress, without being exposed to the charge of racism.” (53)

“Once again, in response to a major disruption in the prevailing racial order – this time the civil rights gains of the 1960s – a new system of racialized social control was created by exploiting the vulnerabilities and racial resentments of poor and working-class whites. More than 2 million people found themselves behind bars at the turn of the twenty-first century…banished to a political and social space not unlike jim Crow… The mass incarceration of communities of color was explained in race-neutral terms, an adaptation to the needs and demands of the current political climate.” (56-57)

A few thoughts:

Though Alexander harshly criticizes Republican policies (driven to extremities by the rhetoric and posturing of campaign politics), she also labels Clinton as “more than any other president” responsible for creating “the current racial undercaste” (56).

This book is not playing the game of partisan politics/ideology so much as critiquing the entire enterprise of empire as it’s played out throughout American history. It’s a pretty scathing assessment and I’m unsure (and eager to see) how Alexander proposes solutions and steps forward in the midst of a system that is seemingly being described as irreparably broken.

Thoughts? Questions? Oversights? Objections?

Brokenhearted Theology, Meaning, Quotes, Ramblings, Resurrection, Spirit, The Saints

There Are No Lakes Till Eternity (On Reading Rilke)

We are not permitted to linger, even with what is most
intimate. From images that are full, the spirit
plunges on to others that suddenly must be filled;
there are no lakes till eternity. Here,
falling is best. To fall from the mastered emotion
into the guessed-at, and onward.

Rainer Maria Rilke, To Hölderlin

Poetry lends itself to reading between the lines and finding meaning that may or may not have been intended by the author. This is true of poetry in general but certainly and particularly true of Rilke.

Rilke wrote in the language of German and the language of a mystic, neither of which is my native tongue. So when I read his works they are translated once by a scholar from German mysticism into English mysticism and then a second time as I translate Rilke’s mysticism into some grain of truth or beauty that I am capable of comprehending and wielding.

The nature of this dual-translation is such that I’m never sure if what I find true and beautiful is actually Rilke or something that emerges in the long journey from Rilke’s written words through the translator’s pen to my mind. Or both?

But I’ve been dwelling all day on the above-quoted section and find in it a deep truth of the human condition. Despite our deepest desires for safety and shelter, life rarely permits us to linger. Even when we find ourselves in a moment of fullness – saturated with meaning and emotion and love and beauty – it is fleeting, and then only an image of fullness rather than true fullness, which does not exist on this side of eternity.

To live is to fall into the guessed-at, and onward.

Books, Global, Meaning, Pedagogy, Quotes, Ramblings

Some Crazy Things About The Brain (And How We Learn)

I’m reading a fascinating book about memory and brain science – How We Learn (Random House, 2014) by Benedict Carey. A science journalist for the New York Times, Carey takes all kinds of scientific research and psychological studies, smashing them together as he asks the question of how (best) our brains work throughout the learning process. As it turns out, the brain is pretty fascinating.

Carey writes that:

[The brain] registers far more than we’re conscious of and often adds previously unnoticed details when revisiting a memory or learned fact…It has a strong preference for meaning over randomness, and finds nonsense offensive…If the brain is a learning machine, then it’s an eccentric one.

Some crazy things about the brain and memory:

Forgetting is good. Carey quotes UCLA psychologist Robert Bjork saying “forgetting is a friend to learning.” Or, when we re-collect our memories, our brain allows us to filter out (“forget”) those things we don’t need so we can more easily find those things we do need. Later, Carey says that “forgetting is critical to the learning of new skills.”

Memories don’t disappear. They decay and distance themselves from retrieval. According to Carey, we don’t really forget anything; those memories just get woven and buried in a series and systems full of other memories. They may be irretrievable (or, more properly, very difficult to retrieve) but they’re there, somewhere.

The brain has endless storage space. There’s plenty of room in our brains. Enough, Carey says, “to record every second of a long life, cradle to grave.”

Memory involves both retrieval and storage. Some memories are high in retrieval strength (it’s easy to remember quickly) and others are high in storage strength (you won’t forget this. It’s packed nice and neat and you always know where it is). The stronger memories are high in retrieval and storage. The worst are low in both, but most are somewhere in between.

Memorize for 1/3 and rehearse for 2/3. The best studies show that knowledge is most deeply engrained and retrievable (for a test or performance or speech) when you spend 33% of your time with rote memorization and the rest rehearsing and practicing what you studied. Recite it, write it out, dance through your program. Just don’t sit and look at the book all day.

Oh, and memorize in different rooms with different background noises at different times with different people around. All those distractions will double up the pairings and connections made by your brain and will increase retrievability of those names, dates, and facts.

Fascinating book, encourage you to check it out.

Even more fascinating brains we have, encourage you to use yours well.

The above quotes are from a pre-publication copy provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

Books, Brokenhearted Theology, Church, Equipping, Leadership, Meaning, Ministry, Prayer, Ramblings, Worship

Listening to and Learning from Eugene Peterson

I was raised with a skepticism toward Eugene Peterson.

How dare he turn Bible translation into a one-man show?

“The Message” isn’t a Bible or a translation. It’s “Eugene’s Happy Thoughts.”

This is not the stuff of serious, God-honoring Christianity.

When I found out that he was well-studied in biblical languages, that he penned The Message not for the world but as a contextual exercise in caring for his local congregation, that his writing is a deep, deep well of wisdom pointing the way to Jesus, I got over that skepticism.

And then it was that I just didn’t have time. He had written a lot of books (not just The Message). They all looked good. But when to read them?

Preparing to move, I sorted through all my books and found a few boxes I was ready to part with. I took them to Archives, the local theological bookstore, and watched them quickly flip through most of the pile, with a few cringes and chuckles. There were a few with some resale value so I traded those two boxes for store credit, enough to purchase a small stack of books to start the next leg of my journey.

peterson-squareGift card in hand, I jokingly asked where the Eugene Peterson section was. While he didn’t quite have his own section, there were nearly two full shelves devoted to his work. I browsed, checked which ones were available in used-but-clean condition, and grabbed a stack of five.

The Contemplative Pastor. Yes, this will be helpful.

Praying with the PsalmsI don’t love the Psalms but Greg is constantly carrying this book around. I should probably try that too. 

Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral WorkKurt said I had to read this one. I should read this one. 

Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. Integrity, yes, that’s key.

Subversive SpiritualityYes, I sometimes pretend subversive is my middle name.

So far I’ve made it through the first of the list, with a bit of time spent in the second. Embarking on this next context of vocational calling, Peterson’s words have been life-giving and challenging. I’ve underlined, highlighted, and annotated much throughout the book, but particularly appreciated these whistleblowing lines from Peterson on prayer and the vocation of pastor.

Prayer is not a work that pastors are often asked to do except in ceremonial ways. Most pastoral work actually erodes prayer. The reason is obvious: people are not comfortable with God in their lives. They prefer something less awesome and more informal. Something, in fact, like the pastor. Reassuring, accessible, easygoing. People would rather talk to the pastor than to God. And so it happens that without anyone actually intending it, prayer is pushed to the sidelines.

And so pastors, instead of practicing prayer, which brings people into the presence of God, enter into the practice of messiah: we will do the work of God for God, fix people up, tell them what to do, conspire in finding the shortcuts by which the long journey to the Cross can be bypassed since we all have such crowded schedules right now. People love us when we do this. It is flattering to be put in the place of God. It feels wonderful to be treated in this godlike way. And it is work that we are generally quite good at.

Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor

Books, Brokenhearted Theology, Contemp Culture, Equipping, Global, Meaning, Pedagogy, Quotes, Ramblings

Maps, Moons, Illusions and the Integrated Life

I’ve been paging through What Galileo Saw: Imagining the Scientific Revolution by Lawrence Lipking, a literature/humanities professor at Northwestern. The book’s big idea is that the Scientific Revolution was only possible because of a synergy of imagination between science, poetry, observation and the arts. Galileo was not simply what we would, today, call a “scientist;” Yes, he looked at the stars through a telescope, but he also painted and sketched, he wrote prose, poetry, and essays, he manufactured and created.

Lipking notes that contemporaries of Galileo looked through similar telescopes at the same moon and made similar observations about the moon’s surface, yet because of Galileo’s unique perspective and artistic imagination, he was able to assemble his observations in such a way that radically affected the cosmological understanding of his day and shifted the course of scientific discovery.

This key moment of intellectual progress was brought about by a beautiful integration of science and art and imagination. 

I love it and have been chewing on this all week. There are all kinds of implications here for how we shift from disintegration and compartmentalization to a holistic and integrated perspective on life and the world around us.

Here’s a few quotes from What Galileo Saw (Cornell Press, 2014) that got my attention and have stuck with me.

“Eventually the story of a war between imagination and science became so powerful that it divided the world.”

“Again and again the work of scientists has resulted in new ways of imaging life and the world. This process is not an abnegation of science but part of science itself.”

“To see things is to change them.”

“The history of the arts keeps pace with technical advances: the laws of perspective, the camera obscura, photography, film stock, computer imaging. In this respect, one might argue that in practice science continually joins with art to reenchant the world.

“A map is not, nor is it intended to be, the thing it represents. Instead of an illusion of reality, it offers a scheme of relations, in which the often muddled shapes and vistas that meet the eye resolve into intelligible and clearly distinguished marks and points.

The above quotes are from a pre-publication copy provided by the publisher through NetGalley.