Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Unexpected Stain of Grace

Yesterday I attended the memorial service for Arthur Foye, the father of an old friend.

Well, more than an old friend really. An old girlfriend. My first kiss, in fact.

If my calculations are correct, her father was a minister of the gospel for something like 52 years. I came to know him when I was a 17 year old half man / half punk. I remember being embraced by the family, and I remember their house as a place of love and joy and acceptance. This is, of course, in complete accord with everything that was said about Art during the service yesterday.

I would estimate that there were at least 300 people in attendance, in spite of bad weather that has plagued the state over the past week. The spirit of the gathering was not downcast or melancholy. We certainly mourned his passing, and many will miss him greatly, and yet the pervasive mood was one of joy and hope, with a generous portion of humor.

I have been thinking throughout the past week of his personal impact on me. It is a curious thing to think about now, some 30 years later, because I am certain that I was not much more than a blip in his life, some skinny kid who hung around his daughter for a year or so. We did not have many actual one to one conversations between us. I was much more likely to sit down and chat with Joan, his lovely bride. We certainly had no deep conversations about Jesus, or theology, or scripture, or anything like that (that I can recall), which even then was bread and butter to me, as it was to him.

Yet I remember meeting them for the first time as I arrived to pick up his daughter to go to a movie. I was anxious to make a good impression and communicate that I intended to take very good care of their girl. I recall an amused look on his face. Possibly even approving, but as a young man in that situation, I may simply have been hoping for the best.

As time went on, I have memories of celebrating New Year’s eve with the Foye’s, and of their inviting my Mom to join us. This began a friendship between them, which lasted until my Mom died last year. I am so grateful to Art and Joan for their kindness and support to my Mom as she went through much trouble over the last few decades of her life.

I remember eating with them, as he would preside at table – that long, long table in their New England country kitchen. Food was plentiful (important to a teenage boy) and good, conversation bright and studded liberally with laughter. They welcomed me into their family with ease and grace and I always felt welcomed there, even after I was no longer dating their daughter.

I remember visiting the summer Church camp where Art was Director for many years, soaking in the sense of fun and joy that he brought to what I know now is often a pretty tough job.

I remember watching as they cared for, suffered with, and struggle over their children. I remember being struck forcefully by their example of open and total love in all circumstances.

And then through the years following, as I had occasion to visit, we would chat amiably and he would be off to some meeting or another while I would stay for another piece of coffee cake, just thankful for the chance to hang out in their kitchen. If spirit can affect things, then that table must be saturated with love and hospitality.

Looking at all this on the whole, I find myself a little bit surprised how much influence Art and Joan and their home and their family have had on my life. My association has been long but really on the fringes of their lives. Nevertheless, the experience of having been with them, the memory of that time, the knowledge of who they are and that they are there has never left my mind or my heart. Truthfully, I really cannot say that I knew him well. Yet by building a house inhabited by gospel values, and by letting me into that house, even for a brief time, Art and Joan have had a profound impact on my thoughts, my choices and my life. Although it is difficult for me to account for the powerful effect of such brief acquaintance, I am joyfully grateful for it. I am a better man because of it.

It is rather as if grace had such a profound hold on their lives that it simply couldn't help but leak out all over those who came near them. Even now, I still bear the beautiful stains of that grace, and those lovely colors have not washed out. I can only imagine what brilliant colors his life must have lent to those he knew well, and who worked with him regularly.

May the love of God the Father, the peace of Christ, and the joy of the Holy Spirit continue to dwell richly within the memory of Art here on earth, as we await with joyful anticipation the reunion to come when the world is made anew.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

And Now Vampires...

My friend Ron pointed out that not only are Dragons being misappropriated by the popular culture, so is the vampire. To this I must shout an Amen.

The vampire myth goes way back, but as far as I can tell became prominent and common in modern western circles with the publication of Bram Stoker's novel. Having read that book and performed in a chamber theater production of a theatrical adaptation of the book (as Jonathan Harker, the hapless solicitor) I have a powerful appreciation for the story and it's layered exploration of the human condition.

Also among my top list of favorite books are the Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice. Her vampires are certainly of a different order than Count Vlad Dracul, but also layered, complex, dangerous and yes, evil. Yet their evil is not as simple as Dracula's. It is not the monochromatic malevolence of the monster, but more of a reflection of the evil that lives in the hearts of all humans. These vampires struggle with all the questions that we humans struggle with, but along a parallel track -- and that makes their struggle in some ways easier to empathize with. It helps us see their nature -- both good and bad -- more clearly. These vampires are undoubtedly plagued with a curse, and that curse, although it has completely changed their destinies and natures, it also grants them certain kinds of blessings.

Lewis dealt with this sort of "problem" briefly in his introduction to the Screwtape Letters. There is a problem in writing of the Adversary. The temptation is to make him flat, one dimensional, pure evil. But really, you can't. It is not possible. He is dangerous because he is (for instance) intelligent, witty, attractive, etc. Intelligence and all those other qualities are  good things in and of themselves. You can't say that bad creatures cannot have good qualities, for then they would largely cease to be.

Of course that tells us something about the nature of evil and our condition. Evil cannot create of itself, it can only pervert and ruin that which is good by twisting it and bending toward evil purpose.

In Anne Rice's books, you see this complexity exquisitely played out in her vampire characters. Yet while you sympathize with her characters, you don't find yourself desiring them. They are attractive at a certain level, but certainly repulsive. They seek redemption from their condition, but must also accept that they are killers. Their survival requires the shedding of blood -- and it never stops. Ultimately they are doomed by their appetites and tied to the earth. She uses them as more than just symbols. As I said, they are a mirror which Ms. Rice holds up to our faces so that we can see ourselves -- and the view is not pretty.

Now comes Twilight and it's ilk.

Again, I am writing having neither read the books nor seen the movies. I probably will do one or the other or both eventually. I'm not on a crusade, nor will I cordon myself off from their "impure" influences. I know that my ignorance and inexperience opens me up to criticism. Very well. Have it it. Instruct me. But first I will have my say.

These dimly lit vampires seem to be of a different ilk altogether from either Stoker's or Rice's. They strike me as childrens' vampires. Granted, they are for older children, who will be attracted to their barely suppressed sexual longing, and will identify with their anxiety for love and belonging. I say they are childrens' vampires because it seems they are treated as if they were simply people of a different color or culture. When faced with such differences, popular culture tells us we should behave toward them like children. It's as if we were all young girls, staring longingly at her toothy paramour, thinking:

"If we only understood them, if we only took the time to listen to them and get to know them we could see that really, they are just like us. Can't we all just get along. Really? Because he is soooooo cute, and I think I  would really like to have his little vampire babies."

So they seem to be childrens' vampires, and girls' vampires as well. They seem all to be of the type that will have the adolescent femme swooning. The POV of the stories is that of this girl, who operates as the universal archetype of verging womanhood in all of us. Perhaps that is meant to be a corrective for ages of paternalistic masculine symbolic domination. OK. Whatever. I'm still not sure it's really a good idea.

As much as I love teenage girls, both (once upon a time) from the perspective of a teenage boy, and (more recently) of the father of a soon to be teenage girl, I think we must admit that teenage girls, as a group, tend to have a rather peculiarly astigmatic view of reality.

Is it possible that by positioning us all as teenage girls, we are pulling the fangs from vampires too? As literature, what do these stories show us about our own natures, our own condition? I'm not sure I agree with Mr. Wilson (who occasionally has been known to overstate his case) but he does offer one possible view I cite as an example.

I am not alarmed. This sort of thing is to be expected, and as I get older I will find more and more opportunities to decry how the world is just going to heck in some kind of basket or other. I don't like to read too much into such things.

But I do feel like something is being lost here. I don't guess it is the end of the world, but I find myself asking when the symbols of evil are all tamed and domesticated, how will we find new ways to look into the dark jungles of the heart that are full of all manner of wild and authentically terrifying beasts? What pictures will be use to see ourselves and know that we need a way out? What mirrors will aid us to see our need for that redemptive heart surgery?

I guess we will see.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Fungibility of Symbols

There is a movie coming out soon called How to Train your Dragon.

Just in the interest of full disclosure, I haven't seen it. I probably will eventually (can't remember the last time I saw a movie in the theater although I LOVE going to movies). I am reasonably sure that it is cute, somewhat clever, and at least mildly entertaining in that Hollywood  *nod nod, *wink wink kind of way.

Having said that, it also troubles me and makes me just a little miffy.

For centuries, possibly millenia, in most civilizations that I know of, dragons are beasts to be taken very seriously. In western civilization, the dragon has been a symbol of wickedness, of sin, of the presence and power and danger of evil. The dragon is a foe and one that must be slain lest it lay waste the kingdom. It is a wily and cunning enemy, skilled in wordplay and deceit. It is powerful and difficult to destroy. It despoils green and fertile and ruins the beautiful and innocent.

Even in Asian culture, where the dragon is not necessarily evil, it is still an exceptionally powerful force, one that must be reckoned with carefully, and not taken lightly. seems we have become too sophisticated for such symbols. Or rather, too sophisticated for the meaning of the old symbols. So we keep the old symbol and we castrate it. Keep the fangs, the scales, the wings, even the fiery breath. That's all solid comic potential. But let's take away all that danger and all that stuff about evil. Dragons are just reptiles after all, and probably misunderstood.

That's it. They are "misunderstood."

Well, our Christian Fathers did it. They took yule trees and made them into Christmas trees. They completely ripped off the Roman cross, the ultimate symbol of imperialistic power, and co-opted to use as the symbol of the New Kingdom of God. Jesus himself turned the Passover meal on its head, establishing himself as the New Pesach. OK, so such shifts in meaning aren't new.

But each of those cases remade the symbol into something More Powerful, more mystical and more dangerous than before. You might still think the symbol is wrong (as the Jews certainly do regarding Jesus appropriation of Passover), but you can't deny the power of the new thing. But this training your dragon business is just taking a good strong symbol, tearing out all the bones and guts, draining all the blood, stuffing the carcass full of lime jello and making it dance.

What worries me is that we think everything is life is "trainable." When something seems wrong we think the problem is that we aren't educated enough. The bad thing is just some kind of misunderstanding. And we go on thinking that until., just a little too late, we realize that the cute little dickens we laughed at and thought was so cute is about to burn our house, kill our family and grind us to a paste between it's jaws.

There is evil in the world, and to convert every symbol of evil into a cartoon won't make it go away, or make it less dangerous in reality. It just makes us easier to eat.

Well...I'm sure it's a fun movie. I'll try not to grind my teeth too much as I watch it.

Run Baby Run

I played around a bit this past summer with barefoot running. As I was not able to achieve anything approaching the toughness required, and whereas I can't really afford the expense of Vibram Five Fingers, I have pretty much given it up for the winter. I expect to return to flying unshod across the countryside with the return of warmer weather.

Nevertheless, the whole idea of barefoot running really appeals to me. As with so many of these kinds of things, there are zealous converts, prophets of the new way, and pharisaical naysayers firmly planted in the conventional wisdom. I don't really care a whole lot about all that. I just want to walk like a man, and for untold centuries, men walked in direct contact with the ground. And ran.

In fact, there is evidence to suggest that this was one of the great advantages of being human. Over the long distance, the biped has it all over the quadruped. Especially if the biped is water-cooled. Many prey animals are air cooled (panting) which over the long haul is much less efficient.

So what? I'll tell you what.

It seems that our ancient forbears simply ran their dinner to death.

Seems crazy, but if you have no claws, and your teeth aren't all that impressive, what options do you have? Observe the following video and be grateful for your farmer and your butcher.

I wonder if this would be possible during deer season in NH?

Friday, February 19, 2010

A Man in Full

I recently had an opportunity to do business with a 94 year old gentleman who once served in an artillery unit in the Battle of the Bulge. He subsequently spent 30 years as a firefighter in a local fire department. He has been married for 64 years -- "to the same woman."

I should be half the man that he is.

Day Zha Voo (doo?)

The first vehicle I ever owned was a blue Datsun pickup with a white cap on the back.

I got my brother to drive me down to Manchester to pick it up. On the way I asked him if he could kind of give me a quick lesson on how to drive a stick shift. He looked at me and asked if that meant that I actually planned to buy a car I did not know how to drive. Well...yeah.

After administering the obligatory brotherly dope slap, he spent about 4 minutes explaining the interplay of clutch, brake and accelerator. Once he made sure I had paid and received my title and paperwork, he drove off and left me. Some people look at me a little goggle eyed when I tell them this, but I always just shrug and remind them that he is my brother, not my sister.

For those of you that know Manchester, picture turning left on Elm street out of Doble's Chevrolet during rush hour -- the first time you ever drove a manual transmission. It was exciting, I tell you.

Now it's 28 years later. A long string of cars has come and gone, mostly Ford Escorts and Subarus of various types. Now I find myself, rather accidentally, driving a blue pickup with a white cap.

Deja vu baby.

It's still a manual tranny, but this time it's a Chevy. At least my brother won't dope slap me for that.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

My Olympics

Three winter games I want to see added to the winter Olympics:
  • Snowball Conquest (Capture the Flag with Snowballs)
  • Snow Shoveling
  • Ice Fishing
Just sayin'

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Both Wright And Not Wright

Okay, the early results of my N.T. Wright campaign are just starting to trickle in.

I got about half way through Justification, and jumped over to The Challenge of Jesus. I got the gist of where he was headed with the first book, but also realized that that book really is a response to other theologians (primarily John Piper) response to much of Wright's earlier work. Particularly they are responding to Wright's attempt to re-frame our understanding of Paul's writing.

In a nutshell (it's a pretty big nut) Wright is claiming that much of the accepted common understanding of Paul's writing results from medieval, enlightenment and reformation overlays, rather than from what Paul was actually saying. To get to Paul's actual intent, you have to look at the culture and circumstances in which Paul was actually steeped in his day. If you do, you can see that the concept of Justification is not so much about personal salvation (Jesus died to save ME from MY sins) as it is about God saving the whole world, through Jesus who is the completion and climax of God's eternal-all-the-world-saving-plan through his chosen people.

There's a lot more to it than that, as you might imagine. Here's how Mr. Wright himself explains it.

As I see it, bottom line, is that it's another case of people setting up the either/or proposition and getting hung up on it. It seems to me like this is more of a both/and sort of deal. Jesus, Paul, and others used many kinds of pictures to explain what God is doing.
  • Adoption into God's family
  • Redemption from Slavery
  • Declared in the right in a court of law
  • Grafting onto the tree of Israel
  • Spiritual circumcision
  • Made into the people of God - a new chosen nation
And so on. It seems foolish to pick one over the other. They each highlight a different aspect of God's thought and intent as he completes his purpose for the world. So I'm not sure I see why Wright's ideas are threatening or dangerous. He goes through the scripture, and treats them with all the care, humility and depth that anyone would want and he ultimately arrives at the one place that is most important of all -- God saves us through Jesus. The argument is over how.

So, I decided to leave that argument for a while, and get a fuller picture of what's been going on to lead up to it. That's where I am so far. I read in snatches, mostly in time stolen here and there. I'm waiting to get to Jesus and the Victory of God, and Surprised by Hope. I have a ways to go yet.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Marking the Plot

I'd like to welcome my good friend Ron Jung into that strange jungle we know as the blogosphere. He has been circling around, sniffing the air, for some time now. He's finally gotten around to scratching out a spot on the ground, lifting his leg and leaving his wet yellow scent marker on the digital tree that is the worldwideweb.

He hasn't said much yet, except to say that he hasn't said much. Nevertheless, I encourage you to stop by occasionally. If I know Ron at all (and I assure you -- I do) he will come up with something provocative, profound, and possibly paradigm shifting. He might even say something funny, although that may or may not be intentional. I'm confident that all things considered, it will be worthwhile.

You can find him at This Little Plot.

Foggy Day and Unmapped Ways

This last Sunday, my little church voted to move toward dis-incorporation.

It's not that we don't like each other, or can't get along. It's not a church split or a blow up over theological differences. It feels more like a lack of traction.

The church is 15 years old (or so) and we've been a part for 6 years. It was started as a plant but never really seemed to build any momentum. A year ago, we spent a fair amount of time trying to increase our focus, gin up some enthusiasm, attack the mission with fresh vigor...but looking back on how we did...not so much I guess.

We're a small band, and we want desperately to serve God and advance his kingdom, but it seems to us that our current form is just not making it happen. It's partly financial (we project a $17K budget deficit for next year) but mostly it's just a sort of shoulder shrugging sense of giving it our best shot and falling short.

Rather than just fall apart and leave a mess behind, however, we are trying to find a way to go out gracefully, creatively, even usefully. We accepted a 6 month budget, and directed the council (on which I sit) to take action to begin laying groundwork for the dissolving of the legal entity. The final vote will probably happen in late March.

Apparently dissolution of a church is a more complex process than one might have thought. We have responsibilities to the denomination, to the State of NH and to the Federal Government (IRS). Due diligence is required, proper forms must be observed, and the books must close properly. Any remaining assets will go to the denomination specifically for the purpose of planting new churches.

Any remaining people? Well, that's a matter of some conversation. In the middle of it there are sparks of hope. We like each other, and think that God has something for us, perhaps separately, but perhaps as a group taking another form. There is talk. Just a little now, but I think it is growing as we think, and pray and consider what mission Jesus is sending us on now.

Much concern about our Pastor, who we called and who moved out here to New England from Minnesota to serve us. Now we are leaving him in the lurch -- not completely I guess, but there isn't much about it that's pretty. The whole process has been very open, and to some extent, he has guided us through it. We are seeking to do as God will, not grasping at straws to force our plan. Having seen churches implode in the past, I must say this is something quite different and unusual.

While I can only imagine that the ultimate conclusion will be a net good, the future is a foggy white blank, and it is impossible to discern what shapes are going to loom out of the mist as we lurch down a road unmarked and unmapped.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Meeting Mr. Wright

I have been provided with a deep pile of books by N.T. Wright. I am starting to work my way down the pile.

I picked "Justification" as my starting point -- whew! Nothing like walking in on the middle of someone else's conversation and trying to pick up the threads on the fly, especially when the conversation is pretty technical and rests on years of previous experiences shared by the other parties, but not by you.

I have heard so much about Wright's writing for some time. I have friends who think that he opens the door on dusty musty religion and let's in a whole lot of good clean fresh air. I know of others who think he doodles around on the edges of the heretical. From what I've read so far, I'm not sure what all the fuss is about, but I always have a tendency to agree with the book I'm reading now. Especially in a book that is very technical in an area where my knowledge is limited -- compared to the author -- I have a hard time being critical.

There are exceptions to this rule, usually in books be people that I don't think have a lot going on over and ahead of where I am.

At any rate, I'm glad that I'm finally going to get to meet Mr. Wright on the page. I'll report in on my impressions as I journey through his land.

Monday, February 1, 2010


Cold weather
It’s been a little brisk in these parts, with night temps falling around or below zero Fahrenheit, and windchills measured in the negative teens or lower. I love this kind of weather. Not forever, mind you, but for a season it is a wonderful thing. The air is marvelously clear so the light of the full moon is possibly the brightest I have ever seen. I actually took a book outside a few nights ago to see if I could read it by moonlight. The answer was yes.
When I mentioned to a friend recently about what great hiking weather this is, he looked at me sideways like I was out of my mind. Of course, he hasn’t really spent much time outside, certainly not in this weather, so he doesn’t understand that you simply adapt. You dress for it, you adjust your movements accordingly, you take your time and remain mindful of what’s happening to your face, your fingers, your toes. You plan for contingency and you proceed with caution but not fear. The reward is great as you can hike a trail you have walked many times in warmer weather, but find it an entirely new experience – almost a new world.
Plus, I just really like it when I get icicles hanging off my beard.

Went off on a short Louis L’amour jag recently sucking up three of this tales in short order, the best being Matagorda. He is a fine storyteller, though I am slightly puzzled by the use of the term “sky-pilot” to refer to a Christian Minister. Not puzzled as if I don’t know what it means. Puzzled rather by his consistent use of it in all three books, as if it were a common term in use our west during the latter half of the 19th century. I don’t recall ever hearing it before.

I am also re-reading The Silmarillion. Assistant Village Idiot recently posted on how the language in TS differs from the language of either the Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. This has made in less accessible to some, who are put off by the formality and complexity of tone. It seems archaic and musty to some. I find that I love it. It has a sense of majesty, an epic quality. It reads more like ancient history, skirting over novelistic detail but if you accept it for what it is, and stop expecting a novel, it seems to me that that ceases to be a problem. Silmarillion captures that sense of “Northernness” that C.S. Lewis wrote of.

Leno vs. Conan.
Whatever. Ditch them both. They are stiffs. Bring in Craig Ferguson instead. Now that boy is funny. Moreover, sensible people are all in bed anyways. 

Monsters vs Aliens
Watched Monsters vs. Aliens with my kids this weekend. Funny stuff. Gotta love B.O.B. My youngest and I had a conversation about which character we resemble the most. Apparently, I am most like Missing Link. Go figure. 
B.O.B. is the funniest one though.


I think I may end up owning a used Toyota sometime in the next few years. I’m guessing that there will be a lot of them available cheap. If it starts to run away with me, I figure I can just shift the thing into neutral, stop it, get out, and watch the engine rev up until it explodes. Should be entertaining.
Alternatively, while exiting the vehicle, I can ‘accidentally’ re-engage the transmission and watch the empty car plunge over a precipice to its complete destruction. That will not only be entertaining, but might be covered by insurance.