Life


And now this. Rev. Jay Scott Newman of Greenville S.C. has told his parishioners that if they voted for Barack Obama, they should not come forward for communion unless they’ve gone to confession first for participating in “intrinsic evil” by voting for a candidate who was pro-choice, “lest they eat and drink their own condemnation.”

Perhaps Rev. Newman didn’t see the debates; both candidates were (are) “pro-choice,” but they also distanced themselves from the old discourse on the issue. What to do? At least here, under Scott’s logic, this was “no-choice.” Communion, or the polls. If you voted for McCain, you also voted for a “pro-choice” candidate.

The fact of the matter is that both Obama and McCain deliberately tried to distance themselves from the issue, mostly because they knew that they were in substantial agreement on it. To wit: both said they won’t use Roe vs. Wade as the yardstick for determining justice appointments. They agreed with each other in that abortions are tragedies that are best dealt with by changing American cultural standards towards sex and pregnancy in general.

Obama: I think that abortion is a very difficult issue, and it is a moral issue and one that I think good people on both sides can disagree on…. This is an issue that — look, it divides us. And in some ways, it may be difficult to — to reconcile the two views. But there surely is some common ground when both those who believe in choice and those who are opposed to abortion can come together and say, “We should try to prevent unintended pregnancies by providing appropriate education to our youth, communicating that sexuality is sacred and that they should not be engaged in cavalier activity, and providing options for adoption, and helping single mothers if they want to choose to keep the baby.” Those are all things that we put in the Democratic platform for the first time this year, and I think that’s where we can find some common ground, because nobody’s pro-abortion. I think it’s always a tragic situation. We should try to reduce these circumstances.

McCain: We have to change the culture of America. Those of us who are proudly pro-life understand that. And it’s got to be courage and compassion that we show to a young woman who’s facing this terribly difficult decision. … But that does not mean that we will cease to protect the rights of the unborn. Of course, we have to come together. Of course, we have to work together, and, of course, it’s vital that we do so and help these young women who are facing such a difficult decision, with a compassion, that we’ll help them with the adoptive services, with the courage to bring that child into this world and we’ll help take care of it.

Abortion is a stump topic. In the past, candidates have lived (and died) on this issue with conservatives, especially evangelicals and catholics. But not a single candidate has, after being elected, even attempted to do anything about it. At least this time around it was a lot more marginal and got only about 15 or so minutes of time in one debate. By and large, I think Americans have moved on, because I think we’re coming to the realization that someone who is “pro-choice” is NOT “pro-death” or “anti-life.” I think we’re gradually realizing that the goal should be to reduce it and eliminate the need for it. I think we’re also realizing that “pro-life” ought to be a lot more encompassing than simply abortion. It should include, for example, the gulf war.

Which brings me back to Newman: The Church’s position on the War is as clear as it is on abortion. It is a moral evil and must be ended.

It is obviously difficult to really disentangle the relationship between Religion and State. But how one votes should not be determining church membership, whether one can take communion, or especially whether one will spend the rest of eternity in damnation.

obama-globe

My first reaction to the announcement that Senator John McCain called Barack Obama with his congratulations and concession was to let out a primal scream of joy. Until I realized that it’s a little after 11 pm here and the wife and kids are sleeping. So I figured I’d do it here.

I have already seen blog posts, facebook status updates, reader comments, and so on that have basically said “to hell with America, it deserves what it gets” or “God will judge us now worse than he did Israel” and the like. I find this abysmally sad. Make no mistake; Obama is not a messiah, nor is he bringing the kingdom of God. For which we can only be thankful. But to a nation that is consumed with fear, Barack Obama provides a beacon of hope. John McCain might have been able to do the same. But his campaign, intimidated by the popularity of Obama’s politics of hope over a Rovian politics of fear, could not answer appropriately.

The age of politics of fear should be over. (If that’s what you want, I refer you to James Dobson and the remnants of the Religions Right.) It may well be that President Obama is unable to deliver all of the goods. I personally feel that it is unreasonable to expect him to. But there is all the difference between “hope” and “expectation.” Obama has consistently delivered hope, not expectation. Indeed, the only expectations have come from his opponents, which is an expecation of worst-case scenarios designed to play on the fears of those who can only see their disagreements with Obama.

I have never been more proud to be an American than I am this night. I have also never been more proud to be a Christian, and an evangelical one at that.

My friend Marc announced on his blog that his church in Maine is retiring VCW version 1.0 in order to dedicate his efforts to design, develop, and implement version 2.0 in the (hopefully) near future. There’s a lot I could talk about with that, since the idea fascinates me, but towards the end of his entry, he admits that he also needs a rest. And Americans don’t like to rest. It’s not something we value; we see it as a waste of potentially productive time. Simply stopping is decried as being lazy, or, if we are feeling more generous, we express our sympathy for someone who’s “burnt out.” Our idea of vacation is to go somewhere different, cram in as much new stuff to do while we’re there, and then come back to do our normal routine.

Maybe it’s just me, but can’t relate to this. I never have. The modern American “vacation” does nothing for me, and so I try to resist. But some people can’t enjoy their vacation unless they load the calendar with activities (and, I might add, spend more money in a week than they might normally spend in a month or two). My idea of rest is quiet and stillness, to walk the Garden with God in the cool of the day during the evening breezes. My idea of vacation is this exact same thing, only for a more extended period of time than what I can manage normally.

We annually make the trip from CNY to NH to go “home.” In Christian spirituality, “home” is often a metaphor for “place of rest.” In our society, though, it is anything but; some “vacation” at home in order to get more done; others use their “vacation” to work on/around the house for their entire vacation period. When I go to NH, I want to rest, even as I know that I must continue to work in other ways. I do not desire to have my calendar filled up with either my own work or with dozens of activities and excursions that we are not normally able to do. During my rest periods of the day, and on my weekly Shabbat, I desire to sit, perhaps read something light and unrelated to my work, or fish, or walk in my woods. Not everybody understands this or, if they do, they reject it in good American fashion. When I’m “caught” just sitting and enjoying the breeze over the water, I am likely to over hear “go ask your father, he’s not doing anything right now.” I am likely to be accosted with a request for a project that, since I’m not doing anything, I’m able to give a hand to (or be told to do outright by myself). Ironically, in order to rest from my labors, of which there are many, I have to pretend to work, to look like I’m working.

Shabbat is good for the soul. It is good for the mind, and it is good also for the body. It is a lost art. We drive ourselves, our workers, and our students very hard in our society. I wonder how much our work, and the work of our students etc., would improve by allowing them rest, and I wonder what it would take to cultivate a climate that values rest as much as it values productivity.

Some of the sights from our snowshoeing expedition yesterday at Salmon River, NY (click pictures for full size):

Trinity

Stillwater

Footbridge

Salmon River

White pathway

Falls

Falls, again

Through the trees

crows.jpgCity living doesn’t often provide the opportunity to sit in quiet and try to hear the sounds of nature in the stillness. This morning afforded me the rare opportunity, though. After getting ready for my day, I was able to sit in silence and enjoy some lectio before heading to the university to teach.

I read a short passage from the Psalter (Ps. 137). It’s an exilic Psalm, written by someone despairing of being away from home in a strange land, someone who wondered how to make the best of their new environment. I kept returning, over and over, to the first four verses:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song;
and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land?

I have been thinking lately of New Hampshire, reflecting on the White Mountains, the former years of deep snows, the seacoast, the lake behind my house, the woodlot and swamp on the other side, and have been hearing songbirds perched in the giant white pines. This time of year the lake will, of course, be frozen over, and fathers will be taking their sons out to the ice to build a little campfire and try to reel up some perch, bass, bluegill, and crappies. I wish I could be out in my woods, trudging along the paths in the snow with my snowshoes, rather than holed up in a tiny apartment in the city, with nothing but the sounds of trucks, jet planes, snowplows, and arguments.

After I closed my text, I sat back in my chair, and suddenly noticed the silence. There were no trucks, no planes, no human voices, music. But it wasn’t silence. Instead, I heard what I have not noticed in my three years here. Outside my window, the clear call of a half-dozen black crows mingled with the chirping of house finches and sparrows.

I do not know where the crows live, but they are an ubiquitous presence here, often doing a better job of keeping our street clean than than property management or city workers. I do know where the sparrows and finches live, though; they live in the bushes surrounding my building and in the attic.

While I was sitting, enjoying the caw! caw! caw! of the crows and the unmistakable chirping and peeping of the smaller birds, I felt as if they were answering the question posed by the Psalmist. My feathered friends were singing the Lord’s song in an alien place. Crows and birds are not native to city apartment buildings. But they have learned to call this place their home, much better than I am these days. And so the two of us live in exile, one longing to return home, the other building sukkot, knowing that however long they stay here, they will be provided for and carry out their existence in the best way they can, in this place.

hsadventures.jpgIt has been quite a while since I’ve blogged on homeschooling (actually, a while since I’ve written much of anything substantial), but the time seems right for it here. For the past 2 months, while the missus was keeping us afloat with her holiday job, I’ve been juggling orals, prospectus-writing, grading, attending class, entertaining family for Thanksgiving and visiting family for other Christmas-related activities. But the big consumer of time was keeping the homefires burning, especially the homeschool activities. For us, this involves a “co-op” one day a week (for the uninitiated, a homeschool co-op is pretty much school electives in actual classes taught by homeschool parents), gym class on another day, AWANA for the kids, Ballet for one of them, swim lessons on another day, and the three R’s, science, history, and, yes, Bible-history (a.k.a. “western civ in antiquity”) etc every day.

In all this, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on the whole homeschool phenomenon, the stereotypes that go with it, and rationale for it. Most of my “token thoughts” here are based on homeschooling as I experience it and observe it. I know, though, that there are many homeschooler and unschool families who do not fit the mold that this will show, and I hope that some of you folks will comment on your own stuff on this site.

1. In Christian evangelical homeschooling, it is definitely “mom-centered.” It was hilarious how so many of the moms had no idea what to do or what to say when I was anywhere in the area. Usually I was ignored by moms who have kids the same age as my own. One one occasion I was noticed working with another kid and one woman, after looking a bit shocked, snickered and said to me “oh, you must be the token homeschool dad.” Hence the title of the entry here. I find this pretty fascinating; most of these women are your standard and typical evangelical-borderline-fundamentalist moms who feel simultaneously that the world is out to get them and especially their kids, and yet are clearly uncomfortable around men, who they will readily assert are the absolute, biblical heads of their households. I’d have thought that my being around would show a bit of support to the more paranoid, that they’re not in this homeschooling endeavor alone, but it didn’t really seem to be the case. Not every woman there, though, was so standoffish; for the most part, I got on well with many of the teachers whose own kids had come and gone from their homes and who were now in college or in their own careers. Among these, I was heartily welcomed and encouraged to consider teaching for the coop next year. Which brings me to…

2. Because my wife has been involved with these groups now for three years, most of the moms have heard of me, or at least heard of what I do. I’m an academic, a scholar, Ph.D student, teacher at the University, etc, and my field is ancient religion, Bible, and Christianity in general. Which is, to most people in these circles, fascinating, because they think that my kids will get the best apologetically-oriented treatment of Biblical history out of all of them. Well, maybe, but when I’m actually around these folks, it’s a mixture of paranoia and curiosity. See, the Coop exists to help homeschooling parents (read: moms, in this case) teach things that they don’t feel qualified to teach. Science, for example, or advanced history classes, or classical ballet, music, and so on. Greek and Latin are very popular with high school students (or at least with their parents who sign them up for them). Obviously not everyone has a facility for these things. But “Bible” and “Bible history” are not offered. The Bible is an open book; anyone can do it, and for certain folks in these environments, no one, NO ONE, not even Sunday school teachers, will be teaching their kid Bible except for the homeschooling mom in the home, unless it meets the “kid tested, mother approved” criteria of evangelical, conservative, borderline-fundamentalist interpretation. Only way to make sure your kid is getting the Bible taught “right” is to do it yourself. Knowing the Bible, its history, and the history of periods it describes, is not necessarily a prerequisite.

I think it would be a hoot to teach a “How to Read the Bible” elective to the high school kids in the Coop. I may yet volunteer to do so, but I know that most likely it wouldn’t run because the parents would be afraid of it. Which brings me to …

3. I don’t think I’ve ever been around a group of more paranoid people in my life. If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought that these folks are afraid of getting caught doing something illegal. (They’re not in any danger whatsoever.) I think this has something to do with the way I was received by a lot of the people in the Coop. I’m an outsider, even though my kids are there. I’m a dad (and it’s no secret in this particular group that there are MANY dads who simply go along with the moms on the whole homeschooling thing and refuse to allow the moms/teachers any curriculum budget), I’m an academic, I’m in “religion,” I go to a “liberal” church, and I had critical comments to make about the organization’s affiliation with the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) during a casual conversation with some other moms and teachers. The HSLDA traffics in paranoia (kinda like the Bush Administration, come to think of it) and fosters the prevailing notion that everyone outside the walls of the Coop building is out to get them, and that only the HSLDA is equipped to protect you from the public school truant officer. With this mentality, it’s no wonder that anyone who isn’t an insider in the organization (and I’m technically an insider!) is not to be trusted. I think this is a sad state of affairs, because the public school system (here, at least) is very accommodating to the homeschooling crowd and even has offered special needs services for students to whom it would benefit, only to be flatly rejected by the Coop boardmembers because no public school people are allowed on homeschool premises for member families.

4. On the positive note, I will say that at least in the subjects covered in the Coop, I’ve run into some of the brightest and inquisitive young people I’ve ever met. They are genuinely eager to learn, whether it’s Chess, Dance, Public Speaking, Chemistry, or Calculus. There’s even a darn good debate team. I honestly can’t sit here and say that the quality of what these kids are learning is inferior to what they would get anywhere else, public or private. Neither did I experience the ambiguous reception I felt from the moms; apparently this didn’t rub off onto the students, because I felt like they REALLY liked having me around, which is why I’m tempted to offer that “How to Read the Bible” class. And the stereotype that homeschool kids are social introverts is (again, at this place) totally off-base. These kids act their age, which is a good thing.

I think I’ll make this the first part of a three-part post. Next up will be more reflective on the entire homeschooling phenomenon, and the last one maybe I’ll do a post on Why I Homeschool at all (although I kind of covered this in my very first post for Aedificium way back in February of last year; other entries to the subject in the Homeschooling Tag cloud to the right). And I’m very anxious to hear, in comments, from anyone who does NOT homeschool within an evangelical framework, as well as why you do so, as well as from folks whose experiences are closer to my own.

http://img.timeinc.net/southern/events/news/images/ThanksgivingFeast.jpgThis time of the year evokes a lot of emotions and feelings within us. For some of us there is a sense of nostalgia for being close to family. For others, we might feel the almost magical warmth of Christmas events and the coming of the New Year. For others, we start feeling the excitement of the beginning of college hoops, football bowl games, the merciful end of the Orange’s football season, and so on. We feel the closing of once cycle and the new beginnings of another with the annual celebration of Harvesting and of sharing the abundance that God has given us with others, as in Thanksgiving meals and the giving of gifts during Christmas. With this time of year, one season of our lives comes to a close, and another begins.

We celebrate Thanksgiving this week, and with the Thanksgiving season we also enter a few others as well. We enter, for example, the Christmas season; I would imagine that, if you’re like me and my family, you’ll be starting to decorate your house, pull out the greenery, and finally succumb to turning your radio dial to Sunny 102.5 for non-stop, 24/7 Christmas and holiday music.

Related to this is, of course, the “holiday shopping” season, which in reality starts now around Columbus Day rather than Black Friday. And it is fitting that, with this being a seasonal crossing between the old and the new, the Holiday Shopping season participates in this cycle in that there is no other time of year when we are in the full-fledged mode of “Out with the old, and in with the new!” With the Holiday Shopping season, we are absolutely bombarded with advertising assuring us that we really do need NEW and IMPROVED! “this-that-and-the-other-thing.” We’re sucked into the idea that we have to have to get rid of something that might be perfectly good and replace it with a new item. The whole season can awaken the cynic in us that not only starts questioning whether our new and improved lives and gadgets are really any better than we had it a year ago. The omnipresence of advertising and of commercial icons (Nike “swoosh,” Coke, Pepsi, etc) dulls our ability to recognize that which is truly new from the simply repackaged, and when the truly new does finally arrive, we often fail to recognize it, and be thankful and grateful for it. We would feel much better, I think, if the truly new would really advertise itself as such in such a way to shock us into recognizing it, so that we CAN respond appropriately with blessing and thanksgiving.

We’re in luck. Today’s lections from Isaiah and Luke, in particular, give us God’s advertising, and they are so counter-cultural and contrary to our most deeply-seeded common sense that we find it hard to take them seriously. The evangelist reports Jesus’ apocalyptic words in Luke 21 to us on the pretext of prophesying the destruction of the Jewish Temple; he uses vivid imagery the does not, in fact, describe anything in a satisfying, “feel-good” way. Unless we have an apocalyptic fetish, neither should we think of any of these images as anything to look forward to; certainly the earliest Christians did not.

What I want to suggest here is that, far from advertising anything “new,” no matter how bleak and destructive, Jesus here is advertising in no uncertain terms the eternal state of affairs in the world. Really, how can “wars and insurrections,” “nations rising against nations,” empires taking arms against empires, earthquakes, famines, plagues, and other “dreadful signs” from heaven be advertising anything new? Are arrests and persecutions and betrayals of Christians for religious or political reasons anything new?

Advertisements specialize in imagery and depend on our familiarity with their logos, slogans, and products in order to have any effect. In this they function like icons and have tremendous staying power. In Luke today, Jesus employs the truth of these icons to advertise for all those who have eyes to see and ears to hear the way the world is today. He refuses to sugarcoat the first century, much like the ancient prophets refused to sugarcoat the state of the world in which Israel and God’s called ones found themselves in. As prophecy from the mouth of Jesus and in the context of his pronouncements on the Kingdom of God, Luke’s description of the world carries the force of the “always already” and “to come” at the same time.

So much for one kind of God’s advertising; small wonder that these things would either be glorified out of all proportion to the rest of Christ’s and the Prophets’ discourses on the Kingdom of God, or these messages are systematically and institutionally suppressed or ignored out of not wanting to appear offensive or pessimistic about the state of the world (this, of course, is the classic liberal, “progressive” heritage). But I should like to remind us all that this is not at all the only advertisement we find; instead, I want to remind us that this season of the old coming to a close and the new day dawning, both in commercial Christmas and Thanksgiving, the season of Advent is even now on our doorstep waiting to disrupt the state of the everyday.

What advertisements do we have to represent and “sell” God’s newness during the season about to break upon upon us? How will God shock us and upset us? We have seen that Jesus’ advertising strategy sells us nothing new, but more of the old; it awakens, evokes, our desire for the New.

The passage of Isaiah is one of the most outrageous advertisements of God’s Newness, a newness that, like Jesus’ Kingdom of God, is always already and to come if we but know where to look, put faith where it belongs, and do what we are commanded to do. And here we see the other element of advertising; the idea that what is being presented is so outrageous, so out of touch with our reality, so absurd to our financial sensibilities that we cannot help ourselves but desire what the advertisement is trying to tell us we want more than anything else. And the most effective ads even cause us to contemplate doing anything, even sacrificing whatever we have or who we believe we are, in order to have what it wants us to have.

What is God’s ad here? Let this sink in, and let it inform our Holiday sensibility here, especially with Thanksgiving, and Advent, and Christmas. There will be a new earth, a new Jerusalem. Not a repackaging in better boxes of what is already there; but utter newness of the earth and the heart of the people of God’s calling. There will no longer be the sound of weeping or tears of sadness. There won’t be any homeless, nor will there be those oppressed or terrorized by life today to cry out for still more deliverance. There will be rejoicing and thanksgiving, because in God’s new world there will not be any infant mortality or elderly men and women outliving their lives or widows or young men who die in war, for there will no longer be wars fought. There will be rejoicing and thanksgiving because there will no longer be the outrage of eminent domain or foreclosures on homes, and those who build will live; those who plant will reap, and those who harvest will eat and have abundance. The big will no longer consume the small, and all will live under their own vine and fig tree.

Is the Advertisement of God’s newness in Isaiah, the Advent of abundance, blessing, thanksgiving, and gratitude, too much to hope for? Isn’t it worth selling ourselves out to God’s newness, to be seduced by this advertisement, to make this an Always Already and speed up the To Come?

Advent and Thanksgiving are both upon us. May we share our abundance in the spirit of newness, and may our Thanksgiving be an advertisement to that which we, as people of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, have always already, and may our expectation of his coming stir in us and in those who know us, a new season of Hope. And Life. And faithful abundance.

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