"The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God." -St Irenaeus of Lyon

Archive for March, 2010

We marvel

Whom have we, Lord, like you? –
The Great One who became small, the Wakeful who slept,
The Pure One who was baptized, the Living One who died,
The King who abased himself to ensure honor for all.
Blessed is your honor!

It is right that man should acknowledge your divinity,
It is right for heavenly beings to worship your humanity.
The heavenly beings were amazed to see how small you became,
And earthly ones to see how exalted.

St. Ephrem the Syrian


Things that Go Beep

Recently I have been blessed to hang out with families who have small children. I find myself talking about different things when I am around parents, namely because the subject of kids comes up. And if the kids are not the center of attention, then they figure out a way to become the center of attention. But hanging out with kids makes you think about children’s toys, which incidentally connect to our obsession with electronics. Increasingly, kids’ toys are things that go beep.

Sure, we say that the electronics in toys allows a toy to be educational. We can embed information in the toy that allows the child to “learn” without needing to go to an adult. Or we embed stimulation to keep the child entertained. Or, we embed a functionality associated with using a toy the “right” way. Regardless, something happens to kids the more they engage in a programmed, electronic, and/or virtual world.

One thing that seems to be happening is that kids forget how to play. Recently the NY Times has had two articles talking about schools using recess coaches. We surround ourselves and our children in an electronic world. In this regard, I am sort of unique as I have distinct memories of how electronics influenced my play as a child from things such as a Speak-and-Spell to an electronics set to a computer decked out with educational software to the introduction of the internet.

But there’s a question of what happens to a child’s development when all they have to play with are relatively unidirectional electronic toys. Now in no way I am a Luddite, but I think we would benefit from reflecting on the balance of what we bring into our homes. Especially with kids’ toys, we deal with kids losing interest, outgrowing the toy, or breaking the thing. Do we really need to shove all children’s toys full of electronic components?

The Cycles of Waste

Typically when we think of cycling waste, we think of recycling. Yet we have three options for reusing materials: recycling, down-cycling and up-cycling. If we are serious about reducing something like e-waste, then it is helpful to think about these options.

Up-cycling is probably the most obscure of the three. Up-cycling involves adding value to raw components. Using an old circuit board in a work of art provides one way to add value to the old circuit board. Up-cycling also extends the probably shelf-life of the old material. If the circuit board lives on for 10-20 years as a work of art, then it has been significantly up-cycled. But the questions remain: how much electronic waste can art absorb? what other options can add value to old electronic components?

Down-cycling is arguably the most common of the three. Oftentimes, things cannot be totally reabsorbed into the original market so they are placed within a lower cost material. An example of down-cycling is to shred plastic bottles to create plastic lawn furniture that cannot then be recycled. Yet down-cycling differs from material recovery in that down-cycling incorporates all of the components.

Recycling is keeping the material in the market with similar time and value life. Refurbishment of electronic components is one way recycling works relative to the e-waste problem. It is not always possible to keep all material in a recycled loop as material fatigue is a real problem. Sometimes things have just outlived their usefulness in their current configuration.

The real question about our electronic junk seems to involve finding places to put it that keep the materials in a useful space.

We enter Holy Week

Author’s note: As we enter Holy Week, I prefer sitting in the meditations of others. Today I give you a Palm Sunday sermon from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.

Today, in the day of Palms we stand in awe and amazement before what is happening in a way in which the Jews of Jerusalem could not meet Christ because they met Him imagining that He was the glorious king who would now take over all power, conquer and reject the heathen, the Romans who were occupying their country, that He would re-establish a kingdom, an earthly kingdom of Israel. We know that He had not come for that, He had come to establish a Kingdom that will have no end, a Kingdom of eternity, and the Kingdom that was not open only to one nation but was open to all nations, and the Kingdom that was to be founded on the life and on the death of Jesus Christ, the Son of God become the Son of man.

And Holy Week is from one end to another a time of tragic confusion. The Jews meet Christ at the gates of Jerusalem because they expect of Him a triumphant military leader, and He comes to serve, to wash the feet of His disciples, to give His life for the people but not to conquer by force, by power. And the same people who meet Him shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” in a few days will shout, “Crucify Him, crucify Him!” because He has betrayed their expectations. They expected an earthly victory and what they see is a defeated king. They hate Him for the disappointment of all their hopes.

And this is not so alien to us in our days. How many are those people who have turn away in hatred from Christ because He has disappointed one hope or another. I remember a woman who had been a believer for all her life and whose grandson died, a little boy, and she said to me, “I don’t believe in God anymore. How could He take my grandson?” And I said to her, “But you believed in God while thousands and thousands and millions of people died.” And she looked at me and said, “Yes, but what did that do to me? I didn’t care, they were not my children.” This is something that happens to us in a small degree so often that we waver in our faith and in our faithfulness to God when something which we expect Him to do for us is not done, when He is not an obedient servant, when we proclaim our will, He does not say, “Amen,” and does not do it. So it is not so alien that we are from those who met Christ at the gates of Jerusalem and then turned away from Him.

But we are entering now in Holy Week. How can we face the events? I think we must enter into Holy Week not as observers, not reading the passages of the Gospel which are relevant, we must enter into Holy Week as though we were participants of the events, indeed read of them but then mix in the crowd that surrounds Christ and ask ourselves, Who am I in this crowd? Am I one of those who said, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’? And am I now on the fringe of saying, ‘Crucify him’? Am I one of the disciples who were faithful until the moments of ultimate danger came upon them? You remember that in the Garden of Gethsemane three disciples had been singled out for Christ to support Him at the hour of His supreme agony, and they did not, they were tired, they were desponded and they fell asleep. Three times He came to them for support, three times they were away from Him.

We do not meet Christ in the same circumstances but we meet so many people who are in agony, not only dying physically, and that also happens to our friends, our relatives, people around us, but are in agony of terror one way or another. Are we there awake, alive, attentive to them, ready to help them out, and if we can’t help, to be with them, to stand by them or do we fall asleep, that is, contract out, turn away, leave them in their agony, their fear, their misery. And again I am not speaking of Judas because no-one of us is aware of betraying Christ in such a way, but don’t we betray Christ when we turn away from all His commandments? When He says, “I give you an example for you to follow,” and we shake our heads and say, “No, I will simply follow the devices of my own heart.” But think of Peter, apparently the strongest, the one who spoke time and again in the name of others, when it came to risking his life, not his life, to be rejected simply, because no-one was about to kill him, he denied Christ three times.

What do we do when we are challenged in the same way, when we are in danger of being mocked and ridiculed and put aside by our friends or our acquaintances who shrug their shoulders and say, “A Christian? And you believe in that? And you believe that Christ was God, and you believe in His Gospel, and you are on His side?” How often? O, we don’t say, “No, we are not,” but do we say, “Yes, it is my glory, and if you want to crucify Him, if you want to reject Him, reject me too because I choose to stand by Him, I am His disciple, even if I am to be rejected, even if you don’t let me into your house anymore.”

And think of the crowd on Calvary. There were people who had been instrumental in His condemnation, they mocked Him, they had won their victory, so they thought at least. And then there were the soldiers, the soldiers who crucified Him, they had crucified innumerable other people, they were doing their job. It didn’t matter to them whom they crucified. And yet Christ prayed for them, “Forgive them, Father, they don’t know what they are doing.” We are not being crucified physically, but do we say, “Forgive, Father, those who offend us, who humiliate us, who reject us, those who kill our joy and darken our life in us.” Do we do that? No, we don’t. So we must recognise ourselves in them also.

And then there was a crowd of people who had poured out to the city to see a man die, the fierce curiosity that pushes so many of us to be curious when suffering, agony comes upon people. You will say, it doesn’t happen? Ask yourself how you look at television and how eagerly, hungrily you look at the horrors that befall Somalia, the Sudan, Bosnia and every other country. Is it with a broken heart? Is it that you can not endure the horror and turn in prayer to God and then give, give, give generously all you can give for hunger and misery to be alleviated? Is it? No, we are the same people who came out on Calvary to see a man die. Curiosity, interest? Yes, alas.

And then there were those who had come with the hope that He will die because if He died on the cross, then they were free from this terrifying, horrible message He had brought that we must love one another to the point of being ready to die for each other. That message of the crucified, sacrificial love could be rejected once and for all if He who preached it, died, and it was proved that He was a false prophet, a liar.

And then there were those who had come in the hope that He will come down from the cross, and then they could be believers without any risk, they would have joint the victorious party. Aren’t we like that so often?

And then there is a point to which we hardly should dare turn our eyes – the Mother of the Incarnate Son of God, the Mother of Jesus silent, offering His death for the salvation of mankind, silent and dying with Him hour after hour; and the disciple who knew in a youthful way how to love his master, standing by in horror, seeing his Master die and the Mother in agony. Are we like this when we read the Gospel, are we like this when we see the agony of men around us?

Let us therefore enter in this Holy Week in order not to be observers of what happened then, let us enter into it mixed with the crowd and at every step ask ourselves, who am I in this crowd? Am I the Mother? Am I the disciple? Am I one of the crucifiers? And so forth. And then we will be able to meet the day of the Resurrection together with those to whom it was life and resurrection indeed, when despair had gone, new hope had come, God had conquered. Amen.

Putting on Otherness

Author’s note: This post continues a series on putting on Christ.

Over the last several months, I have been repeatedly struck by the paradox of the Incarnation. Christ, in supreme humility, does not count equality with God a thing to be grasped and takes on our human flesh. The Transcendent God accepts the limitations of our humanity. The Uncontainable One is contained in the womb of the Virgin. The Great One becomes small. Of His own will, Christ becomes human to show us the way to be human.

But consider that we are invited to put on Christ. We are invited to put on the Divine. We are invited to put on Humility. We are invited to put on Love. We are invited to put on something fundamentally different than ourselves.

It’s incredible.

But Otherness invites change because it calls us towards something different. Sometimes it can be so much easier to pursue growth and change on our own terms. I cannot begin to tell you how many changes I have pursued because I thought the change would be fun, that it would be a chance for me to really shine, that I could really have things my way if only I had this one thing slightly different. It is easier to imagine the world outside of us as being different rather than deeply altering the world inside of us.

As much as Christ is like us, He differs fundamentally from us. His identification with us allows us to transform ourselves towards His likeness. But so often, we only want to put on the parts of Christ that seem to be most like us rather than embracing His radical transformation. We tend to see limits rather than God-empowered possibilities. We tend to see darkness rather than God-provided light. We tend to see death rather than God-raised life.

We can resist opportunities for us to see the world differently. Yet we have to wonder about what makes Christ different from us so that we too can be transformed by that Otherness towards greater union with God.

Friday Forum: My discomfort with theological tweeting

Over the last several months, I have been sharing some thoughts on Twitter. Now Twitter being Twitter, often quotes come through I really enjoy as it relates to making a particularly profound theological point in a soundbyte. Some of these have been presented as quotes from famous Christians through the ages, excerpts of prayers, or thoughts of contemporary authors. Recently I found myself looking at quotes from authors like Rick Warren, Rob Bell, Peter Rollins, Brian McLaren, and others that I know are well-known, but I really lack familiarity with them.

It’s been intriguing for me to appreciate the similarities of so many soundbytes while at the same time encountering a huge amount of personal uneasiness as I consider the perennial Twitter question of “To retweet or not to retweet?” Much of what I see relates to the centrality of Christ’s Incarnation, but I wonder where the discussion originates. I know firsthand the agonies and horrors of people asserting that “others” cannot possibly be faithful to Christ; but I hesitate to consider the Incarnation as a theological minimum.

The Incarnation as a theological minimum basically operates from a premise that all people are created in the image of God and Christ associated with all people. The premise is profoundly true, yet immediately one should consider the implications of a premise where both verbs are in the past tense. I think it is easier to work with the second: namely that Christ is willing to associate with all people while missing the implications of bringing the first into a sense of the continual present. Indeed, bringing theology towards a continual present marks a challenge, particularly when I reflect on the authors I have read.

I daresay it is common for people to look at Christ’s Incarnation from a lens that Christ came to dwell with a particular people at a particular time. In a word, Christ lived. He lived a real life at a real point in history with real people really around Him. Knowing the history (somewhat embodied in cultural norms and frameworks, relevant geographies, and critical players) of Christ’s unique human life does provide some important context for our theological reflections; yet at the same time, relying exclusively on historical-critical methods to observe the Incarnation of Christ leaves the Incarnation as an event in the past only accessible through strong intellectual capacity for some rather heady inquiry.

Another seemingly common approach is to look at Christ’s Incarnation as a narrative where Christ enters into relationships with people rendered completely powerless by some sense of “the establishment.” In a word, Christ related. He related to real people who realized that they had no real business being able to really relate to the full mercy, grace, compassion and truth of God. Again, this approach has a certain allure because it is easy to read the Gospels and say “oh the Jews didn’t get Christ, oh the Romans didn’t get Christ, oh the disciples really didn’t get Christ.” It seems to be much easier to relate to the woman breaking her alabaster jar at Christ’s feet, the widow giving her only two mites, or the thief on the cross than it is to celebrate the faith of the centurion, the journey of Nicodemus, and the faithful boldness of Joseph of Arimathea. The temptation to assert that some “establishment” does not get it seems to me to actually go against the critical point of all people being made according to the image of God because as soon as people organize themselves in anyway, a sense of “the establishment” overshadows the people working together as best as they know how. Also another temptation seems to be that “the establishment” does not get Christ, but I, in my infinite wisdom (knowledge or experience, take your pick), understand Christ, which seems to be one of the ultimate manifestations of pride.

From my vantage point, the continual present of the first clause means recognizing that we all grow towards the likeness of God when we encounter Christ. I can come alongside of other people as they attempt to pattern their life after the original, appreciating how different people have managed to do that over the last 2000 or so years. We have many examples; we find ourselves surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses.

The question really of moving from a particular soundbyte towards a living action and embrace of that Truth seems to rely on the method. Is it really about assembling all of the right soundbytes? Or do we have a sense that something has been missing in the dominant story we tell ourselves? It seems much easier to launch off into soundbytes than it is to sit in the totality in the narrative. I just looked at the Gospel of Luke in my Bible… it is under 40 pages. Across all four gospels… it is under 130 pages. Why is it so easy to generate mounds of commentary across these 130 pages to the point where we opt to soundbyte the commentary rather than marinate in the original? I think it is markedly difficult to find places where we do not strive to create meaning in the Scriptures but allow the Scriptures to create meaning in us. It is so much easier for me to approach the Scriptures as teacher rather than being a student. Strange things can happen when we try to use our human words in a way that blocks off the dialog with others.

So it’s interesting to me when I see someone saying something that I think I agree with on a theological level when I do not know the context from which the quote comes. I like the chance to dialog, to journey with another, and we will always share our thoughts and impressions along the journey. But I try not to treat my thoughts as the Gospel. And I would do a lot better to fill my eyes and ears with the original source to preserve the needed balance.

Life is Complicated

Or I could have entitled this post “The Theological Insights of Rube Goldberg” which, incidentally is what I started with…

Everyone knows that Rube Goldberg devices are awesome celebrations of crowning inefficiencies. Indeed, their inefficiency is part of their allure. And they are a fantastic teaching tool regarding so many facets of life. I have used Rube Goldberg machines to teach about the conservation of energy; others I know use Rube Goldberg to teach about engineering design, teamwork, consequence chains, and probably a whole host of other things.

Below we have one of my favorite featured Rube Goldberg devices, as used in a Honda commercial.

The commercial closes with the question “Isn’t it nice when things just work?” But the same commercial carries the irony of the Rube Goldberg machine as a very over-engineered machine performs a very simple task through a very complicated process.

But isn’t that how life goes, particularly when one attempts to find one’s life in Christ? After all, does not the Law boil down to the double- (some say triple-) commandment of Love as we are exhorted to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, with all of our soul, with all of our mind and with all of our strength while loving our neighbor as ourselves?

Yet things are messy, complicated, convoluted, sometimes even backwards along the way. Few manage to find an elegant way to stumble their way through their life’s journey.  Indeed, flowing linearly through an assembly line might be the best possible way to design cars in bulk, but this model cannot be how we live our lives. After all, we are not so much about a final product as we are about refining particular processes: the processes of Love, the processes of Life. These processes call us into orchestrated motion. Sometimes the orchestra needs to tune, sometimes whole sections remain silent, but everyone and everything works together for the quality of the product, a symphonic process that invites others to participate. But isn’t it nice when everything just works?

The things about Rube Goldberg machines is that no two are created the same, even if the machine has been designed to perform the same end task or by the same team. Also, it is entirely tricky to make sure that everything goes “just so” in a Rube Goldberg device. Yeah, it can be a pain in the royal hindparts to reset the machine after getting through the first 8 transitions of a 50 transition system. But no two machines are the same. Even after every “failure” the team adjusts the machine, perhaps shifts a transition, adds additional components, or removes something extra. So it is with living a life of Love; we try to give ourselves over to enjoying the process making adjustments along the way, asking God for His help because He is the only one who has the perspective to see how so many disparate parts could possibly come together.

And so I leave you with another celebration of the convoluted, although music video style (original video found by my friend Aideen)