Thursday, November 29, 2012

Flowers and Souls

Jesus set the book of nature before me and I saw that all the flowers he has created are lovely. The splendor of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not rob the little violet of its scent nor the daisy of its simple charm. I realized that if every tiny flower wanted to be a rose, spring would lose its loveliness and there would be no wildflowers to make the meadows gay.

It is just the same in the world of souls which is the garden of Jesus. He has created the great saints who are like the lilies and the roses, but he has also created much lesser saints and they must be content to be the daisies or the violets which rejoice his eyes whenever he glances down. Perfection consists in doing his will, in being that which he wants us to be.

Jesus, help me to simplify my life by learning what you want me to be - and becoming that person.
Saint Therese of Lisieux, from Story of a Soul

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Unaffiliated

There is a humorous scene in the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? in which two characters discuss the spiritual decisions made by three of the four fellow travelers. Tommy, has just sold his soul to the devil, while Pete and Delmar were caught up in an emotional moment and committed themselves to a Christian Church.

Tommy Johnson: I had to be up at that there crossroads last midnight, to sell my soul to the devil.
Ulysses Everett McGill: Well, ain't it a small world, spiritually speaking. Pete and Delmar just been baptized and saved. I guess I'm the only one that remains unaffiliated.1

Ulysses (masterfully played by George Clooney) suggests that he is unaffiliated and not committed to any particular view. Yet, his rejection of each of the options embraced by those with whom he travels is a choice in itself. He seems to be willing to simply take his chances.  There may be many others who can relate to this. Certainly, I meet people who have decided to play the odds and seek to remain unaffiliated. Mary-Chapin Carpenter expresses this sentiment in her song, "I Take My Chances."

I took a walk in the rain one day on the wrong side of the tracks
I stood on the rails till I saw that train
Just to see how my heart would react
Now some people say that you shouldn't tempt fate
And for them I would not disagree
But I never learned nothing from playing it safe
I say fate should not tempt me
I take my chances, I don't mind working without a net
I take my chances, I take my chances every chance I get
I sat alone in the dark one night, tuning in by remote
I found a preacher who spoke of the light but there was brimstone in his throat
He'd show me the way according to him in return for my personal check
I flipped my channel back to CNN and I lit another cigarette
I take my chances, forgiveness doesn't come with a debt
I take my chances, I take my chances every chance I get
I've crossed lines of words and wire and both have cut me deep
I've been frozen out and I've been on fire and the tears are mine to weep
Now I can cry until I laugh and laugh until I cry
So cut the deck right in half, I'll play from either side
I take my chances, I pay my dollar and I place my bet
I take my chances, I take my chances every chance I get
I take my chances, I don't cling to remorse or regret
I take my chances, I take my chances every chance I get
I take my chances
I take my chances

But even as we cut the deck and roll the dice, most of us are aware that there is more to it than that. There is no such thing as remaining unaffiliated. Every choice we make, or refuse to make, puts us squarely in the camp of others who have chosen before us. Non-affiliation is simply affiliation with those who refuse to choose.

1 Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? Directed by Joel Cohen and Ethan Cohen. Performed by George Clooney and Chris Thomas King. 2000.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Lacuna

Barbara Kingsolver's latest book, The Lacuna, contains a number of insights into world politics in 1930 through the early 1950s. At one point, Kingsolver gives a powerful analysis of the events that led to extreme investigations into the disloyalty and subversive activities of American citizens suspected of having communist ties. In the 1940s through 1950s, many who had even a passing association with persons with a connection to communism were fired from government jobs or blacklisted from working in education or the entertainment industry. In her novel, one of her characters describes the cause this way.

"Do you want to know my theory? . . . I think it's the bomb. . . . When that bomb went off over Japan, when we saw that an entire city could be turned to fire and gas, it changed the psychology of this country. And when I say 'psychology,' I mean that very literally. It's the radio, you see. The radio makes everyone feel the same thing at the same time. Instead of millions of various thoughts, one big psychological fixation. The radio commands our gut response. . . . That bomb scared the holy Moses out of us. We became horrified in our hearts that we had used it. Okay, it ended the war, it saved American life and so on and so forth. But everyone feels guilty, deep inside. Little Japanese children turned into flaming gas, we know this. How could we not feel bad. . . . Okay. We used the bomb. We convinced ourselves we are very special people, to get to use this weapon. Ideal scenario, we would like to think it came to us from God, meant for our own use and no one else's. . . . Suddenly we are God's chosen, we have this bomb, and we better be pretty damn certain no one else is going to get this bomb. We must clean our house thoroughly. Can you imagine what would happen if England also had the bomb, France, Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union all had this bomb? How could a person go to sleep at night? . . . You see, this is what I am saying. The radio. It creates for us a psychology. . . . Winston Churchill says 'iron curtain.' Did you see how they all went crazy over that? . . . J. Edgar Hoover says this curtain is what separates us from Satan and perhaps also the disease of leprosy. . . . 'Communism is not a political party but an evil and a malignant way of life' - these are his words. A disease condition. A quarantine is necessary to keep it from infecting the nation."

As I read these words I found myself drawing connections to the events of September 11, 2001 when 19 terrorists from the Islamist militant group al-Qaeda hijacked four passenger jets and attacked America. In the 1940s, the radio had a powerful ability to shape the culture of the American people. Everyone was scared by what was broadcast on the radio. In 2001, it was television and the internet which allowed for the rapid dispersal of information and a galvanizing of public opinion. An instant fear struck America. If this can happen, what else might be possible? The internet discussions made "everyone feel the same thing at the same time. Instead of millions of various thoughts, one big psychological fixation." America was instantly in a state of fear. It was not communism but terrorism that brought fear. It was not an "iron curtain" that galvanized the thoughts into one psychological fixation but the "war on terrorism." That state of fear and security alert brought on by these events still affects our psychology today.

It would be interesting to interview Barbara Kingsolver and see how much comparison she was seeking to draw between this dark period of history in 1940s America and the dark mood of 2001 in America and the world. Was this consciously in her mind or was she merely seeking to remind us of the dangers of extreme thinking? Reading literary reviews suggests that other readers have made similar connections between then and now. You may want to pick up a copy of The Lacuna for yourself and consider what connections and emotions are created for you as you read this well-written story.

Kingsolver, Barbara. The Lacuna. Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, 2009.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

God's Providence

I like this description of city and garden and Fall and Redemption in Making the Best of It.1

We must be careful, however, to see the Fall also in its context as just one part of the story. Some Christians instead have interpreted our current existence as if we are in a world utterly fallen, corrupted beyond repair, a valley of the shadow of death through which we must travel as expeditiously as possible in order to reach the sunlit lands of the next life. In particular, culture itself is seen as a bad thing in the form of the city - the antipode to Eden (which is, to make this contrast work best, depicted as a "natural" place, not the garden it was, which of course implies culture). The first city was founded by Cain. Aha! That means cities are bad, and thus all human culture downstream of the Fall is bad.

Yet long before the Bible set up its ongoing dialectic between the evil city (Babel/Babylon) and the good city (Jerusalem/Zion), even a little study of the immediate Biblical context suggests an interweaving of the good and the bad after the Fall. Genesis 4 proceeds from the story of Cain and Abel to show us at least two forms of cultural decline in the person of Lamech, who marries two wives and then boasts to them of his disproportionate violence, killing a man who had (merely) hurt him. Yet this Lamech fathers three sons, one of whom is the ancestor of nomads, those who dwell in tents and heard livestock; another of whom is the first musician; and the third of whom is the archetypal metalsmith. However one might be suspicious of cities, and however much one might disdain loutish Lamech, in the gracious providence of God even this family produces cultural advancement through three creative and productive sons.

I have always marvelled at a creator God who could use so many flawed people for His purposes. There are many in the Bible whom I would not want to meet, let alone befriend, who are used to fulfill the cultural or spiritual purposes of God. He seems infinitely capable of meeting us at our level and redeeming some part of our lives. He has worked through history with those who have pledged their faith in Him and those who have not and still brings about growth and progress in this family of humanity. I marvel at a God who allows good rain to fall on the righteous and the unrighteous; who works with the faithful and the depraved; and allows atheists to create art and science and literature which benefits humans and other creatures on this planet. I may not like this "loutish Lamech" but I am thankful for his farming, musical, and black smithy sons. It is a good thing that He can use any one. That tells me that, despite my flaws and sin and sloth, He can still use me.

1. Stackhouse, John G., Jr. Making the Best of It: Following Christ In The Real World. New York: Oxford University Press , Inc., 2008.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Group Dynamics

Tucked in a 64 year old book is a mathematical formula that gives clues about grouping procedures. Bossard1 points out that the number of people in a group may increase by simple mathematical progression, but the increase of relationships comes through geometric progression.

Two variables are defined. Let Y equal the number of persons in the group, and X the number of personal relationships between the members. Then using the formula X = (Y2 - Y)/2 (that is, X equals Y squared minus Y all divided by 2), as Bossard1 has, we find that the larger the group, the more disproportionate the increase in personal relationships.

Size of group: 2 3 4  5   8   12   15  35
Relationships: 1 3 6 10  28  66 105 595

Note how radically the number of relationships increases with the addition of one or two people. What does this do to the individual in terms of communication, understanding, and ability to participate without pressure or frustrations?

Hundreds or thousands may be spectators. Working, interacting groups seem to do best when composed of five to eight members. If the group is larger, some become performers and others spectators. At age six, spontaneous groups seldom exceed three or four children. Sizes now accepted for school classes are much too large for good cooperative work.2

If the mathematical formula is a hang-up, try drawing the relationships on a page of paper to convince yourself of the truth of this work. See the example at the end of this blog.

What implications do such formulas have for those of us who work with small groups in education or church leadership? How might we be excluding people in some of our educational contexts? We talk a lot about being communities of believers or communities of learners but this information suggests that members could easily be left on the fringe and never truly feel part of the group. The person who can entertain a large group of 1000 people may not be the best person to teach people to care for others or interact with others. Some of the goals we seek to accomplish in school or church cannot be accomplished in the size of groups we seek to use. We would be better served to restructure some of our groups so that peer learning can happen in groups of twos and threes. Neil Cole has some further insight on group dynamics in his book Cultivating a Life For God: Multiplying Disciples Through Life Transformation Groups.3 It may well be worth another look.

1 James H. S. Bossard. The Sociology of Child Development. New York: Harper and Brother, 1948. p. 146.
2 This whole section is adapted from an article by Mary Margaret Scobey, entitled "Developing and Using Classroom Groups," 1960. See
3 Cole, Neil. Cultivating a Life For God: Multiplying Disciples Through Life Transformation Groups. Carol Stream: ChurchSmart Resources, 1999.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Home, Hard To Say What It Is

I once again find myself thinking about the concept of home. Home is so much more than a house or a city or a family or a marriage or a collection of people with whom we feel an affinity. Home is at the deepest core of what it means to be human. Coyotes have dens where they raise their young, birds have nests from which they launch their chicks, ants have a communal nest which they will defend with their lives, but we humans are unique in that we have been commanded by our God to "leave our father and mother and be united"1 to that other person with whom we will form a new home. Yet, we still have difficulty expressing the concept of home. Barbara Kingsolver has said,

I’ve spent hundreds of pages, even whole novels, trying to explain what home means to me. Sometimes I think that is the only thing I ever write about. Home is place, geography, and psyche; it’s a matter of survival and safety, a condition of attachment and self-definition. It’s where you learn from your parents and repeat to your children all the stories of what it means to belong to the place and people of your ken.2

Her latest novel, The Lacuna, is about a man with no home at all. Separated from his biological father, Harrison Shepherd lives with his mother who is so busy smoking cigarettes and trying to find the next man who will "take care of her" that she has little time for her son. The men who come into his life are distant and transient. His country, the one to which he feels the greatest loyalty, is Mexico. Yet, he has only adopted Mexico by virtue of spending his youth there with his mother and with a man who was not his father nor his mother's husband. Mexicans see him as a little gringo and on occasions when he lives in Washington, DC, he is seen as a foreigner. He truly is a man with no country and no home. Even his name, too awkward for Mexicans to pronounce, is lost and he is called by whatever nick-name others choose to give him. This lack of home results in a man who, like the words of a James Taylor song suggests, builds a home behind his eyes and carries it in his heart.3

Yet, his is a very broken home. For, with the concept of home, it is "hard to know what it is if you never had one."4 As I continue to read the book I find myself hoping that Harrison Shepherd will indeed find home. I am hoping for a great ending like that depicted in another work of fiction, 'Till We Have Faces, where the protagonist comes to the end of her life and can say, with joy,
The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing — to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from — my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.5

1 Genesis 2:24.
2 Kingsolver, Barbara. Small Wonder. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.
3 "Oh it's enough to be on your way; It's enough just to cover ground; It's enough to be moving on; Home, build it behind your eyes; Carry it in your heart; Safe among your own." "Enough to be On Your Way" words and music by James Taylor, Hourglass, 1997.
4 "Home...hard to know what it is if you never had one; Home...I can't say where it is but I know I'm going home; That's where the heart is." "Walk On" from All That You Can't Leave Behind, 2000, words by Bono and music by U2.
5 C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces. Harcourt Brace & Company, 1980.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Words for a Grandson

Welcome to the world little man. You have already made a mark on my life. I have become a grandfather; you a grandson. We get to explore this relationship together and I have a surprisingly intense desire to excel at grand-fathering. From a biological perspective, you and I share one quarter of our DNA. I hope you got all of the good bits. Yet, even if you did get some of my less desirable traits, you need to know that biology is not destiny.

I am 52 and you are new-born. I pray that when you have experienced more of this life you will come to love life as much as I do. This world is so amazing and has so many things for you to learn and explore. I want to encourage you to never stop asking questions and never stop learning. I hope that you will become a student of the world and explore it with philosophy, science, mathematics, and theology. Never be afraid of truth; for all truth is God's truth.

I pray that you will find the God who created this universe. I pray that you will have a long and happy life. I also pray that you will take risks in this life and never settle for the "safe" zone. Go ahead and make some mistakes; God knows that I have. I pray that whatever you may experience in this life, you will live it with peace, and joy, and bravery.

I pray that you will go for walks in the rain and the snow; get cold and wet but love the experience. I pray that you will fight for those smaller than you; poorer than you; sicker than you; more alone than you. I pray that you will enjoy life: play music, sing, write poetry, climb mountains, drink fine wine, enjoy rich food, appreciate a loaf of bread, find love, get your heart broken, and discover a good woman to love and marry.

I pray that you will appreciate the heritage of all of your ancestors who have gone before you. You have more than a little Celtic blood and even a Celtic name to go along with it. I pray that you will live with a sense of your own mortality, so that you might live well and appreciate this life. I pray that you will live life to the fullest every second of your existence in this world. I pray that you will look forward to a life beyond this one.

Welcome, Clayton Keith Smith (born November 6, 2012).

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Message in a Bottle

I saw a news story about a message in a bottle that had travelled approximately 4000 km from Gaspe, Quebec to East Passage, Ireland. The message, stuffed into a two litre plastic pop bottle had survived at sea for eight years and then been found by a nine year old boy. The girls who had set it adrift were twelve years old when they sent their note out to the world and, at twenty years old, were now surprised to hear that someone had finally found it.

This story caused me to think about why people send out a message in this fashion. The girls in Quebec had seen something on television that had made them want to try this; but what about other people? Why would anyone send a message by such an inefficient method of communication. Sting, in the song he did with "The Police," says that it is about loneliness.
"Seems I'm not alone at being alone." - Sting, "Message in a Bottle."

The song suggests that many people have the feeling of being a lonely castaway looking for someone with whom to connect in a world filled with other lonely castaways.
"When you're surrounded by all these people, it can be lonelier than when you're by yourself. You can be in a huge crowd, but if you don't feel like you can trust anyone or talk to anybody, you feel like you're really alone." -  Fiona Apple

The movie, Message in a Bottle, starring Kevin Costner, suggests that the concept is about looking for that one person with whom we might romantically connect.

Perhaps the attraction of sending a message in a bottle is about desiring to find our own message from some distant place. Is it a desire for our own unique message that will guide our lives and give purpose for our future? Some have locked prayers in tiny bottles and sent them out on the waves, hoping, with little hope, that the message might be seen by some divine being.

A message in a bottle is a romantic concept. There are better ways to solve the loneliness; there are better ways to find romance; there are better ways to get a divine message. In a world of 8 billion people we need not cut ourselves off from each other or from God.
"We are all like foolish puppets who desiring to be kings; now lie pitifully crippled after cutting our own strings." - Randy Stonehill

"Message In A Bottle"
(words and music by Sting)

 Just a castaway
 An island lost at sea
 Another lonely day
 With no one here but me
 More loneliness
 Than any man could bear
 Rescue me before I fall into despair

I'll send an SOS to the world
I'll send an SOS to the world
I hope that someone gets my
Message in a bottle
Message in a bottle

A year has passed since I wrote my note
But I should have known this right from the start
Only hope can keep me together
Love can mend your life
But love can break your heart

I'll send an SOS to the world
I'll send an SOS to the world
I hope that someone gets my
I hope that someone gets my
I hope that someone gets my
Message in a bottle
Message in a bottle

Walked out this morning
Don't believe what I saw
A hundred billion bottles
Washed up on the shore
Seems I'm not alone at being alone
A hundred billion castaways
Looking for a home

I'll send an SOS to the world
I'll send an SOS to the world
I hope that someone gets my
I hope that someone gets my
I hope that someone gets my
Message in a bottle
Message in a bottle

Sending out an SOS