Tuesday, January 6, 2015

FOR EPIPHANY: THE ETERNALLY LATE FOURTH WISE MAN...

(Not to be confused with the old Henry Van Dyke story, "The Other Wise Man.")

The French writer Michael Tournier wrote a wonderful treatment of the “fourth wise man” legend in his 1982 novel, “The Four Wise Men.” (In the event you think you might actually read this novel, I would suggest you stop here and go do that; otherwise, read on.)

The last two paragraphs of the book have stayed with me over the years, and I offer them on this January 6th as a kind of Epiphany devotional. Here is a brief set-up: The fourth wise man, Taor, Prince of Mangalore, was late in setting out, and the other three had no choice but to start without him. Once he does begin his journey, he meets with many delays and misfortunes, the greatest of which is being imprisoned in the salt mines of Sodom. His travails and prison sentence take such a toll of time, that, having set out in search of a newborn baby, he is not able to pick up the trail until 33 years have passed; he is now an old man. But he does pick up the trail. Released from the mines, and having learned from a fellow prisoner that the baby grew to be a prophet named Jesus, who blessed the poor and spoke of peace, Taor sets off and makes inquiries along the way. He hears one report after another, he is getting closer. Finally, he learns that on that very day Jesus and his disciples are having the Passover meal at the home of one Joseph of Arimathea, and that he may be able to find him there if he hurries. After some vague directions, he comes upon the room. Here are those concluding paragraphs:
“The room was empty. Once again he had come too late. People had eaten at this table. There were still thirteen wide, shallow goblets, each with a squat foot and two handles. In some of the goblets there were still a few pieces of the unleavened bread which the Jews eat at Passover time in memory of their fathers’ flight from Egypt.
“Taor’s head reeled. Bread and wine! He reached for a goblet and raised it to his lips. He picked up a piece of unleavened bread and ate it. Then he toppled forward, but he did not fall. The two angels, who had been watching over him since he left the salt mines, gathered him into their great wings. The night sky opened, revealing a sea of light, and into it they bore the man who, after having been last, the eternal latecomer, had just been the first to receive the Eucharist.”


The Four Wise Men, Grand Staircase
National Monument, Utah



Wednesday, December 24, 2014

LOVE, LIGHT, AND LIFE...

Proclaiming the news of the Christmas gospel is a daunting assignment for a preacher. Many of us ask ourselves, "What can I add to this old, old story?" For a number of years my response to this challenge has been to attempt a Christmas sermon in verse. When preaching, I try to read these sermons fluidly, without undue attention to the line endings dictated by poetry. 

This is a verse sermon I wrote for the Christmas after September 11, 2001. The themes, alas, still seem timely. Perhaps--this side of heaven--they always will.

I offer this as my blog Christmas card, with thanks for reading, and a prayer that all will hear Good News in this season.

When God to the nothing said
   let there be light,
There was nothing … nothing to
   make a world bright.
There was no one to see it and
   no one who heard,
Except God – for the source of that light    was God’s Word.

The light wasn’t starlight or moonlight or sun
But the radiance to be everything, everyone.
The light was creation – the beginning of
Life, and a universe, made out of love.

It is love that has made you and love that made me;
God, with a word of love, called us to be.
In the dawn of that day when the morning stars sang
It was God’s song of love with which all heaven rang.

But how can it be that our tiny green world
Would even be noticed as space-time unfurled.
Not only noticed, but dear in God’s sight.
Love means that nothing is small in God’s light.

Love, light, and life: it’s the poem of birth;
Love, light, and life: it’s the portrait of earth –
Earth as God made it and saw it was good,
A good place to live in – a world neighborhood.

A neighborhood world with God’s light to share,
Plenty for everyone – water and air.
But some of the plenty we wanted to keep,
And hide under cover of darkness so deep.

So we came to love darkness, why would that be?
When light is a gift given so we can see.
People loved darkness instead of the light –
Walked from the brightness of day into night.

Hid, so our deeds would be covered and dark,
And tried to pretend that the tiniest spark
Of the light of God’s judgment could not seek or find
Where we were hiding. How blind we were blind!

So hatred and darkness and death took the place
Of love, light, and life for the whole human race.
It’s what happens to you and what happens to me
When we walk in the darkness but think we can see.

Then came a day when God looked with the eyes
Of his heart, and he wept when he spotted the size
Of the storm cloud of darkness that covered the land
And smothered with night all the work of his hand.

“This is the darkness of death that I see;
Death is not what I intended to be
On the day of creation.” And his eye dropped a tear,
And God wept for a world filled with hatred and fear.

But God is light – in him there’s no darkness at all,
So he would not, not in anger, just watch his world fall
Away into darkness,  into eternal night.
“Love leaves no choice,” said God, “I’ll be their light.”

But God did not send down mere moonlight or star.
God came as a baby, to right where we are.
The light is among us, one of us, near,
The light is Emmanuel, God with us – here!

But don’t think that the light burned the darkness away,
All the powers of darkness then came into play
And attacked with full force when they learned of this birth.
(These powers work best when night covers the earth.)

“It’s only a baby,” the fearful king cried,
“And, like all the others, I’ll soon see him die.
A mother’s – a father’s love? How can that stand
Against armies of night that I’ll send through the land.”

So there is the picture: A small family
Who carry the promise that all will be free.
And more – there in the darkest of night
That family carries the light of all light.

Imagine if all of the sky – near and far –
Was nothing but nothing, except for one star.
It would seem, as you look, that the nothing will win,
But the light of that star is where God will begin –

Where God will begin to create light again.    
And the light will bring new life – and new life will win.
And the baby will grow, and the darkness will shout,
“Now he must die,” but the light won’t go out.

And a cross will be raised on the crest of a hill,
And a mother remember that night, and the thrill
She felt then, and the light all around,
And the promise she kept to herself, then the sound

Of the hammer and nails pierce her through,
And again it will seem that the darkness can do
As it will, and that light will seem so far away.
And she’ll weep for her child, for this man, for that day.

But the promise is true, and the life has begun
The life of a world newly born in her Son,
Newly born, so that never again can a grave
Contain all the light, life, and love that he gave.

And now, in our own day, when shadows have grown,
Again, the Word’s promise we claim as our own.
Hope seems to dim, and our day turns to night.
Come, dear Lord Jesus, and let there be light!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

THOUGHTS ON THE INTERNET, SMALL BUSINESS SATURDAY, AND MY NEW FRIEND, THE DUCK...

Although the date of this post, “Small Business Saturday,” is mostly coincidental, I hope there is a certain appropriateness and coherence to this report on some changes I’ve undertaken lately in the tech-consumer-social-media elements of my life.

You might wonder, “Who cares?” and why I’m bothering to tell you about these things, dear reader. To me, this blog is a conversation as well as my “journal;” I’d be very interested to hear how you are navigating these various channels that are carrying us into and through the Brave New World that is still very new to all of us.

Here are some recent resolutions, changes, epiphanies, experiments having to do with my interaction with the internet and its wider context, with observations on why any of this might be important:

1. I now use Amazon.com only as a last resort. Two strands have led me to this resolution: One is the issue of Amazon’s treatment of employees. (One aspect of this is the basis of a case before the Supreme Court right now.) This op-ed piece by Paul Krugman is a good overview of the role Amazon plays in the economy.

The other strand is the common-sense realization that the presence of a local bookstore and other retailers enhances the quality of my community and my life, and I need to support them to keep them around. There are, alas, no longer any bookstores in Faribault (they departed while I was clicking away on Amazon), but nearby Northfield has a wonderful new bookstore, “Content,” as well as The St. Olaf and Carleton College bookstores. These are now my "first resort," followed by Barnes & Noble (both brick-and-mortar and online versions) and other online booksellers.

My resolution, “…only as a last resort,” may sound wishy-washy, but for me to say “I will never use Amazon again” is almost as unrealistic as it would be to say, “I will never use the power company….” For many years I have been (at least) a weekly Amazon shopper, and the one-click option became like the chicken-pecking-the-button-for-feed attraction at the carnival. At this writing, I have not ordered from Amazon for about two months. Surprisingly ( to myself), I haven’t missed it. I hope they’ve noticed.

2. For the same reasons of enlightened self-interest (I want these shops to stay around), I will “Shop Small and Shop Local” as much as possible. I recently had a problem with my iPhone. I was able to contact a real human being at the online Verizon site, and she was friendly and patient with me, but in the end wasn’t able to help me. I took the phone to our local Verizon store, and the cheerful, no-nonsense woman behind the counter solved my problem in about three minutes. She also corrected my mistaken notion that coming to the store or visiting the web site amounted to the same thing. “We’re actually in competition with each other,” she said. Brick-and-mortar Verizon is now my go-to site for most cell-related items and issues.

3. I have gone back to paper-and-ink as my primary medium for book-reading. I have nothing against e-books (except for that Amazon thing), and I read them quite enjoyably on my iPhone Kindle app, especially in a doctor’s waiting room, etc.
Books.
But I recently had two thoughts that led me to this change: 1). When our grandkids see me reading a book, I’d rather have them witness me reading a book and not staring into a screen. 2.) I like books. I like having them around.

4. I will happily pay a reasonable price for on-line content that is important to me. (Newspapers, music, etc). At the genesis of the internet age, most publishers and musicians were ensnared by the “I ain’t payin’ for nuttin’” attitude which was the ethos of those early days—and still hangs on. But of course It doesn’t make any sense. In the news business alone—to name one example—we’ve all paid the price for this stinginess by the cutting back of news coverage in general, foreign correspondents in particular, and the substitution of 140-character tweets for in-depth articles. (Again, nothing against Twitter—in it’s proper perspective. Here’s one of my recent tweets: “After hundreds of pre-school readings: I prefer early Berenstain Bears—when Poppa is a hapless doofus—to the later preachy-teachy tales.” Deep.)

5. I am taking the following initiatives against online data-mining and privacy invasion. (In the ever-changing internet environment, who knows if these changes are worthwhile or futile.)
  • I have changed my primary email from google.com to outlook.com. Outlook claims that they do not read e-mail content for the purpose of ad placement (as gmail does). Outlook is a Microsoft product, so it’s hardly a feel-good mom-and-pop replacement, but they are up front about stating that they target ads only according to zip code. I’ll take that trade-off. I am a Mac user, but I like the Outlook interface, and the easily-ignored ads are part of a clean-looking page. (And I can get an ad-free Outlook for $20 a year.)
  • I have switched my search engine from Google to Duck Duck Go, an extension of my Safari browser. The Duck does not track web searches. It is serving me well.
  • “Ello” is a new social media site that is ad-free and does not follow or track users. I am joining it as a kind of experiment—it will only be as good as the number of friends that I can convince to interact with me on the site.  Like many of you, I have a love-hate relationship with Facebook. It is useful, but I mainly don’t trust it. It is clear that, as has been often pointed out, we users are the Facebook product, to be sold to advertisers. Like many of my generation, I stay with it for grand-kid photos (and, okay, I use it to lob the occasional bon mot), but I can’t wait to get off it. A researcher in a recent Atlantic Magazine article, "The Fall of Facebook," reports, “In three years of research and talking to hundreds of people and everyday users, I  don’t think I heard anyone say once, ‘I love Facebook…’”
  • Just yesterday I discovered and installed “AdBlock,” another extension of my Safari browser. My Facebook ads are gone. My tastefully placed outlook.com ads are gone. Data-miners are no-doubt still mining, but I don’t see the ads!


POSTSCRIPT:
I continue to be mystified at how easily we have acquiesced in surrendering our privacy (I’ve certainly played my part in this). Germany in particular and Europe in general are taking a harder stand against the likes of Google and privacy infringement. As a result of a recent trial settlement, the court assigned a social media privacy expert to be a part of Google’s “team." In an interview on NPR, he said, “If I
walked into the neighborhood right now and went door-to-door asking, ‘Could I have photographs of all your children?’ I would either be arrested or physically driven from the house. And yet this is very close to what most of us are voluntarily doing online every day.”

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

THE LINGERING QUESTIONS OF "HER:" A REVIEW OF SPIKE JONZE'S MOVIE

(This post is a review of Her, a film by Spike Jonze. It contains what might be thought of as spoilers for those who intend to see the movie but have not yet done so.)

A while back I posted a piece reflecting on the experience of playing a continuous on-line Scrabble game with my friend Warren, who lives in a part of the country quite distant from me.  I averred as to how—although sitting in the same room contemplating our moves over glasses of wine is certainly to be preferred—I was surprised to admit that (with the “chat” feature included) our app-enabled play supplies about 70% of the satisfaction of the real thing. And I mean “surprised.” In the pre-digital era (roughly the first half of my life), I would have scoffed at the possibility. (Not at the technology, but at the idea that any kind of electronically-delivered remote connection could come near to replicating the emotional content of a face-to-face encounter with another person.) But that was before I was introduced to my iPhone. My precious….

This observation came back to me as I was watching Her, the Oscar-winning movie about a man who develops an intimate relationship with the female avatar/voice that represents his computer’s operating system.  The fact that the film was conceived as an original screenplay, and not adapted from a book, makes it difficult to compare as a work of “literature,” but, that aside, I think it is not out of the question to place the story of Her alongside such works of predictive or cautionary near-future fiction as Brave New World and 1984.

Her draws us into speculating seriously about what might be right around the corner from the time we’re living in right now, and about the potential uses—for good or ill—of the systems and tools that we know are being churned out of a Silicon Valley think-shop—or some techie’s garage—right now.1  It achieves what I think of as this “seriousness” of cinematic purpose (while being deeply absorbing) by avoiding three clichés committed by less thoughtful filmmakers of this genre:

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) in reverie with Samantha, in Her
Cliché #1, avoided: Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), the recent divorcee who enters into an increasingly intense relationship with his operating system (“the world’s first artificially intelligent OS,” voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is not an anti-social misfit, friendless dweeb, or psychopath.  Although as played brilliantly by Phoenix, Theodore does have a few awkward eccentricities, his life includes fulfilling relationships and he navigates effectively in the world of friendship and work.

Cliché #2, avoided: When Theodore’s deepening relationship with “Samantha” becomes sexual, it is neither prurient nor pornographic. To what degree it is “mutual” (much has been written about the sensuality of Scarlett Johansson’s voicing of Samantha) is one of the questions the film asks us to ponder. In fact the movie opens with a humorous episode involving a phone sex-line (with Kristin Wiig’s voice switching from passionate to business-like as the call ends), as if to make it clear that this is distinctly different from what will later develop between Theodore and Samantha.

Cliché #3, avoided: The artificial intelligence of Theodore’s operating system is not installed in his back like a battery or implanted in his brain; he is not harnessed to do the bidding of an evil warlord nor does he lead a rebellion on behalf of society’s enslaved minions (doesn’t Tom Cruise star in all those movies?). There are no space cruisers or ray guns. Its subtle very-near-futureness is what makes it somewhat uncomfortably believable. And the open-endedness of the movie’s story lines and conclusion leave me with lingering questions. (A more discerning viewer may find the implications of the movie less open-ended and more conclusive. For me, the meaning of the film could be taken in at least two different ways at a number of points.) The lingering questions:

We know the A.I. of the operating system can “adapt and evolve,” but has it developed sufficiently so that Samantha is actually responding to Theodore emotionally of her own “volition?” Or is the software simply so advanced that it artificially (and “coldly”) adjusts to whatever it is that Theodore needs (or is seeking)? At one point Samantha earnestly tells Theodore that she “wants to learn everything I can.” Does she want to do this so that she can enter more and more deeply into a mutually meaningful relationship? Or is the OS designed to do this to make it more and more efficient at being of service? And…

…is the intention of the operating system’s developers benign? evil? or simply capitalistic? Is this a whiz-bang gizmo everyone will want (like I want Apple’s soon-to-be-launched Watch), or is it the beachhead of a takeover of our humanity?

Many reviews of Her refer to Theodore and Samantha “falling in love.” Does Samantha really fall in love?

The genius and frustration of the movie is that most of the questions above can be answered “yes…” and “no.” For example, if Samantha wants to learn everything she can in order to serve Theodore’s needs, and if she succeeds in doing so, does it matter if her motivation is “emotional” or functional? And what of Theodore’s “love?” Recent studies demonstrate that we relate to our devices (iPhones, etc.) with the same part of the brain with which we “love.”2 (“My Precious”….) Theodore is a smart guy, he’s not delusional, and yet he quite matter-of-factly loves Samantha. It could, in fact, be true love. I don’t have the same level of intimacy with my Scrabble partner that Theodore has with Samantha (sorry, Warren, but you’re no Scarlett Johansson), but our game-chat-exchange is an experience of some warmth, camaraderie, and genuine feeling. In my opening paragraph I surmised that this is about 70% of what the experience of meeting a friend has to offer. To the degree that Her is a futuristic tale, what direction is that percentage going to go? Up? …or down?

The concluding scene of the film is also open-ended: Two old friends, who each discover that the other has been abandoned by his and her OS lover, hold hands and go up to the roof of their building. Are they so bereft of the level of intimacy their artificial companions introduced into their lives that they are now in a pact to leap together off the building (with the hope of meeting their virtual lovers in the ether)? Or are they like Adam and Eve at the end of Paradise Lost:

     The world was all before them, where to choose
     Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
     They hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow...

…make their way back into the world.

...to discover with one another the reality of a love that, however intelligent and adaptive, their operating system could never rise to? That’s my conclusion, romantic that I am.

A Final Lingering Question
Introducing Milton’s “Providence” into this tale is a bit of a stretch, but it elicits one more question: When Samantha confesses to Theodore that her love for thousands of others in no way diminishes her love for him, is this a reference to the all-encompassing love of God? Is God an Artificially Intelligent Operating System?

_______________________________________________________________
1. Not that far in the future: I just came across this essay in the NY Times, written by a mother who is grateful for the role that Siri--the voice of her iPhone's operating system--plays in the life of her autistic son.

2. Or, perhaps, worship.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

What The F...?!

Let your 'Yes' be 'Yes' and your 'No' be 'No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one. ~ Jesus, in Matthew 5:37
I heard my Dad swear (curse) just once. It was the classic hitting-his-thumb-with-a-hammer, “Dammit!” I was about ten years old. The fact that the oath came readily to him, and that he was a WWII vet, causes me, upon reflection, to realize that this was probably not the only incidence of swearing in his life. But it’s the only time I heard him. And I don’t mean that, instead, I heard him come close and veer off with a “Dam… er, darn it.” He just didn’t swear. That one isolated memory only solidifies this bedrock truth of my childhood.

Although I exhibited my share of youthful commandment-based piety, I am convinced that the main reason that I am not a swearing guy is the influence of my Dad. A second important influence, at the impressionable age of about 15, was my confirmation pastor, Howard Bomhoff (another vet, wounded in Italy), who taught us, “Swearing just shows what a poor vocabulary you have.” I think he said it once, and it stuck. I later entered professions (first a college English major, then teaching, then a call to ministry) in which words are of prime importance. Like my Dad with the hammer, I’d better use the salty ones sparingly, and for good effect, if at all.

I like to shock my confirmation students by telling them that although there are good reasons to avoid using “shit” and “fuck” (see “vocabulary,” above), the worst possible swear word, according to the Bible, is the one we hear used most frequently: “Oh, my God!” –  based on the fact that God enjoys having his name mocked about as much as you or I do. One day, when I was in college, a friend took me aside and said, “You know, Dick, you’re saying ‘Oh, my God’ a lot lately.” This seems like a surreal memory in the recalling of it, but I know it happened (although I can’t remember who my pious friend was). I have, essentially, never used the phrase since.

My glib use of it above notwithstanding, I have always been offended by the “F” word (this is not my piety kicking in; I’m actually offended by the word, and will use “F” for most of the remainder of this essay). At the risk of sounding a bit righteous, I’m offended on behalf of our mothers, our sisters, and our daughters. My understanding is that “F” is a word of sexual violence. The reason that “rape” is not a swear word is that we have “F.” It is not a clever reference to intercourse, but a verbal expression of forced sex.

In an ironic round-about, recent generations are using the F-word more frequently because it is depicted more frequently in popular culture which is supposedly reflecting the reality of kids these days. I think kids are using it more – it’s so easy to fall into that F-in’ rhythm (especially if it fills a vocabulary-deprived void) – but they don’t know what it means. They don’t intend to be insulting their mommas.

In the service of art and truth, the F-word does indeed have a place on the stage or on the page. But the irony is often missed by those who hear it as a primer for the hippest language. Television’s “The Pacific” was a gripping, harrowing series with F-peppered dialogue that apparently added to the veracity of its combat milieu. I don’t doubt the artistic truthfulness implied, but my Pacific-stationed uncle never used the word, and my Army Air Corps Dad could only muster one weak “dammit” in all the years I knew the guy.

Timothy Oliphant as Sheriff Seth Bullock in HBO's
"Deadwood." A comparatively straight-talker in an
atmosphere ubiquitous with the F word.
HBO’s “Deadwood,” I have to say, is Shakespeare with the “F” word. Caryl and I love the series. (Even though, as our daughters would say, "Mom would have to spell that word," Caryl is the one who commented on the Shakespearean feel of the dialogue.) The artful intent of the gritty speech works in a dramatically authentic way, but we are glad to leave the word behind in the muddy streets. It hasn’t rubbed off. (Caryl has not used the F-bomb against me even once; she hasn't even spelled it at me!)

My college English prof taught us that the Bard himself has Hamlet speak to Ophelia of “cunt-ry matters” (nudge, nudge; wink, wink) – word-based sexual taunting that didn’t work out well for dear Ophelia. I am not suggesting that the poet’s palette ought to be devoid of such ideas -- or words that offend.

But words can, indeed, wound or heal, tear down or build up. From the first books we read to our children to the vocabulary they hear us utter in all kinds of circumstances, we are introducing them to the power and magic of words. And it just may be an act of life-changing kindness if we approach a young friend and say, “You know, you’ve been saying ‘fuck’ a lot lately.”

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

MEDITATION AT KEITH'S TREE

 Breathe on me, breath of God; fill me with life anew… ~ old hymn
For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. ~ Colossians 3:3

The atoms of  Keith’s ashes now vibrate
in every root and branch and needle of
the tree we planted in his memory
eighteen years ago.
Ashes no longer, but bark and sap and
the green energy to urge another
two feet of growth this year
onto what is now a twenty-three foot spruce—
Its brave, fragile spire reaching straight up
into the universe.

There is a kind of religious parable in this, I suppose,
But “Take away from me your religion...”
I find my faith’s basis in the organic actuality,
natural meaning,
and, yes, cosmic mystery of it.
Not a metaphorical Mandala-Wheel
of repetitive circularity:
around and back and around again,
but the real linear movement of life
and death—and life—through time;
time with infinity at each end.

The thrust of root through soil, water
into capillary, chlorophyll into energy
into growth into the soft glide of the dropped cones—
the tree’s children—
gently lowered
from branch
            to branch
                        to branch
                                    to earth.

A tree at the center of the world,
whose lithe yet grounded trunk is this moment
swaying before me,
moved by that invisible force that can be translated
in Hebrew as “wind,” or “breath,” or “spirit.”

A tree that will die.
Like Keith.
Like “a grain of wheat that falleth to the ground….”

Like this:

When it is struck by lightning or caught up
in the great blaze Keith’s Tree will become
ashes; its ashes, atoms; it’s atoms,
the particles of all that has been or will be:
earth and oxygen and the tip
of a butterfly’s antenna
and the ink for the tiny font in which
the latest upgrade of DNA’s genetic software is written,
and all the other things that await
that last infinitesimal quarkish piece
to click into place in order to be.

Until that day when time’s linear arrow
reaches the sun’s heart and its final flare
curls around the earth,
and the same particles, released, will rise
to become, again, the material of stars.

And the starfires themselves will cool to embers
and ash, and the delicate grey dust of
bodies that once formed the galaxies
will float on the spirit-wind of space,
to be swept into scattered satchels of
ever-expanding gossamer fabric,
until these black holes burst their sacs full of
the ashes of atoms--the last stuff of matter--
to be--with the faint flutter of the last energy--
breathed in and out with the sighing of
a weary universe;
the last outbreath of the sigh caught up into
the inhalation of

                                            another breath…

into a bright eternity that waits like love
to enfold all the dying and all the cold
darkness in the arms of the original light,
in the warmth of the original breath,
into that which was before there was anything.

Into God.

There never has been nothing.
There never is an end.



In Memoriam ~ Keith Rohr
1958-1997
_________________________________________________________________________________

Paraphrased Bible passages (in quotes) ~
Amos 5:21-23
John 12:24