Sunday, November 27, 2011


My friend Warren and I have a running Scrabble game going – on our iPhones. He’s in Texas, I’m in Minnesota. On a lazy Saturday we might finish a game in less than an hour; more often a game stretches out for a day-and-a-half or so, with intermittent play wound into our routines.  The chat feature allows us to stitch our moves together with conversation and wise cracks – keeping in touch (which is actually the richest part of the whole deal).

Although it’s fun to discover that it’s “my turn” while idling fifteen minutes in the dentist’s waiting room, the most enjoyable experience of the game is the afore-mentioned Saturday morning with a cup of coffee, or around 5:00 – happy hour – with a glass of wine, not playing on the fly but replying back and forth with moves – and chat – in real (if occasionally interrupted) time.

This happy hour experience has made me realize that – beyond the fun of playing a game and the novelty of doing it electronically – what we are actually engaging in is the rapidly developing philosopho-science of virtual reality. Even though our Scrabble exchange is a rather minor and low-key expression of VR, I have a sense that something, well, virtually real is happening, and it is one small part of a significant alteration in human interaction and relationship that is not only technological but ontological. And it may not be an alteration at all, but more like a movement along a continuum.

What is virtually real is not just the click and clack of the game tiles, but the fellowship – yes, the emotional feeling – of the experience. If the standard of reality in this case is sitting in front of the fire, my friend across the table with a game board between us, a glass of wine in front of each of us, and the hum of chit-chat and the occasional bon mot passing back and forth, this virtual game offers about, say, 70% of that. So of course I’m not equating iPhone Scrabble with being in the presence of my friend, but, hey!, 70%!

I’m quite serious about this. I’m a quintessential “people person;” in the beginning stages of my entry into the world of computing (and iThings) I would have laughed if anyone had suggested that any of these applications would have the slightest resemblance to essential human interaction. But I’m experiencing it. And –  (the continuum) – what will this be like in 2061 when my friend’s image will come from the internet in my eyeball, we’ll chuckle in real time at one another’s wise cracks, and raise a glass to toast the beginning of a game, smiling eye-implant to eye-implant.

The more profound continuum – and the inspiration for this little essay – is provided by the cosmological theory of the multiverse. Proponents of this theory postulate that there could be an infinite number of universes, and, if that is the case, advanced civilizations have long ago developed the art of constructing simulated universes, which means, according to one application of the theory, that it is most likely that we are living in one of these fake universes – a virtual world created on some kind of non-digital super-computer.1  This puts a new twist on wondering how “real” the entire experience of playing virtual Scrabble is.

Physicists – even those who propose it – acknowledge that it’s difficult to tell if the idea of the multiverse is physics or philosophy (since it is scientifically un-testable).2 My virtual Scrabble game with my friend certainly lacks the physical, but, philosophically, it works. In the context of all that our friendship has to offer, it’s not good enough. But it’s pretty good.

1. For a mind-boggling, but accessible, discussion of the implications of the multiverse, see, "Cosmic Jackpot," by physicist Paul Davies.

2. There's a good introduction to the multiverse and string theory on the recent PBS "Nova" series, "The Fabric of the Cosmos," with physicist Brian Greene.

Thursday, November 3, 2011


"After every sermon the preacher should fall on his knees and ask God to forgive him for what he's just done." ~Martin Luther

Although I believe in legitimate accountability (church council, etc.), I long ago quit looking nervously over my shoulder and came to the conclusion that if I feel OK about what I’m doing, I am not so concerned about what Mrs. McGillicuddy thinks.  Another way to put that is to say that I am my own best (or worst) critic (with, I repeat, the added seasoning of accountability).

As such – although I actually do feel pretty good about the work I do in this calling – I have a litany of shortcomings that would probably be longer than any list that my worst enemy could come up with.

Another time, perhaps, I’ll go after myself about missed hospital calls, repetitive stewardship sermons, or failed attempts to ignite a passion for the faith in a fourteen-year-old confirmation student. Today my confession is that, over the course of thirty-five years of ministry, I have not done enough reading.

I want you, friend, to understand that I am, in fact, a reader. But my reading is exhibit A of the proof of the old adage: “That which is urgent but not important drives out that which is important but not urgent.” And of course I use “urgent” somewhat loosely. For good or ill, reading and study take a second place to staff meetings, council meetings, writing newsletter articles, pastoral counseling, teaching confirmation, hospital calling, emergency visits, etc. All of which I readily accept as part of the job description of my call, some of which are urgent, all of which are important, but none of which are more important than regular reading and study.

I cast this as a “confession” because it’s my own fault. I’m not blaming my parish or its people. (Not even Mrs. McGillicuddy.) Years ago, through the example of an enlightened mentor, I was freed from any sense of guilt about letting people know that I was “wasting time” reading a book.  The object of my confession is a combination of a haphazard discipline of my time and the actual busy-ness of the calling.

Four categories of reading come to mind as being essential to what I do:
  • The general reading required of anyone who seeks to be a literate and informed citizen: newspapers, various magazines, book reviews, etc. (Who was it that said, “The preacher should prepare a sermon with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other?”)
  • The artful and literary writing of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry – both the recognized “classics” and the new stuff. One of my homiletical heroes, the Scottish preacher James S. Stewart, of the 1940s-60s, laced his engaging sermons with references to Shakespeare and to other poets and writers of both ancient and modern times.  (This raises another issue: The reading of the person in the pew. I know that I hark back, perhaps in vain, to a time when to be educated meant that one would be acquainted with the Bible and with Shakespeare.)
  • Regular engagement with theological writing (again, both ancient and modern) and professional journals in the fields of theology and practical ministry.
  • The Bible. I agree with a colleague of mine who once said, “I can’t preach on this text until I discover how it changes me.” This means – no matter how many times I’ve read it before – reading and re-reading this book that is the basis of much of our civilization and our understanding of the world. From a standpoint of faith, I belong to a community that considers it to be “the word of God,” not as some kind of magical tome, but as a record of God’s covenantal and reconciled relationship with us. Faith, the Apostle Paul says, is a gift of the the Holy Spirit; it is the Spirit and the Word(s) that bring the message of this book alive, again and again.
Our ivory tower seminary professors suggest twenty hours a week be devoted to reading and study for the weekly sermon. But my “ivory tower” chide isn’t fair – I agree with the professors. It is a goal that is in keeping with what I am called to do as a “minister of word and sacrament.”  OK, some weeks it may dip to fifteen… or ten, but I’m going to keep trying. Regular reading is what allows the preacher, when invited to preach, to use that old saw, “I’ve been preparing for this all my life.”