"The Boy Detective Fails" by Joe Meno

In our town—our town of shadows, our town of mystery—it seems our buildings have, without reason, begun to disappear completely. Still full of their loyal inhabitants, the buildings and the people all disintegrate soundlessly. The air has been hard to breathe, full of regret and the glassy voices of the unsurprised dead. Our commuters have begun carrying photographs of their loved ones with them to work. On the bus, we look at each other, pictures of our sad wives and doubtful children huddled close to our chests, quietly imagining the silent elaborations of our own deaths. We are disappointed coming home that evening because the many photos betray our cowardice: We live in a town that is disappearing, and worse, like the buildings, our hope is gone and we are no longer surprised by anything.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Boy Scholastic Says A Devotional Prayer

"Um. Books are pleasant and I plan on reading more or them. I would like to have more time. The end." He's not very good at this sort of thing, but his heart is in the right place, or so it tells him.

I sit on the council of my church as the representative from Lutheran Campus Ministries (though I am a member of the church), and as a member, it is my job to lead a "devotion" at the meeting. I really don't know what that's supposed to mean. We are given a topic (we're going through the church's mission commitments) and are supposed to find a relevant verse to exegete in order to provide some insight. I suppose we call it a devotional because it is supposed to inspire devotion to the commitment amongst the council members, who will then somehow mystically transfer it to the congregation.

My devotion is about our church's commitment to being what is called a Reconciling in Christ church. The Reconciling in Christ movement to bring acceptance of all sexual orientations and gender identities within the body of the church. As would be obvious from reading the things which I write, I am in full support of our affiliation with this organization and am myself a member of it. My devotion was supposed to be in November, but it was swapped for our August devotion because our councilmember who was supposed to give the August devotion is recovering from medical treatment (and how happy we are for that is beyond words! Anne, you are a prayer answered!). I am glad that this change happened, because I'll be giving this devotional one week before going to Churchwide Assembly, albeit as a staff person and not as a voting member, and it will be a good opportunity to discuss the issue and encourage members to contact our synod's representatives to the assembly about our commitment and desire to see that commitment reflected in their votes.

In way of passage to work with, I think I'm actually going to choose two -- Galatians 3:28 and Matthew 19:1-9 (of course there almost always is a reference to 1 John 4:7-21). I feel drawn to these two passages especially because they are used respectively to argue for and against GLBTQ rights in the church. In the first, Paul tells us that there is now neither Jew nor Greek, neither salve nor free man, nor man and woman, for all are one in Christ Jesus. In the second, Jesus talks to the Pharisees about divorce, telling them that God created us man and woman and joined us together, and that we ought not break apart what God joined. I would like to reconcile them, if I am able.

It is the Matthew passage which causes us problems. However, the part which I summarized is only 1-6; it does not include 7-9. Let us look at the entire selection:

When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.

Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?"

"Haven't you read," he replied, "that at the beginning the Creator 'made them male and female,'and said, 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh'? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate."

"Why then," they asked, "did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?"

Jesus replied, "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery."

I was arguing with someone who used this verse to defend their choice to accept only heterosexual unions as legitimate. He claimed that this verse made it clear that marriage had to be between a man and a woman only, and that Jesus clearly left no other room by his definition. He then rehashed the argument that heterosexuals are able to procreate, and that's what Jesus means by saying that 'God joined them together' -- God joined them biologically through creation for that purpose. My response was to ask the simple question of whether or not an action is deemed good by the virtue of the action, and if so, what then is the virtue of marriage? "If this verse is to espouse that the only good marriage is a heterosexual one, then we must ask what is the virtue that this passage teaches us such that it confines marriage to only heterosexuals. Jesus tells us that the only reason a marriage can be dissolved is because of infidelity, and this stands in stark contrast that the virtue of marriage has anything to do with the ability to procreate. You say that the reason that heterosexual marriage is ordained is because it can produce children, yet I do not think that you wish to argue that as the virtue of marriage, and neither does the church. We don't make couples take a fertility test before marriage, and we don't turn couples away for deciding not to have their own children and adopting instead."

I continued to argue that Jesus gives us the proper understanding of marriage in verse 9 when he tells us that the only reason for a marriage to be dissolved is because of marital unfaithfulness, an echo of the 10 commandments. If the virtue of marriage was its ability to produce children, Jesus would have said that the only reason a marriage could be dissolved would be infertility, not infidelity. Instead, Jesus affirms that marriage is about love, about trust, about faith and trust in one another. Marriage is a commitment on love. Recall then that God is love, and that all are one in Christ Jesus. You don't have to be a logician to understand that transitively, all are equal in love.

Here is the devotional prayer that I have written for the meeting:

O God most mighty, O God most merciful, you teach us that the true believer worships you in spirit and in truth -- let our meeting here tonight be an act of worship to you. Let our Spirit for your church manifest itself in wisdom and right conscious and let the devotion tonight re-align our hearts to the truth that your love and mercy know neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free man, nor man and woman, but that all are one in Christ Jesus. We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ, our savior and Lord. Amen.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Boy Scholastic Tried to Share a Pear

As is, was, and will be his custom, he was taking his lunch under a tree in the park nearby where he lives and today it was a pear, a scone, and some butternut soup kept warm in his thermos. He has a decided order when it comes to eating food, and it goes like this: simple to complicated. First came the soup, because what could be more simple than a liquid (it is like the sea!), then came the scone, because it was a liquid until he put in flour and then placed it in the oven, and finally was to come the pear, for it was as solid and shiny as it had always been, although he was suspicious that there was, hidden in its chew, a good measure of juice. He was just about to take a bite when he saw a girl sitting on a bench. He thought about giving her some of his pear, and a valiant effort was made on his part -- he was able to walk all the way over and held it out. But there was something there which he could not communicate, because she took the pear in its entirety. He tried to gasp, but the breath was gone from him. She did not eat it, though, but put it in the pocket of her jacket. "She thinks that she has me," he said with a grin to himself, "but little does she know I have more at home!" And The Boy Scholastic ran off, leaving the girl alone, and once again completely missing the point.

Each generation of the church has its great struggle, its cause for which it is known. The Apostles were charged with starting the faith, the great authors for writing their Gospels, the early fathers for defending the faith against the pagans, the late fathers for defining our doctrines and writing our creeds. The early Medieval period saw the organizing of the church as the late Medieval struggled under the burden of creating a systematic theology. The Reformation was charged with repairing the damaged church and restoring the individual, the later Protestants with turning doctrine into a debate and not a decision. We found our social causes too, as we have seen the church work to defeat religious discrimination under the law, slavery, racism, class inequality, gender inequality. The theologians of the 19th century gave us Biblical Criticism, and those of the 20th century gave us the reunion of faith and reason. The church has, in so many ways, been the driving force of change in society.

It with a great sadness, then, that I look at the state of the world at present and see how the church has dropped the ball on sexuality and human intimacy. The state of our societal approach to human intimacy is inherently flawed in all directions, and this is ultimately the fault of the church.

Too long has the church looked at human sexuality as a dirty thing, something which we did not permit on many levels for a long time, and at present have what could be called, at best, our own “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Our most progressive of Protestants look at sexuality as a secular term, or something to do with GLBTQ rights – and their numbers are dwarfed by the fundamentals, who instill in their children a fear of sex, and the Catholics, who teach that sex is a base and unfortunate necessity and should only be done to reproduce, and even then not by anyone with an amount of holiness. More and more people everyday realize that these notions are backwards and damaging, and they either abandon the church because of them or torment themselves in a stifling and damaging system. We’ve all been taught that sexual sin is worse than other sin, and that sexual desire and the desire for human intimacy must be guarded lest it make us a whore. We have seen in the last ten years how Catholic priests have been hurt by the church’s requirement that their lives be void of human intimacy, and we see our younger generations leaving in favor of “greener” pastures.

If there has ever been a situation where the old adage about the grass on the other side is true, it is here. If the church’s failed policies have been damaging (and they have), it is due less to what they have done and more to what secular society has done when they picked up the reigns of teaching us about intimacy and sexuality. Secular society decided that it was tired of feeling dirty for having sexual desire and having sex, and so they decided to fight for sexual liberation, which means sex however you want it and with whomever you want it. Unfortunately, they have continued to make sex a huge deal by turning it into a competition -- young, beautiful people have sex, and that's what you want to be -- and this puts the focus of sexuality and intimacy on eros and not agape or philios, and that's hugely problematic and just as bad as anything the church has done or taught, worse in fact. We have people running into sexual relationships when they lack an understanding of intimacy and of love, and we have people using sex and intimacy as tools to get what they want, solely as ways to pleasure and feel pleasured with first seeing it as a way to love and be loved. They’ve turned us into a culture which abuses each others trust in a new way, because sex still has a heightened instance. We’re taught sexually promiscuity and abandon, but we still revolve around words like “slut” and “whore”, where we look at sex as “scoring” and an end unto itself. It is a troubled world that the church faces, and the need for it to regain the position of the progressive agent and the stabilizing force in the realm of human intimacy.

Doing that is a difficult proposition, however, thought the ELCA is making great strides with its new statement “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust”. What we need to do, most of all, is to stop being ashamed of our desires for sexuality and intimacy. And that’s starts by talking. We need to start talking about it, talking about how we feel, talking about how we want to feel. We need to be honest and open. This also means that we need to stop stigmatizing sexual sin as something worse than all other sins. Making the wrong decision about sex (and that does not necessarily mean sex before marriage; I’m not trying to disguise a hard-line opinion with pretty language) needs to be viewed as a mistake like lying or hating or anything else. A person who has sex before marriage is not dirty, a person who is divorced is not a sinner for life, or even for a moment any more a sinner than the rest of us are. The lie I told this morning, the hate I felt yesterday, the impatience I will have tomorrow is no better a sin than anything I may do wrong sexually – too long have Christians stigmatized sexual sin in order to feel better about the sins they do commit, however subconsciously. I have heard my grandmother say a thousand times when I did something wrong, “Well, at least you didn’t go out and just sleep with some girl.” Christ teaches that to lust is just as bad as to have an inappropriate sexual relationship (adultery, within the context that he is speaking), and we have to reflect that in our church policies and attitudes. It requires a sincere change of heart, but then again, there should be no one more so than Christians who are willing, able, and ready to reform their ways and do the just thing.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Boy Scholastic's Bike De-Chained

He knew that he had left in one too many links, and now he's paying the price. Well, he's also paying the price becaues his bike is a fixed gear with no brakes, which means that, at present, he can neither speed up or slow down. All he can do is not fall of, and things were going fast before he lost control. As he wizzes through stop sign after stop sign, going towards the lake, he is suprisingly calm. And as he and his bike (miraculously?) make it to the water's edge, he says as loudly as he can, "I am everything and nothing!" And at that moment his bike stopped. He would like to believe that it was the sand dune he had just crashed into which brought about his sudden stop, but as he flies effortlessly over the handlebars and into the water, he accepts that fact that there are things in this world far too mysterious and beautiful to understand, the least of which is horizontal motion on a bike or his own existence, let alone the relationship of the one to the other.

"I am everything and nothing." I did say that once, on a roller-coaster, which may seem silly, but those things are like existential joy-rides for me. I'm deathly afraid of them, but yet I ride them at every possible oppertunity, because they cause in me such an interesting dread. I really, trully feel like I'm going to die, but not in a real way, but only semi-real. I can tell myself all I want that it's safe, and deep down I know it is, and yet I get filled up with such an anxiety that, well, the experience is something wholly other. I never know how I'm going to react. Once, at a very unexpected turn in the roller coaster, I yelled, "Why? Why would you do that?" I don't even know why -- it just seemed like the right thing, I guess. I'm not about to question what silly things the mind decides to do under stress, let alone weird, roller-coaster stress. All I will say is that, if you enjoy being entertained, ride a roller-coaster with me sometime. It's mildly rediculous and definitely hilarious.

A few days ago, I had the great fortune to have lunch with Mark Hanson, the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America for those of you who aren't as interested in churches and stuff as I am). It was an amazing oppertunity to hear from him about his job as Presiding Bishop as well as president of the Lutheran World Federation. It was a small group of us present, and we were asked for questions. I immediately asked him about his stance on the ELCA Sexuality Task-Force's statement: Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust[PDF]. I asked in no uncertain terms whether he felt that this issue was a primary or secondary concern for the church at present, and what he saw his role and the role of my generation (represented heavily at this meeting) in this debate. What followed was the most brilliant and profound response that I have ever received regarding the statement on sexuality. I've transcribed the heart of it here -- my quotations are not direct quotes, but the paraphrasing of ideas in direct discouse. Forgive me any errors I may have had in writing them down:

His main point was that this discussion is not about gay or straight, hetero-normative or varied gender-identities or sexual orientations, because looking at the issue in that way divided up the church into those categories: this is a gay pastor, that is a straight paster, this is a transgendered cantor, that is a stay-at-home wife VBS leader. If we treat the debate in those terms, we risk dividing the church. "And as a sixty-year straight, white male, it's tempting to talk about sexuality in terms of GLBT," he said, "because it takes the focus off of me." We are only going to come to a right and just solution if we talk about human sexuality and human intimacy as universal experiences, as a gift and a trust. We as the church have had a long history of making people feel ashamed of their need for intimacy and their desire for sexual relations. We've forced people to bottle them up, to make them unspoken, and that's unhealthy. That's what gives us scandals in the priest hood like in the Catholic church -- they refuse their priests any intimacy, and that hurts people.

At this point, the Bishop told us that he had a therapist with whom he met regularly. "And I look at my therapist exactly as I look at my dentist and my general physician -- they are all people who help keep me healthy. We need to stop being ashamed of needing to talk about these things, because that causes so much hurt to people, and the church is guilty most of all of propegating that. We as the church used to be the instruments of social change and right-thinking, but we've wrongly given that up in American to secular society and the talking-heads on TV, and that's caused a whole different set of problems. It's time we take that banner back."

He said much more than this, most of which added to those points, but the central issue which was what was so beautiful. For the first time, I could truly say that I was proud--damn proud--of being a member of the ELCA. Never before had I met someone with so much earthly power and authority who was so humble. It was remarkable.

What added to this was that, yesterday, I was the assisting minister at chapel services at the ELCA church-wide office, and I was the one who communed the presiding bishop, who was in attendence that day (rare since he travels so much). The humility I felt as the steward of such a cup, especially giving it to someone for whom I have so much respect, nearly brought me to tears. I have meant more the words which I said that day: "Take and drink: cup of life, cup of salvation." And my sending had never been so powerfully spoken: "Go in peace, Christ is with you!"

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Boy Scholastic Cries At Inappropriate Times

Well, it’s not so much that the times he cries are inappropriate as it is that he never cries when he feels it’s appropriate and only cries when he can’t understand why. When his grandfather passed away, he shed nary a tear, though he loved him dearly, and yet he went to the funeral of a stranger and could barely sing for all the tears. When his dog died, he accepted it with reverent silence, but he saw a dog tied up to a post outside a store and began to tear up. “Perhaps,” he thought to himself, “I do not mourn what I loved but what I did not love.” But why now does he not cry nor sleep?

I related to a friend the other day that one of my greatest pleasures about starting to make my way in academia is revealing to people that I believe in God. “And an institutional church!” I often add with relish. This is really only a surprise to those who don’t know that I do divinity, but there are enough people I come in contact with that this gets to happen on a pretty frequent basis. Perhaps it’s due to the particular make up of the institution that I’m with at present, as it is known for anti-religious sentiment (Dawkins, Hitchens, and the like come often), but there seems to be a great surprise that there would be someone studying there who believes not only in God, but in a particular religious expression, and an institutional one at that. I try to play the apologist as little as possible, though I am swift to explain the essential intricacies in doctrine, no matter what the subject.

One of my favorite aspects to discuss, the revelation of which turns just as many heads as my admission of religious affiliation, is that I am a pre-destinationalist. No Calvinist, mind you, but decidedly anti-free-will. I explain that I am persuaded to the position for a variety of reasons –the deterministic nature of the physical world, the paradox of free-will and divine foreknowledge, and the emphasis on grace in salvation, just to name a few. However, I do acknowledge that, from those perspectives, the difference in opinion has no bearing whatsoever on any perceivable reality, as the perception of choice (whether illusionary or not) is so real as to be real. The only reason that a person would have a worthwhile opinion on the matter is because it affects their lives in a very real way. It is on those grounds that I say I am a pre-destinationalist, because the notion of free-will is, I feel, inherently vain.

To understand why, it’s important to examine sin and the way we, as humans, process it in terms of faith and salvation. From a free-will perspective, when a person looks back on a sinful thing that he has done, he says to himself, “Oh, I did a bad thing, but now I’ve learned and I’m a better person for it, for I shan’t do that again” (do you like how all my interlogicas speak in the most proper of Englishes?). To hold this position is to be more Buddhist than Christian, for what you are saying is that you have become a better person, and have separated yourself from your sin through a free-will progression: you are able to separate yourself from the person who did that sinful thing. It is what has popularized amongst many Christian groups the idea of being “born again” as having shed your past life and being an entirely new person. Now, I’m not denying that there is a reality to that, because the existential re-arrangement that is connected to salvation is most-powerful and cannot be ignored, but for many groups, it takes up this notion of possessing no connection to that person. Now, at this transition, there is a scriptural basis for such an opinion, and I’m inclined to accept it, but what I see as the problem is that the mindset is carried with the individual perpetually – any sin can be separated in such a way by becoming a better person.

Is it clear where I’m going? It’s not the separation from sin that I object, but the idea that it comes from the free-will choice to become a better person. For the pre-destinationalist, the individual must always look at past sins and recognize that they are still today the same person who made that decision, because that individual is just as much what made them who they are today as their reality today will form them tomorrow. Each individual is what he was and will be, all at once, and the pre-destinationalist must always reconcile himself his being with the fact that he cannot, by his own will and desire, be separated from that sin. He is forced to turn to the cross and look to God for his redemption. He is simul iustus et peccator, for though perpetually a sinner, he is justified by Christ in spite of his sin. You are always the person who sinned, which means you are always a person who needs Christ. It is ultimately humbling in ways that free-will could never be.

The beauty of this is that, for the pre-destinationalist, we see how the good fruit / bad fruit scenario works as I have previously described it. The sinfulness of the good fruit drives him to find Christ, whereas the sinfulness of the bad fruit drives him away from Christ. But I’m not rehashing that.

BTW, expect an update on current news concerning sexuality and the priesthood, with special attention to the ELCA’s statements: “Sexuality: Gift and Trust” and the subsequent recommendation for ministry policies.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Boy Scholastic Refuses To Sleep

It's like admitting that this is all that today was, that it's over and that there's nothing more left to make it something. It's the death of the sky, the end of being. It is a realization of his struggle with the anxiety of death; for him, staying up all night is to say, "I decide when this day ends, and that's not tomorrow." Staying awake means that you never really lose anything. Going to sleep means putting faith in the belief that, when your eyes open, everything you love will still be there. Some days it isn't. And some days it isn't. As of late, he can't stand to lose anything more.

I was going to write something nice, something about the fallen beauty of pre-destination. But sometimes, writing these little intros gets to me.

I'm going to have a smoke.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Boy Scholastic Wants to be Awake When It Happens

His death, that is. He wants to be awake, to be there. He figures that the anxiety about death is a fundamental part of the human experience, and that it would be far better to experience the possible horror and to know for certain than to slip away into something or nothing...

At chapel this week, a sermon was delivered on Luke 6:43-45 -- until I have time to do my own translation, here is the NIV (you can't get NRSV on-line, sigh):

43"No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. 44Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. 45The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.

The sermon which was given was, in my opinion, meaningless as a sermon. This is not to say that the sermon didn't have a point, but that the preacher decided instead to use the scripture as a segue into discussing a social justice issue rather than using a social justice issue to segue into discussing the scripture. The pulpit is not where we proclaim our social justice-- we do that with our hands. The pulpit is for elevating the truth of God with our words, hopefully inspired by the Spirit.

It was good, however, that the sermon was a failure in my mind, because it gave my mind the excuse to ignore what was being said by the preacher and focus instead on what was being said by the Spirit. And the Spirit is certainly needed with this piece of scripture, because it is not easy to understand. The passages leave us in a difficult place, for we recognize as Christ ians that we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We therefore could not be the good tree, could we? Yet this morning we had come together to worship Christ, and to call that an act of evil would be to blaspheme the Holy Spirit, and so we cannot in any way call this act bad. This is simply a conundrum, for Jesus did not give us a third tree -- the tree which is simul iustus et peccator does not exist in this narrative.

Are we then to say that Christ is wrong? an equally unacceptable option, for it would be an act of vanity and blasphemy to say that we could judge Christ with fallen reason. As with all interactions with the Spirit, we must reconcile ourselves with the Word. How, then, do we understand ourselves in regards to this interaction with the Spirit?

The Psalmist tells us that the Lord delights in a broken and contrite heart. Indeed, if God loved us for our blamelessness, we would not be loved, nor would God delight. Rather, God loves us despite our sin, and delights in our genuine repentance, for it is in that act that our love of God (given through grace), repulsed by our sin, turns us towards God. And how then can we call that result bad, for we have returned to God? Certainly each day we play the Prodigal Son, forsaking God only to realize that we are naught without Him. We are Christians not because we do not sin or even because we do not sin more or less than others, but because our sin turns us to the Cross. This is not to say that sin is good, but that even though our sin exists, Christ's light shines through and illuminates our lives despite our sin. we are the good tree and we bear the good fruit: that is what it is to worship Christ. But what we cannot, cannot forget is that the fruit is good not because of he who bears it, but because of He who causes it to grow. All goodness belongs to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Boy Scholastic Watched A Tree Bloom

Thursday it was bare, but Friday was warm and sunny, and today it poured. He woke up this morning early to a smell of rain and saw buds outside his window. The Boy Scholastic wasted the day away with his texts and pipe, and as the smoke and histories unfurled around him, so did the buds bloom and grow. Now he lies in bed, a smile on his face, wondering if tomorrow will hold more. He's already prepared for it, though. One way or another, he and a friend (!!!) are making a pie.

The next two months promise to be exciting -- I've got several ideas for papers that I am eager to explore, no matter whether or not they materialize (although something has to, eventually). Right now, I'm occupied with exploratory research for a paper about the competing views of history at play in Early Medieval Spanish histories (specifically those of Augustine and Eusebius). I'm focusing mostly on Isadore's History of the Goths, though I'm sure other works will materialize in time. I'm proposing it as a way the Spanish at the time of Muslim conquest comprehended their social situation in terms of religion. I'm hoping that it materializes into a BA in the near future, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

After that there is a paper for my class on The Gospel According to Mark. While working on the pericope of the Syrophoenician woman, I noticed how the exchange between said woman and Jesus appeared to be similar to the dialogs from Sayings of Spartan Women in that it had a woman with significantly less authority successfully challenging a man of greater authority with witty report. As we've floated the idea of Mark as the "Pauline" Gospel, I thought it interesting propose an exploration of how well this pericope conformed/deviated from that narrative style. My professor agreed (or gave me the impression of agreeing.) I'm in the process of working up a formal proposal.

There's an idea or two which is still floating around, but they need more time to stew. I think this is enough to legitimize posting, though. Time will tell.