Thursday, April 26, 2012

Thank You

The white type on this hotel door key, an English phrase set off amidst a cloud of similar phrases in many other languages, reads "You're more than welcome." That's the motto of the Hyatt Regency hotel in Baltimore. I'm staying here for three nights for a work conference.

The staff of this hotel have tripped over themselves to accommodate me. Sometimes I think that I ought to expect this from a high-priced hotel set one hundred yards from the Inner Harbor. But then it occurs to me that by virtue of its place on the Inner Harbor, the Hyatt might easily slip into the belief that it can treat its clients however it wants. This staff has clearly not slipped in this regard.

When I asked the front desk clerk to confirm for me that wi-fi was free in the lobby but cost in the rooms, she said, "I'll make it free in your room." And with a few clicks of her Vaio laptop, it was so. When my small group was trying to figure out the best way to get to the other side of the harbor for supper, the concierge called us the free limo service that a local restaurant uses. The "thank you"s and "you're welcome"s have flowed freely from the staff. Although a frequent traveler to this level of accommodation (of which I am not one) might expect it as par for the course, I have been pleasantly surprised by and grateful for the courtesy.

Thank you, Hyatt Regency Baltimore!

~ emrys

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Snake on a Stick

Numbers 21:4-9:

"4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea,  to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live." [NIV]

For several reasons, the story of the bronze serpent on a pole is one of the weirder stories in the Old Testament. In spite of the questions it raises, however, it's given only six verses. With five verses of introduction, we have a biblical studies nightmare. To cap off the weirdness, however, it has a one-verse conclusion.
One little verse.
          I have discovered that this short verse hides almost the entire story of what really happened out in the wilderness.
          Remember that the tribes of Israel are made up of thousands of people. You think it's difficult getting a community of one hundred people--like we have here in Nineveh--to do something all together? Try thousands of freed, but grumpy and hungry slaves! Early on I had reason to suspect that this one verse, verse 9, glosses over a whole lot that actually happened but didn't get recorded . . . for some reason.
          Well, at long last, scholars have found the truth. The excavation of the Hot Erthan Al-Getout archaeological site has unearthed the oldest known manuscript of the book of Numbers. Several additional phrases appear between our verses 8 and 9 of chapter 21. Finally, much of the mystery of this strange story has been revealed. Here's what really happened.
          Moses, after praying and receiving his message from the Lord, said to his elders, "God says to make a serpent and set it on a pole. Anyone who gets bitten by a snake just has to look at it, and she'll be healed."
          This news sent the elders' meeting into a veritable tornado of questions and concerns.
          The first and loudest group, as usual, was the Budget Committee. Now, bear in mind that since leaving Egypt the Israelites had been living on God's quail and manna. All of their jewelry had been melted down either for a Golden Calf (which incident they'd rather forget about) or for the sanctuary furniture. So the Israelites had no money. (What's more, by the way, they were still a bit put out by the fact that the priests got all the gold furniture and everyone else was left to sit on rocks and eat off of sandstone slabs.) Anyway, they've got no money. And nothing makes a Budget Committee grumpier than knowing there's no money and hearing that there's a construction project coming up.
          "Where are we going to get the metal?" they cried. "Think about the bidding process! We're going to have to get three estimates to make sure we don't get ripped off by the Midianites. Did God think about that, Moses?"
          Meanwhile, the quiet guys on Building and Grounds quickly realized that if this thing was going to get made, they would just have to do it themselves. Frankly, they were somewhat excited about having some more work; after all, when your tribe lives in tents and pulls up stakes every three months, there's no "building" to take care of and not a lot of "grounds" worth landscaping. Their main concern was finding someone to climb the ladder to polish the bronze snake once it was set up. In a strange coincidence, everyone on Building and Grounds was afraid of heights.
           This was a problem they'd solved before, though: they figured they'd just make the new guy do it. And next time they needed to polish the snake, they'd just get another new guy.
          When the Budget Committee had exhausted its first round of complaints, the Fellowship and Events Committee chimed in. They decided that since so many people had died from the bites of venomous snakes in the last week, the congregation needed something to boost morale. At the unveiling of the bronze serpent, they said, the Israelites should hold an ice cream social.
          Who wouldn't appreciate a little Tutti Frutti ice cream in the desert? And since they'd be charging the Edomites, the Midianites, and the Canannites, they could earn a little money to appease the Budget Committee.
          When an elder asked about entertainment at the ice cream social, they suggested the famous ventriloquist Jeff Dunham. After all, if he could earn a full-time income performing with a jalapeno on a stick, why not a snake on a stick? It was a sad moment when someone informed them that Jeff Dunham would not be born for another five thousand years. "Who let the prophets in?" they said. "They're always getting our hopes up."
          At the mention of an ice cream social, the Israelite Women's ministry let out a collective groan. They were just barely recovering after umpteen hundred funeral dinners. Now they would certainly be expected to make cake!
          The Israelites hadn't seen a Wegman's (or a Price Chopper, for that matter) since they left Egypt, and everyone knew that good frosting was really hard to come by in the wilderness. "No rest for the weary," said the Women's Ministry Chair. "You men just go take care of that bronze serpent. We'll make the cake. We'll frost it in bright green, with a smiley face on it."
          At this point the Sabbath School Superintendent piped up.
          The Sabbath School curriculum had just finished the section on Genesis 3. The teachers had spent six solid weeks telling the kids that the serpent is the Devil. Now, after a week of terrifying news reports about people being bitten by poisonous vipers, the first-graders were going to come to Coffee Hour and find a neon green, smiley-faced Satan staring at them from under a layer of buttercream frosting? What would the parents think?
          Just as things began to get heated over the cake-and-frosting debate, the Pentecostal contingent of elders spoke up. (Yes, there were Pentecostals, even in Moses' day. Don't believe it? Pray that the Lord will give you the gift of wisdom.) They declared that a time would come when the True Believers would pick up snakes in their hands and not be injured. They couldn't find it in the Torah, but they knew it was written down somewhere--or would be.
          So wasn't all this business with poisonous serpents just a trial from the Lord to test their faith? Maybe what God wanted them to do was drop all this stuff with fake snakes and baked cakes and just believe with all their hearts!
          As everyone stared, incredulous, at this latest turn in the discussion, some folks from the weekly Torah Study group raised a point of order.
          Back at Mount Sinai--it seemed like forty years ago now--God had given the people certain important commandments. The Second Commandment said they shouldn't make an image of anything--including, presumably, serpents--on earth or in heaven. Why was Moses talking about making a bronze serpent on a stick that people would go to for healing? Maybe this was the real test from God!
          Aaron, Moses' brother, was more disturbed about this bronze serpent thing than anyone else. He was on Building and Grounds, so he knew he'd get roped into helping to make the object. But he also vividly remembered the last time he melted some metal to make the image of an animal--a golden cow, to be specific. It nearly got him and the rest of Israel burnt to a crisp by the fiery anger of Almighty God. So you might understand that he was a little gun-shy on the project.
          When the possibility of scuttling the project came up, most people were relieved. Most, that is, except the Youth Group. The teenagers had already begun to figure out how the morning after its unveiling they would run a pair of hot pink boxer shorts up the snake-pole. In the tent next to the elders' meeting, they had already begun making teams for t-shirt designs. The current favorite was "I got bitten by a serpent of God, and all I have to show for it is this dumb t-shirt."
          Even the youth leaders were getting excited. They had started to devise games in which kids had to crawl on their bellies through Jell-O and ring a bronze bell to win. They were making sign-up sheets for Jell-O makers, and one was on the phone to Oriental Trading Company ordering a thousand rubber snakes. (Yes, Oriental Trading Company has been around that long.)

          In the midst of all this wrangling about the serpent on a staff, no one paid much attention to the prophets.
          That's the problem with being a prophet, you know: No one pays attention to you until it's too late or you're too tired and ornery to repeat your message. So if you're considering a career path, only become a prophet if you have no other choice. Even trash collection is probably a more satisfying job pursuit than prophetic ministry.
          At any rate, the prophets, claiming inspiration from the Spirit of God, were saying that the Israelites ought to just get on with the making of this serpent. Let people get healed, then put the incident in the past. Definitely do not record this long conversation about ladders, frosting, and first-graders eating an effigy of Satan. They believed that the real significance of the snake on a pole was to be a sign for future generations.
          They said that in the distant future, in a strange act that no one could have foreseen, people would raise someone else up on a tree. Folks would think this someone was cursed and poisonous, but it would turn out that when folks came to him, they would be healed.
          They kept saying his name would be Joshua (which made Moses' assistant Josh more than a little nervous), not knowing that by the time their prophecy came true, the name would be pronounced more like Yeshua, or Iesous, or Jesus. This Jesus would refer back to their story of the serpent on a pole to refer to his own death and ability to heal all humanity of their sin. So this weird episode with snakes in the wilderness would become a symbol of God's sometimes strange ways of bringing salvation to humanity.
          But nobody got that.

          Instead, by now just about every special interest group in Israel had jumped onto the dog pile with its own opinion on how this serpent thing was to get done--or if it should be done at all. At this point the Personnel Committee saw some dangerous waters brewing. The Israelites had a tendency to complain like a bunch of overtired toddlers, and they drew a very fine line between complaining against God and trying to lynch Moses.
          They called a recess to the meeting--after all, everyone cools down a bit after a cup of coffee and a snack--and pulled Moses aside. By the time the recess was over, Moses had an idea for the elders of Israel.
          Moses said that with all these questions and bickering about the bronze serpent, he couldn't lead this thing alone. He decided, therefore, to put the project under the direction of a Herpetological Management Organization. That's business lingo for "people in charge of getting this serpent thing done." Of course, as soon as people learned that to get healed they were going to have to go through an HMO, their excitement died. So what could have become the biggest Rally Day in the history of Israel--complete with a green Satan-shaped cake and twisted balloon animals--finally went down in the book of Numbers like this:

"So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live."

          I'm not sure the discovery of this ancient manuscript changes much for us, except maybe to make me grateful. I thank God that our healer is not a metal sculpture on a pole, to fret over and maintain. I thank God that our healer came in human flesh, suffered our sin, blazed the trail into death before us, and rose again for our eternal life. I thank God for Jesus Christ--and the prophets who make his name known.

~ emrys

Good Choices

There are so many options for how to teach one's three-year-old to do the right thing. My preferred method of communication generally follows this form:

"You may do X on your own, or I will do it for you, in 5 . . . 4 . . . 3 . . . ." Usually by the time I get to 3, my daughter is doing what I've asked. One of the greatest punishments I can mete out is to do something for her. I might be able to claim that independent streak, for good or ill.

Sara tends to go a different route. Sara will use rewards and punishments, with the added encouragement for Gwendolyn to "make good choices." Bad choices mean time out, or worse, while good choices mean rewards.

It turns out that what's good for the gosling is also good for the gander.

Yesterday Gwendolyn told me, "I want some juice."

"How do you ask for that?"


"Whole sentence."

"Daddy, may I please have some juice."

"Yes. Thank you for asking. Go sit at the counter and I'll give you some juice." I got her cup, poured juice into it, and set it on the counter in front of her.

Gwendolyn picked up the cup. "Good job, Daddy. You're making good choices."

There it is. I guess I'm doing something right.

~ emrys

The Island: Robinson Crusoe

The reference is so well-known that a single word conjures the whole story: Crusoe. The supporting character has become a self-standing moniker for a helpmate: Friday. Yet the classic tale of shipwreck, isolation, and redemption I had never read. I think I may have had a choice to read it in high school English class, but chose Tom Jones instead. Over the last two months, though, I have at last read the first official English novel ever written: Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe (Signet Classics, 2008).

The manner of writing, the jargon and vocabulary, and the overwrought self-reference peg this book as an early eighteenth-century piece. The allure of shipwreck deliverance, the struggle of one man surviving entirely on his own, and the discoveries made while thriving in isolation make this book a timeless classic.

What surprised me most about the narrative was the religious content. Robinson Crusoe, though a fictional character, lives through the religious experience of his age: realization of his condition revealed by scripture, extended meditations on Providence (with a capital P), and deliberations about whether Papists, Protestants, and "savages" can live together in peace. In spite of the sometimes laborious religious meditations, the spiritual discoveries of Crusoe are embedded within a survival narrative which is mundane in its simplicity. The narrative arc is long, without the twists and turns of plot and conflict that I have come to expect from early twenty-first century novels. Yet I was carried along by the current--perhaps I should call it rather at tide--that built up with the slow movement of day-to-day events. Defoe masterfully leads us on a journey of the commonplace made urgent, eccentric, or uncertain by the fact that Crusoe is trying to be normal on an uninhabited island. The revelations of spirit come as gems embedded in the rough, unhewn stuff of subsistence.

This is the great thought experiment of all humanity, writ large and detailed in the original English novel: what would we discover about life if we suddenly had to live it alone, beginning again with our bare hands? What would we think about work, about rest, and about God? And finally, would our being cast away qualify more as punishment or redemption?

Though at times shocked by Crusoe's prejudice, his lack of foresight, or his lack of angst, I am nonetheless drawn in by his humanity. I can imagine myself doing what Crusoe did: suffering, mistaking, and triumphing over the same things, small and large. This, to my mind, is the gift of the good novelist: to make the story a mirror for everyone who reads it.

Kudos, once again, to Mr. Defoe for writing a piece which will count as a classic for another generation.

~ emrys

Sunday, April 08, 2012

End of an Era

While completing my degree at Fuller Theological Seminary, I served as the middle school youth leader at St. Stephen Presbyterian Church in Chatsworth, California. I learned a great deal about my own gifts for ministry and calling during those two years. For instance, I learned that while I can engage youth with gusto and joy I do not gain sustenance from the work as I do from teaching and leading adults. In spite of the fact that I am probably not called to full-time youth ministry anytime in the near future, I enjoyed the ministry there and the youth who were in my care.

Upon my departure, the other youth leader helped my kids to make a gift for me. Here it is, a velvet color-in image of Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane:

Stephanie, Kristina, Holly, Erik . . . not to mention Michael, Chris, Jackie, Tina, Scratch, and several others whose names escape me eight years later: Thank you!
~ emrys

New Dishwasher

What better way to celebrate Good Friday than to bring greater cleanliness to our home? In observance of this holiday, before the evening worship service, I got on my knees and installed a new dishwasher.

Here is the red curtain covering the opening from the former dishwasher. When it bit the bullet during installation of the new kitchen floor, we decided to get a new one. Note the dishes in the sink awaiting hand washing, and the drying rack taking up a copious amount of counter space:
 After six hours of work . . . Yes, I said "six hours." Note that for much of the project I had the assistance of my very helpful three-year-old daughter. Note also that because the new flooring brought the floor level up almost three-quarters of an inch, the counter's edge required some carving out to make the new appliance fit. Plus there was trim work to finish, and the added fact that this was the first dishwasher I have installed new. So what probably takes a professional installation crew less than an hour took me about six.

No worries: it's done. Here is our new Frigidaire Gallery washer. You can see the black Floor Saver water spill tray poking out from under the front edge. This simple device sheds any leaking water out to the front, so that leaks are immediately discernible and need not destroy the flooring underneath.
~ emrys

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Wrong of Passage: Film Review

This afternoon I saw the film The Hunger Games, the latest in the young-adult genre of films. I, like most fans I think, was attracted by the dark futuristic premise of a battle-to-the-death.

From the beginning, the film moves quickly. It's an edge-of-your-seat action flick, well composed to deliver conflict, tension, and surprise at every turn. The cinematography animates the tension well except for the choice to use so much shaky-camera technique. There are sequences in the film which leave the viewer almost seasick. I suppose, however, that much of the choice to film in this way was to reduce the otherwise R-rated violent content to a PG-13 rating. The cut-away and blurring shots reduced the amount of explicit violence on the screen.

More attractive and troubling about the film are ingrained attributes of the story's world. From the beginning we know that a small group of lower class adolescents must compete to survive an ordeal manufactured by a wealthy and powerful upper class. Within the group of adolescents are the favored and the underdogs. This stratifiction resonates with the underdog-loving bias of American viewers: young, untested naivete against older, trained experts. As the film progresses, however, we find that the conflict goes deeper than the knives and arrows the youth sling at each other.

The underlying social conflict of The Hunger Games is generational. Every adult character is evil, impotent, or simply blind to the atrocity of the Games. Katniss, our heroine, has a mother who is unable to care properly for her two daughters. (Her father has been dead for a long time.) The adults of the Capitol are either so evil (as we suspect about the President) or so blinded by their opulence as to be of no help to the cause of oppressed districts and "tributes." The so-called mentor of Katniss and Peeta, the retired victor of the Hunger Games, though at times wise in the ways of the Games, is a surly drunk. Only the training consultant, Cinna, seems to desire the best for the teens; but even his concern is limited to the absurd context of the homicidal game show. To sum it up: adults are not to be trusted.

The rite of passage is as old as human culture. Innumerable stories from time immemorial relate the tales of youth becoming adults. This aspect of The Hunger Games makes the film viscerally compelling. Say what you like about the acting, the cinematography, or the animation; the central theme of kids becoming adults--the hard way--will rivet every viewer. As it should! This theme speaks to a central truth of all humanity: the world is a cruel place, filled with evil, difficult choices, and unintended consequences.

But we must not miss the subtle change in The Hunger Games, as in other recent works such as Riordan's Olympians cycle and Lemony Snicket's Unfortunate Events. Whereas traditional rite-of-passage stories have focused on children battling for their wisdom against nature, a singular enemy, or  ignorance, The Hunger Games has made adults the enemy. Those who have passed through to adulthood (or have the money to avoid such passage) are the evil with which the youth must come to terms.

Every fantasy story is, on some level, prophecy about the present day. We must ask whether this shift in the rite-of-passage motif is true about our age. (Some researchers and demographers believe this to be accurate, i.e. Chap Clark.) Adolescents, the generational invention of the past century, have been left on their own to navigate the world, challenged or rejected by adults. If this shift has not actually taken place, then we--especially parents and educators--must take note of how media like The Hunger Games will shape, and therefore predict, the personal stories of the adolescents in our lives. If this shift has taken place already, then we--especially parents and educators, I say again--have ground to reclaim by establishing rites of passage that support our worldview and entering into the lives of adolescents as allies.

My Christian worldview encourages me to engage youth and be present with them as they journey to adulthood. I do not imagine that this journey will ever be simple, formulaic, or easy. But if they are to trust that the Lord is working in every stage of our lives, the passage to adulthood must be midwifed by those on the other side of the transition. We adults have the duty to see that the gifts of God in the lives of adolescents--like the compassion of Katniss that drives this film--are identified and encouraged, rather than exploited or squashed. At the end of the film, we can see Katniss' new tension--and perhaps a film sequel--forming: the world congratulates her for coming through the Games alive; but the cost may be her own sense of virtue and compassion. Put in other terms: Will her soul endure through what her body survived?

Or work is not over after our own rites of passage. By turning back to help others through, we have the task of ensuring that the world of Katniss Everdeen stays forever fiction.

~ emrys