Astrid Storm Keeps It Real

The Rev. Mo. Storm causes trouble, reminding us that there were good reasons we left the Catholic Church.

A couple tidbits: the clergy scene in Rome certainly seems very gay — and, particularly once cocktail hour was well underway, fun. But more importantly, I realized that the relatively few Anglicans (“Episcopalians” in the U.S.) involved in these dialogues — and thus the Anglicans that the Vatican probably comes into the most (perhaps sole) contact with — seem to wish they were Roman Catholic.

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On the Internet

In the midst of our current environment, I’ve been intrigued by how much implicit authority technology has to frame our perspective.

Brain scan imaging demonstrates how the tools we use become extensions of our bodies and minds. Technology affects how we think, work, play and pray. Our humanity has always been linked to our ability to manipulate objects; but it also seems true that objects have power over us.

Technology can’t easily be separated from how we pray or articulate our faith. Our sacred stories moved from speech to script. Eventually they were collected into a codex, and a millenia later, these codexes became mass produced. Scrolls meant to be heard became books meant to be read.

The alphabet itself is technology that allows us to convey meaning, making words physical, so that we can take it from one place to another. The written word was how people could send clear instructions into the future. For those who couldn’t read, the technology of stained glass windows told the story.

Our most recent technological innovations have compressed space and time. In our immediate news cycle, we are invited to react and respond quickly, without thought or reflection, imitating whatever outrage or anxiety that seems most familiar to us. The ancient values of prudence and patience seem quaint, cautious and dull while we are perpetually stimulated with whatever moment of insanity exposed to us.

And yet, technology is not the enemy. Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites are often fun and useful. They may build real connections. But they are meant to enable connections, not replace them. Cyberspace cannot heal the body, the way a physical presence can.

Yet it is in rest, in patience, in slowness, where we actually find the spirit. It is fine to be busy. It is virtuous to have work. But it is no virtue to worship speed. Over time, choosing a screen over a body corrodes the soul.

I wonder if spending one day a week with no electronic media would enable us to strengthen the tender virtues that are quickly diminishing from our daily practice. It would remind us that we have some authority over the tools we construct, and how we use them. We would be more aware, also, of how our tools have authority over us.

One perspective on faith

Paul says in Romans: “The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God. Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve.”

In this passage he is making faith subjective. Faith is located in the individual. He’s almost saying, “if it feels good, do it!” He tempers this a little later in the letter, but he is also insinuating: don’t judge other people’s faith. Your conviction is your own. It’s a blessing in its own right. But it also means we can’t go around dismantling the hope of others, or judging them on their lack of confidence.

Have you ever been suspicious of the way people use the word “faith?” I have. Sometimes it seems like a short-cut for thinking, or a synonym for foolishness. “Faith-based” can also be a codeword for institutions like churches that want to have some say in the political sphere.

I believe, however, that “faith” is not merely about believing in things that simply won’t happen or in the supernatural. “Faith” is a description of what we trust. It provides a lens with which to see the world. It may be sometimes grainy, but it helps us understand what we see. In this thin sense, human beings are imbued with a faith as deep as the alphabet we use to speak.

It may also be the location where we find our strength: such as the love we have for our kids; the support we get from our loved ones; our commitment for a changed world order; in the belief that our parish can become a place to experience creativity in our communities.

“Faith” also describes those rituals, practices and thoughts that are so ingrained we don’t even reflect upon them. We aren’t even aware they are there. That we wake up, have breakfast, go to work, take care of the dog, and come home requires a habit of action that assumes the presence of millions of other actors and actions that may change at any moment. So to some extent, to say “I have faith” is to be redundant. Perhaps the best way to say we have “faith” is to say nothing at all, but merely to live confidently in the world, believing, however foolishly, that what we do matters.

Even more so, faith allows us to say that we can reflect upon our rituals, and have some choice about who we are and what we can be. It might be a faith that allows our awareness, our sensitivity, or our creativity to be harnessed to enchant the world and reveal the loveliness of the world that has been made and we continue to make. Blessed be!

Against Optimism

“Balance,” “Positivity.” Every now and again I hear these cliches especially when I recognize that my life isn’t balanced, and not everything is positive.

I’m sympathetic to the need for such pat demands upon our virtues. They offer solace and direction, a map for action. There’s the command: if life is unbalanced, then just balance it! If there’s negativity and sadness, just cheer up!

It seems easy to do. A transformed life is right before you, if you want it.

To some extent, however, I wonder whether or not seeking balance or cultivating an easy sense of optimism is particularly useful. Sometimes our lives are out of balance. We work hard some weeks; we become obsessed with a new song or toy; we jump in headfirst into a hobby and spend every night perfecting the craft. And seeking balance just seems like another task, another criteria by which we can make ourselves fail. So, I must do laundry, cook, exercise AND be “balanced?” And sometimes “balance” just seems like another way to dull passion and temper the enthusiasm that makes life happen.

We’re also told that we must be optimistic and think positively. And yes, our worries are often unfounded; our anxieties are based on idle speculation. Yet, a belief that everything happens for the best, and that there’s always a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is profoundly delusional. For many people in the world, moments of happiness are the exception. Suffering is the norm. When we are asked to be perpetually positive, we are often woefully unprepared.

When the rich man comes to Jesus, he calls him “good.” He might as well have called him “balanced” or “cheerful.” Jesus responds, “what are you talking about” by saying “only God is Good.” What makes a Christian isn’t goodness, nor balance, nor optimism. The faith worth having is one that gives us the power to face the facts. And when we can’t face them alone, we do it together.

Because the world is often awkward; it contains uncomfortable suffering; and inconvenient truths. We are less generous than we could be; we could participate in murder when the time is right. We are prone to envy and resentment. We prefer to be deluded by human power, than moved by God’s vulnerability.

All religions want goodness. We desire to be on God’s side so that we won’t get killed. What Jesus wants instead, is for a faith that allows us the strength to handle the hard questions, to recognize that faith itself can be on shaky ground, as precarious as life and death itself.

The rich man asks Jesus for eternal life. Jesus says, follow the rules. The rich man says, “I do.” Then Jesus says, “give it all away.” And the rich man leaves, distressed, missing Jesus’ final answer, because he knows he can’t. What he didn’t understand was the he was asking the wrong questions.

He didn’t hear Jesus say, “All things are possible.” Begin where you need to begin. Perhaps you shouldn’t be asking me all of these questions, but asking yourself. Then, let’s talk.

It is not the pat phrases we need. Not through ourselves must we insist on our own perfection, now neatly labeled being “balanced” or coercing ourselves to be optimistic. Instead, even though we are imbalanced or worried, all Jesus says, it’s not over yet. Which is another way of offering the promise of eternal life.

It’s not over.

Hoarding and the Multiplier Effect

A few months ago I came across an article about the growing number of people who have been discovered with the mental illness of hoarding. As they get older, they accumulate stuff that eventually becomes a hazard. It’s not much different than the cause of our current economic state: in times of insecurity, institutions hoard. Then money stands still and people lose work. Money doesn’t do what it is supposed to do: move.

A market economy discourages hoarding and encourages exchange. Free exchange is better than the alternative: force. But as the market gets more complicated, hoarding wealth harms more people. People stop becoming generous when money doesn’t move.

But generosity multiplies. In simple capitalism, the economist Keynes, along with most modern economists, describe the importance of the “multiplier” effect. It is an accounting of how the market catalyzes trade, which ideally encourages jobs. When we employ people, we give them purchasing power, which employs more people, which encourages even more purchasing power. You get, then you spend.

In times of desperation, entrepreneurs get scared and hoard. In those cases, those who have cash lack confidence. Confidence is a dangerous position. It is an appropriate corollary with faith. It is the catalyst of making decisions. Good ones. Bad ones. It’s great when everyone’s making money. It’s bad when it drives us off a cliff. I know I’ll survive. It’s just a cliff, and I’ve been doing hundreds of squats a day.

Church economics takes this general map a step further. We give what we can, and even more so, risking ourselves. Last February we held a party to raise money for an organization that represented the homeless. It was noted that we probably needed the money ourselves. “How can we spend when we’re the ones struggling?”

But with that generosity, a few things were catalyzed. Our refrigerator broke that month; the organization replaced it. The United Way then came in and offered us cash to help with our Kitchen. Even now a funder has come to offer work on it. All following from our willingness to give to others. Because most people are surprised when a church gives cash to other people.

Without expecting a return back.

What we created was a “stimulus package.” It was the multiplier effect. And when we live lives of generosity, we’re catalyzing communities.

Granted, there are limits. The highest form of charity encourages sustainability, not dependence. And there are lots of steps along the way. The first step, alas, is coercion. Or “guilt” as they say in the religiosity business. The last step is out of love, so that the other person can get back on their feet.

For what its worth, there are about 5 tag sales happening in the area on the same day. I imagine that people will buy from several of the sales, and next year, they will donate them to be sold again. I can’t help but think that we got donations of things that were bought from this rummage sale several years ago. The money gets passed around, enough for us to pay a few bills and continue the daily work. But the catalyzing force was the generosity of people willing to bring goods to the church.

The work of the church then transforms other people’s castaways to what other people desire. As people stop hoarding, money is multiplied.

Like love.

Obama Wins the Peace Prize

I told a friend that he had won.

He said, with a brightness in his voice, “cool. What for?”

I said, “Yeah, exactly.” In fact, that’s kind of what Obama said.

A few think that this shows how meaningless the prize is. After all, the prize survived Arafat and Kissenger. Other conservatives are infuriated. If Obama were walking on water, Michelle Malkin would complain that he couldn’t swim. She suggests that he refuse the prize. Why? He can use the money for some good, and it shows respect the Nobel Committee. Further, that he won is a source of pride for all American Citizens. Besides, if he refused he’d be accused of being a pacifist.

I was also perplexed. Contrary to what most conservatives think, Obama’s not exactly a peace-nik. He’s not taken on the Military-Industrial complex, except in its most egregious forms. He hasn’t pulled out of Iraq, and is probably going to increase troops in Afghanistan.

What he has done is move from an ideological liberalism/neoconservatism that framed Bush’s foreign policy to a pragmatic realist position. Ironically, what Bush showed the world is that a liberal world order can not be achieved through military force.

Winning the Nobel Peace Prize does not mean Obama has been anointed to solve the world’s problems. It says more about how the committee has reflected the world’s optimism now that he is president. We should congratulate him.