Archive for January, 2014

From the Frame Up, Part 1

Posted in Motorcycle, Rationale with tags , , , on January 29, 2014 by timtrue

If you’ve known me for more than six months then you probably know I always like to have something to do.  What this doesn’t mean is that I like assignments given to me by others.  So stop right there if you’re tempted to offer suggestions.  Rather, I’m talking about something to do without any obligation to anyone, something to get lost in, where I lose all track of time and even some sense of space.

So television’s out.  Not that I refuse it altogether.  I’ve been known in fact even to get into the occasional show, like a certain singing competition where the judges are as entertaining if not more so than the contestants.  But if I succumb to the swirling vortex of amusement known as the boob tube, well, that’s really someone else determining what I do with my precious and tenaciously guarded free time.  So it doesn’t count.

For similar reasons, following sports doesn’t count either.  Again, I’ve been known to follow a certain California baseball team all the way through the World Series.  But behind it all someone out there in Major League Baseball is telling me how to spend my three or four or five hours of my summer (and spring and fall) evenings, when, frankly, I’d much rather be outside playing a sport than inside watching one.

No, for me, something to do in my free time looks like learning the carillon, as I did in Sewanee; or writing a book, as I did when I spent my daytime hours teaching Latin once upon a time; or composing a piece of music for piano or carillon or voice, as I have done many times; or writing a blog post, as I am doing right now.

So now, enter my newest something-to-do: Project BMW, from the frame up.

BMW Project 1

Actually, as you can probably tell from the photo, it’s more than just a frame.  It’s a frame, rear end, and front end of a 1977(?) BMW r100/7.  And it happened like this.

Since moving from Sewanee to San Antonio and starting my curacy, I’ve been spending my precious few hours of free time a week not engaged in any of the above activities, but rather thinking about what kind of time-and-space transcending activity I should take on, now that I no longer had access to a carillon.  I’m a planner by nature after all.  So time to think things through is always a good thing–to some extent anyway, until I start to over-analyze, like I’m doing right now in this sentence.  So . . . I’ve thought a lot about starting another book.  The idea is in my mind–a modern-day ghost story involving a priest and medieval European monasteries.  But I need to have a great big block of time to jumpstart this one into action, like a week off from work, alone with my computer.  And this just ain’t happening in my curacy.

I could compose, I suppose.  But for whatever reason I’m finding myself unmotivated to do anything like this at the end of each day, something like writer’s block for a composer.

Instead I’ve been frequenting eBay.

At first it was little more than something to do.  I’ve always liked to peruse classified ads.  Weird, I know!  But they somehow get my creative wheels spinning.  Then the idea became to find an old motorcycle for cheap in need of repair.  So I’d bid, I told myself.  And if I were to win, not only would I repair the thing, I’d modify it to be cooler than it already is.  I might upgrade the suspension, overhaul the motor, improve the breathing with velocity stacks, whatever.  But first, before I could even plan modifications, I needed to find something to work with; I needed to find a cheap old bike.

But what kind?

This idea, incidentally, is not original to me.  It’s being acted upon by several customizers across the globe in fact.  And I hope you’re not thinking Orange County Choppers when you hear “customizer.”  I’m not really into those.  Rather, it’s more like this, well worth a look-see if you’ve got five minutes: http://www.bikeexif.com/surfboard-motorcycle.  Now that I like!  And that I could do–with a little elbow grease and, of course, free time–if the bike’s not too complicated.

So the concept of restoring/modifying a ’70s-’80s era BMW has come in for a landing and taken up residency.  The bikes are air-cooled and carbureted, meaning a certain simplicity; and they’re shaft-driven, meaning virtually no maintenance once it’s up and running.

But these machines retain their value, a fact I soon learned from my numerous eBay searches!  Over the past several months I’ve found many ’70s-’80s era BMW r-series bikes.  But very few for under $3000!  And that’s just the starting point.  Once purchased I’d want to tear it town completely and restore/modify it from the frame up.

So why not start with only a frame and go from there, I thought?  There’s that whole section on eBay motors called “parts and accessories.”  Why not check that out?

So I did.

And ten days ago I ended up placing a bid on an r100/7 frame for $199.  (It helped me make the decision when I saw that the owner lived right here in San Antonio, meaning if on the off-chance I happened to win it, shipping would be free.)

It wasn’t the first bid I’d ever placed on eBay.  In fact I’d placed several.  But before making any bid I always establish a limit and stick to it.  That way I don’t get too carried away.  I suppose I’d do the same if I were ever to gamble.  But my point is that up till yesterday I’d always been outbid.

So my bid was $199, the lowest opening bid I could offer.  That was ten days ago, meaning nine days then remained until the bid would close.  My predetermined limit on the frame was $200.  This meant that if anyone else bid over my $199 opening bid, then I’d be outbid.

But no one did: no one else bid.

I’d pretty much forgotten about it.  But then eBay helpfully alerted me that my winning bid would soon close.  So I signed in and recalled what I’d done more than a week before.  And as I watched the clock run out and realized that I’d actually purchased an old, beat-up, greasy, dirty, used motorcycle frame, two things crossed my mind.  First, I’d have some explaining to do to my wife when she’d come home from work that afternoon to find an old motorcycle frame in the utility room (we have no garage).  But second, now I’d have something to do in the evenings, on the weekends, whenever no other obligations were otherwise demanding my attention.  Starting tonight, by the way.

So now I write with dirty fingernails and metal flakes on my pants.  I’ve got the frame nearly stripped of everything–except for the upper and lower races (in the “gooseneck”)–ready to be sandblasted and powdercoated.  The front end and rear end, both unanticipated bonuses, will be set upon tomorrow–or the next day, or the next; it doesn’t really matter–to be dismantled and similarly stripped, the swing arm and the fork sliders to join the frame in its powdercoating ritual.

BMW Project 2

It’ll take a while to complete this project, no doubt.  But I don’t really care.

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Motorcycles, Music, and the Mediterranean

Posted in Background, Education, Family, Motorcycle, Rationale, Reflection with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 24, 2014 by timtrue

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Just imagine for a moment cruising around the Mediterranean Riviera on a motorcycle, by yourself or with friends, whatever your pleasure, with an itinerary based upon concerts.  Would you start in Rome and work your way north and then west through France and Spain?  Or are you more attracted to the east side of the Middle-earth Sea, to the Greek Isles maybe, or to Istanbul, or the so-called Promised Land?  Or, perhaps you have a thirst for the peoples of North Africa–for Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco?  Or maybe you’d do it all.  Anyway, sounds like a great vacation to me.  Now if only I could find a way to finance it!

But contrary to whatever ideas the title of this post may suggest about travel, what I really want to discuss here is another “m” word: manumission.  For each of these things–motorcycles, music, and the Mediterranean–represent a liberation for me from a burden that had become a sort of personal bondage.  Perhaps this manumission has something to do with why I continue to be so drawn to each today.  (Perhaps, too, that imagined vacation suggested above will become a personal reality someday.)

So: motorcycles.  How do these represent liberation for me?  To answer I must go back to my boyhood, to when I was twelve years old or so and I got my first motorcycle.  It was a Yamaha MX80, not sure of the year, maybe 1972.  An unreliable two-stroke motor powered the beast.  I remember that it fouled sparkplugs regularly, so I soon learned to carry a spare in my increasingly bulging portable tool kit.  It possessed all of 6 or 7 horsepower, and could reach a top speed of thirty-five, maybe–if I rode it down a really steep hill wide open and engaged the clutch!

But it provided me with a certain freedom I’d not known previously.  For my older brother, who had a much more reliable 1976 Honda XR75, and I now had the ability to explore far beyond where any of our previous pedestrian adventures had allowed us to go.  Many a time did we ride from our house to the bed of Callegas Creek, taking whatever footpaths and backroads we could to get there and to avoid the fuzz.  We fashioned ourselves as little rebels without a cause.  At least we did until another fouled plug threw a temporary glitch into the day.  But then we fashioned ourselves as expert mechanics.

On this note, I remember a day when we couldn’t for the life of us figure out how to get my steed back in working order.  We were three or four miles from home, stuck in a fairly boggy part of the creek bed, scratching our heads in adolescent befuddlement.  Long story short, one of us found a bedraggled piece of discarded rope; and, knowing how to tie numerous knots from Scouts, Older Brother towed me the distance.  To heck with non-street-legal status, we said; this was an emergency!  Fifteen minutes later we’d made it home in one piece, and we’d avoided the fuzz’s notice.

We didn’t always succeed, however, at avoiding the fuzz’s notice.  I can remember more than once riding my manumission-enabling motorcycle right past a cop driving in the other direction.  I can even remember seeing the cop’s frowning face and pointing finger, indicating his desire for me to pull over.

But I had some things going for me, and I knew it.  First off, the roads were narrow and windy.  It would be at least thirty seconds before the cop could turn around successfully.  By then I’d be a quarter-mile away.  Second, I knew these quasi-rural narrow windy streets as well if not better than he did.  There lay before me any combination of lefts, rights, and straight-aheads so that by the time said cop managed to turn his bulky Ford-Crown-Victoria self around he’d be left to guess his way forward like so many youths in the Minotaur’s labyrinth.  Ha!  And, third and finally, I could go off-road if necessary, as a last resort (which I actually did once).  What could the copper do then?  Pull his pistol on me?  Really?  Yeah, like that’d go over well in the Camarillo Daily News!  Cop Shoots Kid on 6-Horsepower Sparkplug-fouling Motorbike.

Anyway, I never did get pulled over, arrested, thrown in juvey, whatever.  Instead I always managed to defy the law (and my plug-fouling steed) successfully, high-tailing it home lickety-split, parking the bike in the garage, shutting it down, closing the garage door, and heading into the house to take a nonchalant seat on the couch as if I’d only been playing Space Invaders on the ATARI all morning long.

Manumission I tell you!

Vielle

A second liberating experience happened in college, after deciding to change my major from mathematics to music.  It happened this way.

I entered college in 1986, three months after graduating high school.  But I had no idea what to do with my life, what to declare as a major, and so on.  Long about second semester of my senior year in high school, in fact, I’d looked around and thought, “Yeah, I guess I ought to go to college.  Don’t want to end up delivering flowers the rest of my life.”  So I applied to enroll like so many of my friends at a local community college.

But that blasted application asked me to choose a major!

So I wondered and reflected and contemplated and pondered and thought and over-analyzed, as I am wont to do.  What am I good at?  What do I like to do?

In the end I checked the box that said forestry.  How cool would that be, I reasoned, to backpack around Yosemite or Kings Canyon and check the lakes to see if they’re stocked with enough fish!

But in my first year of college I almost gave up.  Flower delivery, after all, was paying me pretty well.

It was the math, really.  I’d let calculus get the better of me.

The fall of 1987 came around and I determined to get back up on that horse–or, to use another metaphor, to fix that fouled plug and ride the motorbike home.  I poured every bit of mental effort I had into my second attempt at calculus.  And I found I actually understood it, even liked it!

At the same time I was taking music appreciation and music theory courses.  These I enjoyed too.  But they were almost effortless for me.  I wrote the first coherent paper of my life, comparing Beethoven to the Beatles–and earned an A.  I devoured every musical rule I learned; compositions flowed.  So, I reasoned, because of the effortlessness these courses must not be as academic as math, somehow.

Yet I enjoyed them so much so that I shared with my engineer-dad my struggle.  “Dad,” I said, “um, well, I’m still technically a forestry major.  But I’m thinking of changing my major to either music or math.  And, uh, since you’re paying the bills and all, well, what do you think?”

“What kind of job could you get with a music degree?” he asked.

So I officially changed my major to mathematics.

Three years later I was in Davis, California, the fall of 1990, beginning what I hoped would be my final year of college.  Math was a struggle, but the end was in sight–if only I could pass analysis and combinatorics.  Everything else came easily enough for me.  But these two courses were a struggle.

Then there was music.  I was still taking music courses on the side, for fun.  But it felt somehow wrong, like dating two girls at the same time.

“And besides,” I asked myself, “what would I do with a math degree?  Teach?

“I could always teach music. . . .

“And that whole silly dream of being a fighter pilot in the Air Force, well, really, Tim, that was kind of a passing fancy, wasn’t it?

“Aren’t you really feeling more of a tug to pursue ministry?”

And so I was.

Couple this with things taking a turn for the worse in my first significant relationship with a girl–another story for another day.

So then, it all exploded over Christmas break.  My girlfriend broke up with me (on Christmas Day no less!) and faithful Music and jealous Math found out what was going on.  The gig was up.

So I again sought sage Engineer-dad’s counsel.

“Do what you want, Tim,” he said.  “But keep in mind that the money will be used up by the end of this year.  So if you end up staying on, you’ll have to pay for it.”

So I did.  I changed my major to music and stayed on–another two years.  And I paid for it out of my own pocket.  Happily!  For I’d been manumitted.

On to the Mediterranean then!

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Some years after graduating college I was indeed teaching.  Ironically it included math.  By now I was married with two daughters, ages 3 and 1.  And I was frankly disappointed in the educational prospects for my kids.  So I began to consider and contemplate and think about and ponder and over-analyze the idea of home-schooling my children if necessary, to offer them something better than the other options we were faced with–if necessary.  My question to myself, then, was where I lacked.

I began reading lots of books about education, turning first to the history of education and then to the seven liberal arts of the Middle Ages themselves.  Curiously, my education had included lots of stuff.  Serendipitously, I was already quite well-versed in the quadrivium–arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music.  But, aha!, the trivium revealed a gap.  Sure, I knew some things about grammar, dialectic (logic), and rhetoric.  But these were not taught once upon a time as we teach subjects today.  They were seen more as stages, as Dorothy Sayers points out in a rather famous essay.  Anyway, to learn the languages of Greek and Latin would reasonably fill in my personal academic gaps, I concluded.

So at 32 years of age I dived into the ancient Mediterranean pool of classical languages.  And again I experienced a sort of manumission.  For I wasn’t the only person seeing educational deficiencies in our modern culture, I soon discovered.  Lots of schools in fact were restructuring their curricula to incorporate these same ancient models, or starting up as altogether new.  And I soon found a place teaching Latin, not to mention ancient Mediterranean cultures, to students.  I found schools to which I could send my kids with a clear conscience too.  Manumission!

So there it is, really: my manumission theme and three variations.  But, before I conclude, I’d like to add a coda.

That 3 year-old is now a sophomore in college.  She is studying this semester in Florence, Italy, smack-dab in the middle of all things Mediterranean.  And she is having the time of her life.

She’s been there only a few weeks.  But already she has traveled to Rome and Pompeii, and to Ravenna.  She will be taking a field trip to, among other places, Venice.  While in Florence, in addition to studying, she will enjoy an internship restoring Etruscan artifacts.  She recently wrote me to say,

“While doing my homework this evening, I glanced at a picture of Zeus that I’ve seen in several textbooks over the years.  I then realized that this sculpture resides exactly where I do.  I think it’s finally hit me that I live in the midst of, essentially with, all the history and art that I have studied in the past several years.  I’m currently in awe.”

There’s something very liberating in all of this.

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Unity a Sign of Spiritual Maturity

Posted in Doing Church, Homilies with tags , , , on January 19, 2014 by timtrue

I Corinthians 1:1-9

Mature.  It’s a curious adjective, isn’t it?

In the world of agriculture we use it to describe a plant that has the ability to bear fruit.  For example, grape vines are not considered mature until their third year; for they cannot bear grapes until then.  And even then it’s debatable.  For the grapes produced in the third year are generally few and far between.  It is not really until the fourth year that full bunches, rich and plump, appear on the vine; it is not really until the fourth year that we can call grapevines mature.  (Keep that in mind if the whim ever strikes you to go into wine-making.)

So there’s agriculture.  But we also use the word mature—and variations of it, like immature—to describe people, don’t we?  Oh, I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I’ve heard these words thrown casually around my house!  An argument breaks out at the dinner table, or someone does something unpredicatably silly, for a laugh or whatever; and I know what’s going to follow: those three overused words, that well-known adolescent mantra: “You’re so immature!”  You know what I’m talking about?

But unlike with agriculture, to describe another person as mature or immature leaves a lot of wiggle room.  It’s not so easy to say a person is mature because he or she can bear fruit.  Granted, this may be true in a strictly physical sense; we won’t get into that here.  But what about an emotional sense?  Or a spiritual?  Can we ever really say that we’ve become fully emotionally mature as a human being, always and completely able to maintain control over our feelings?  Sometimes I may display a great deal of maturity with respect to controlling my anger, for instance; but the very next day I slip back into an immature loss of temper!

No, for human beings, the term mature is relative.  At least, it’s relative until the Kingdom of God is fully realized.

This is the idea that Paul is getting at in his first letter to the Corinthians—or part of the idea anyway.  The congregation in Corinth recently had been called out of its old life of sin into a new life in Christ.  It was made up of new believers.  In a spiritual sense they were immature.  Now some time had passed since Paul had planted this church.  And, as is the natural process with any living organism, Paul expected to see a maturing process.  But this process was not happening as quickly as he had expected it to—or as quickly as it needed to in order to sustain itself.

Do you recall what was going on at the Church in Corinth?  Perhaps most famously there was social division.  The rich and the poor were not getting along.  The rich, in fact, were drinking all the wine and eating all the bread at the Eucharist, leaving nothing for the poor.

But this social division was just the tip of the iceberg!  Without going into too much detail, let me just say that Corinth was the Las Vegas of the ancient world.  What happened in Corinth stayed in Corinth—and there was a lot that happened in Corinth!  And this lot characterized the church there.

Anyway, all this divisiveness led Paul to say (3:1): “And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as a spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.”  He had fed them with spiritual formula, as a caregiver would feed an infant.  But instead of them maturing to a point spiritually where they no longer needed formula, to a point where they could feed themselves, they still weren’t ready for the solid food of Christ.  They were big spiritual babies.  They were immature.

Now I don’t know about you, but all this talk about divisiveness being a sign of spiritual immaturity makes me uncomfortable.  After all, what’s wrong with shaking things up a little?  What if I see something going on in St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and School that I disagree with?  I pledge.  Don’t I therefore have a right to sound my voice and make my opinions known?

Good question!  The answer is yes—and no.

I’m not saying that we need to agree on everything.  In fact, quite the contrary!  We need to disagree.  For we live in a constant tension as individuals in relationship with one another.  As individuals, we form our own opinions according to how God has made uniquely each one of us; but in relationship I continuously butt up against other individuals who see things differently than I.  So disagreement should be expected, and is maybe even essential to life.  And so, yes, I—you have a right to make your opinions known.

But the issue is how you go about making your opinions known.  Do you divide and conquer, as it were?  You see something you don’t like.  Fine!  It happens to all of us.  But then what?  Do you pull people aside, hoping to win them to your side in hushed whispers?  Do you think in terms of us vs. them, or of my people and your people?  Do you put yourself in some sort of category that you imagine is somehow superior to another—whether it be social status, the color of your skin, your gender, or your sexual orientation?  Such excluding behavior is according to the old way, the way of sin, the life you knew before Christ, what Paul calls the flesh.  Such excluding behavior too, by the way, is at the root of all sorts of social evils like bigotry, racism, and bullying.

But what happened in Corinth needs to stay in Corinth!  That was your old life, your old way of dealing with disagreement.  You are now a citizen of the Kingdom of God.  So act like it!

When disagreement arises, and it will, deal with it according to the Kingdom’s rules, not Corinth’s.  Don’t pull someone aside and whisper your cause into their itching ears!  Instead, go to the one with whom you disagree in love, loving the Lord your God as you go; and loving that other person, who is your neighbor, as yourself.  And seek reconciliation!

Right?  We should not seek to create factions, but unity.  Unity is a sign of maturity in Christ.

Now, here’s the good news: even with all the divisiveness that went on in Corinth, Paul nevertheless saw the Corinthians’ potential.

That’s what we read today: a vision of spiritual maturity.  The Christians in Corinth, Paul writes, are already sanctified in Christ Jesus.  They are already saints.  Despite the present disagreements!  Despite the present arguments!  Despite the present factions!  In fact, Christ is presently among them, enriching them and strengthening them to overcome their divisions, to become more and more mature as a corporate body.

It is just the same today, here, with us.  Whatever factions there are among us, and however poorly we deal with them, we are already sanctified; we are already saints.  Christ is present among us, enriching us in all things and strengthening us to overcome our divisions; and thereby we can become more and more mature in him.

Let us therefore pray to this end: for ourselves as individuals; for the corporate body of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and School; and for the wider Church.

. . . .  Amen.

Learning the Blogosphere

Posted in Reflection with tags , , , on January 10, 2014 by timtrue

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Checking the stats on my blog from time to time is a fun distraction.

I started this blog for me, to journal my pilgrimage as a priest over the course of my career.  EDR–Estimated Date of Retirement–is May 12, 2037: more than twenty-three years to go.  A lot will happen in that time, I’m sure.  But when I think back twenty-three years, to when I was 22 years old–almost exactly half a lifetime ago–not only am I tempted to plot out the rest of my life, dividing it neatly into fourths and thus giving me an anticipated death year of 2059, but also I realize that 23 (or my half-life of 22.875) years isn’t really a very long time at all.  Half my life ago I was a college student contemplating the call to Gospel ministry.  22 and seven-eighths years ago I’d met the woman who was to become my spouse, with whom I’d raise a family, to whom I’d grow closer than any other human in any of my circles.  Cliché or not, it feels like yesterday.

So you see already how I get distracted.  The point I was going to make when I began the above paragraph is that I began this blog for me, as a journal of my journey; so why even bother looking at stats?  Don’t blog stats simply report about others and not me–how many people, how often, and from where people look?  (Mind you, in case you’re wondering, stats do not show email addresses and other identifying information.  So, no, I can’t tell who is reading my blog–unless you post a comment.)  I’m writing to no audience but me, in other words.  So what do I care how many people read it, how often, and from where?

That’s why I call it a fun distraction.  Like video games, blog stats are not necessary; but they’re an amusing way to pass the time.

Anyway, when I’ve been in a distractible mood lately, one of the first stats I check is my comments box.  Comments are excellent ways to offer bloggers feedback; and every blogger I know appreciates them.  When they’re meaningful, that is!  I love to read something like, “Tim, I find your insights about [whatever topic] helpful, but I’m not sure you’ve looked at every facet.  Have you considered this one. . . ?”  Such comments lead to great conversation.

But consider this one from today: “I constantly spent my half an hour to read this website’s posts every day along with a mug of coffee.”

Yeah, an actual comment!

So, I am left to wonder several things.  First, what’s with the constantly?  By this does the commenter mean every moment of a half-hour was devoted to reading my posts, as if he or she was so absolutely riveted with what I had to say that she or he was perched on the edge of his or her seat entirely ignorant of whatever else might be happening around her or him in the space-time continuum for the full half-hour?  Flattering to say the least!

But, for that matter, what’s with half an hour?  Does this particular commenter get a half-hour-a-day break to read?  Or, maybe, does he or she have a mandated thirty minutes of reading time every day, like the mandatory daily piano-practice time I had when I was a kid, choosing graciously to fill it every day with reading my blog?  If so, this commenter should run out of reading material quite soon, since I have only written fifty-some posts in the life of this blog: enough material to fill a half-hour-a-day timeslot for a week.  Maybe.  Which brings me back to what she or he means by constantly.

Then what about along with a mug of coffee?  Is this commenter reading my blog and reading a mug of coffee for half an hour a day?  Coffee mugs generally have simple and random sayings on them.  Like the one I have at home that says “Alamo City,” under which appears the words “San Antonio, Texas.”  Or there’s that one my daughter got for Christmas which says, “I’m as happy as a bird with a French fry.”  Point is, coffee mugs are generally fairly simple to read.  Granted, Antonio is a four-syllable word, something that might prove difficult to a beginning reader; but it is the name of a familiar place, meaning it possesses sticking power.  But most others of all those mug-words are one or two syllables.  Simple, in other words, meaning the action of reading a coffee mug shouldn’t really take all that much time.  Unless you’re a beginner.

So, then, I wonder if my commenter is a beginner her- or himself in the ways of the word.  His or her grammar certainly suggests this.  And for her or him to read my blog and random and sundry coffee mugs for a half-hour a day everyday constantly for weeks on end as a mandatory assignment–yeah, I conclude, that must be it.  My commenter fan is most definitely a beginning reader.

Then I look at my stats page again and realize that this comment has been placed–wisely by the wordpress powers that be–in the spam box.

Oh well, I bemoan, at least it was a fun distraction while it lasted.  Now back to work!

Is Christian Atheism an Oxymoron?

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , on January 3, 2014 by timtrue

Browsing through Amazon’s search engines one day not so very long ago, part of a book title caught my attention: Christian Atheist.  An oxymoron, I wondered?  So I placed the book on my virtual wish list for a closer look later–along with other curiosities like (I just looked up my account and these were on it, in fact) Jupiter’s Travels: Four Years around the World on a Triumph, One Man Caravan, and A Child’s History of the World.  This ever-transitioning wish list, incidentally, gets the occasional makeover, when I delete almost everything for lack of interest (though the history book’s been on it since 2003).  It’s a good tool against impulse buying–whether or not Amazon knows it.

So, not so very long ago, I returned to my wish list after something of a hiatus to find this title still flummoxing me: Christian Atheist: Belonging without Believing, by Brian Mountford.  No one I know had read it, so I couldn’t go on a trustworthy recommendation.  But the Amazonian description said a thing or two about the author being a priest of the Church of England and that he was convinced that this topic needed to become a part of the ongoing conversation on Christianity’s place in society.  Thus, what with that and the relatively small price tag, I bought the book.

When it arrived some days later I picked it up with a casual interest, like I might be thumbing through a magazine I’d never seen before, curious, perhaps hoping for a flavorful mind cocktail, you know, something tasty to loosen me up a bit but pretty much lacking in any nutritional value.  But within a few minutes I found myself more than intrigued.  I was even almost delighted by what Mr. Mountford had to say, persuaded that what he had to say was right, that Christian atheism (as he defines it) does indeed need to become part of the conversation.

That’s because, in part, Mountford has been able to interact with people like Philip Pullman, author of Northern Lights, upon which the controversial film The Golden Compass is based.  Do you remember when that one came out?  American evangelicalism just about blew a fuse!  The film would somehow entice children away from the Christian faith and convince them all that atheism was the Gospel truth, or so it was suggested.  But Pullman himself has this to say: “I am a Christian Atheist; a Church of England Atheist; a Book of Common Prayer Atheist.  You could add a King James Bible Atheist, if you want.  All those things go deep for me; they formed me; that heritage is impossible to disentangle, like a piece of barbed-wire fence embedded in the bark of a tree.  I’ve absorbed the Church’s rituals and enjoy its language, which I knew as a boy, and now that it’s gone I miss it” (p. 1).

For Pullman the terms Christian and atheist are not mutually exclusive, but something that can be shared.  My wife had a professor in college with a similar sort of outlook; he called himself an Episcopal Buddhist because, he said, he practices Buddhism now but absolutely cherishes the traditions with which he was raised.  I didn’t get it then; I still don’t totally get it now.  But here is a book that addresses this apparent oxymoron in an intelligent, serious way.

Mountford himself has difficulty defining Christian atheism.  “The phrase Christian Atheist stayed with me,” he writes, “because it seemed such a good description of all the people I know who value the cultural heritage of Christianity–its language, art, music, moral compass, sense of transcendence–without actually believing in God; or,”–and here’s a key difficulty in my thinking–“at least without believing in God in a way that would satisfy Christian orthodoxy, particularly in the metaphysics department” (p. 1).

What Mountford speaks of here is not quite Christian; but neither it is quite atheism.  But which is emphasized more, Christianity or atheism?  There is a growing number of people in our churches who believe in church–its traditions, aesthetics, morality, and so on–without believing everything the creeds say about Christ.  At the same time they rely on science for their metaphysics; but that does not necessarily mean that God does not exist.

Interestingly, in his conversation with Philip Pullman, Mountford–a priest, remember–described himself as having more of a secular temperament than a religious one, “because I wanted to dissociate myself from the Church’s introspective agenda of gays and women bishops and to make him see me as a man of the world, an open thinker who looks to the concerns of the bustling metropolis rather than the reflections of the cloister” (p. 9).

But Pullman balked at this idea and said that he, a self-proclaimed atheist, in fact possessed a religious temperament, for he has a sense of awe and wonder, he says, and he asks bigger questions–who we are, what is our purpose, why we are here.  Then, tellingly, he adds, “Some people are satisfied with one sort of answer, others want a mythological answer.  Of course you can’t prove that there’s no possibility of God, and in that sense I suppose I ought to call myself an agnostic rather than an atheist, but I see no evidence for a God” (p. 9).

Hmm.  I wonder, then, would Quasi-Christian Agnostic be a better term?  Christian Atheist certainly has a better ring to it.

Anyway, the point in all this is conversation.  Is it too much to “welcome those who want the values of religion without its metaphysics” (p. 129)?  Christians and atheists have not ever really been on speaking terms, at least with respect to religion.  (Sports and politics might be a different matter.)  But what Mountford is exposing here is that they are already sitting in the same religious venues: on the one hand, (at least some) self-proclaimed atheists value Mother Church; and, on the other hand, (some, maybe many) Christians recognize and embrace the contributions science has made to the collective pool of metaphysical wisdom despite whatever conundrums it has stirred up.  Why not then talk?  Otherwise we are very much like middle schoolers at a dance, too preoccupied with our own self-image and too worried that we might be rejected by the other side to walk across the room, introduce ourselves, and seek out common ground whence we can begin to foster and develop a friendship.

Monthly Review: December, 2013

Posted in Family, Reflection with tags , , , on January 1, 2014 by timtrue
The Himalayan range at Yumesongdong in Sikkim,...

The Himalayan range at Yumesongdong in Sikkim, in the Yumthang River valley (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I write, I am eating M&Ms from a plastic candy-cane shaped container and drinking a Shiner FM966, a seasonal brew.  Together these comprise my lunch.  It’s the first day of the new year.  So, naturally, as I write and nibble and sip I wonder if perhaps I’ve grown a little lazy in my personal disciplines, if perhaps I should resolve to exercise a little more in 2014, to eat a little less.  My physique ain’t what it was when I was twenty, after all.  And Lent will soon be here.

Maybe some of this feeling stems from watching The Secret Life of Walter Mitty yesterday on the big screen.  Excellent flick, by the way, one of the true feel-good movies of the year.  It expresses a clear Christian message too, that the proud will be brought low and the humble will be lifted up.  I encourage you to watch it.  Anyway, Mr. Mitty is 42 years old; and he’s sat at a desk job for the last sixteen years.  Yet somehow he has the physical prowess to skateboard down a twisty road in Iceland and hike to elevations greater than 18,000′ in the Himalayas.  On the one hand I think, yeah, right!  But on the other hand I used to do things like this, and I know I couldn’t now, and I’m nostalgic, reminiscent of my twenty-year-old body.  So I console myself that maybe I’ll still take my kids backpacking in the Needle Mountains of Colorado like I’ve always wanted to do.  A goal like that could be just the catalyst to get me back in shape and off the M&Ms.

More to the point, it’s the end of another month, and so I write another blog post to reflect over my progress as a priest.  But it’s also the end of the year.  So I’m thinking back not just over the past month but the past year too–and beyond, as you may have guessed from the above paragraphs.  The year of 2013 was a big one for me.  I was ordained to the diaconate on Dec. 28, 2012, just before the year began.  Then: in April I turned forty-five, in May I graduated from seminary (and moved from Tennessee back to San Antonio), in June I began my first ordained post as a curate, in July I was ordained to the priesthood, and in September I celebrated twenty years of marriage to the best woman ever.  As I said, big year!

December was significant in my ministry journey for several reasons, some of which I’ve blogged about.  But the particular focus for the month–the thing I want to remember in the future–is that this is the month when we tipped the balance financially.  That is, up until December we were increasing our indebtedness each month.  But in December two important events took place.  One is that we sold a house we’ve owned since 2003.  What a burden lifted!  Not to mention the money received almost compensated for debt accrued since our move in May!  The other is that Holly (the best woman ever) took on yet another job, effectively tipping the scale.  It’ll be tight, but we can actually make ends meet now.

The flipside of this homefront coin is that we will have to adjust to basic household management.  One more job for Holly means that much more complexity regarding household logistics–which, I hope you can begin to imagine, are already overly full with five kids in the mix.

Which brings me back to how I started this post, doesn’t it?  It’s one thing to be in good enough shape to hike above 18,000′ when you’re single, without kids, working enough to make ends meet but not much more, meaning with significant time off for my outdoor pursuits.  Now the question is how to do it with five kids, one in college, another just about to be, and the three-times (minimum) daily shuttle service Holly and I provide.  Perhaps 2014 will be the year I find the answer.  And if I do, you can be sure I’ll write a book, because (I have a feeling anyway) such would be a goldmine: the answer to a key question for parents of third-millennium American kids.