Archive for Angst

Tired of Spinning?

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 5, 2015 by timtrue

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Mark 6:1-13

Spin.

That’s what we do to the truth, don’t we?  We spin it.

Next time you’re at a park, just sit back and observe a couple of kids for a while.  Not so long ago I saw two little boys playing on a slide.  It was a parallel slide: two slides running parallel to each other.  And so you’d think that here was the perfect opportunity for a race.  Instead, however, one of the boys was attempting to go down the slide correctly, to slide down from the top to the bottom feet first; but the other boy was standing on the slide, attempting to block the first boy’s way.

A sort of cruel game developed where the boy attempting to go down the slide would pretend to begin a descent; and the second boy would predictably jump over to that slide and block his way.  The first boy would then quickly scurry to the other slide, the parallel one, trying to beat the other boy’s attempts at blocking him.  This pretend-jump-switch-jump dance carried on for a bit until, at last, probably frustrated, the top boy let go for a bona fide descent.  On the way down, as fate would have it, the sliding boy collided with the blocking boy, who, probably off balance, promptly fell flat on his face, connecting his lower lip squarely with the surface of the slide.

Well, I continued watching, feeling a kind of tacit vindication, as the second boy, the one who’d been blocking the slide, rose to his feet, rubbed his lip, saw a spot of his own blood on the back of his hand, began hollering, and then ran straight for his mother—who was on her phone and had witnessed nothing of the event!  Finally, grabbing his mother’s arm and pointing, he cried, “That boy pushed me!”

Spin.

Some people, as a matter of fact, put their spin on things really well—so well that we end up paying them full-time to do so!  We’ve given these people a name.  Media professionals who are really good at doing this—at putting their own spin on the truth (usually to favor one political party over another, by the way)—are called spin doctors.

(Not to be confused with the band formed in 1989!)

Anyway, this is how spin often works.  Someone, or some group of someones, wants to communicate an opinion.  But they don’t start there—with their opinion.  Rather, they start with a truth, a premise; and they build up to their opinion, their conclusion, not through logic but through spin: the manipulation of that truth.

So, spin is the backdrop to what’s going on in today’s Gospel.

Jesus has set out from his home town and begun his ministry.  He’s called his disciples, he’s been teaching, preaching, healing, and casting out demons.  And word about him has spread.

Imagine the excitement some of his hometown friends and family must have felt when word of his successful ministry first reached their ears.

Yes!  One of our own has made a success of himself!  Jesus has put Nazareth on the map!

Nevertheless, by the time today’s story takes place, whatever excitement was once felt has now dissipated.  For spin has taken effect.

How could Jesus, the carpenter, the son of Mary, become a success?  Why, I remember when he was just a little boy, playing hide-and-seek with the other kids at dusk.  He once made a few chairs and a table for me, sure; and they’re good enough quality in their own right.  I still have them in my house in fact.  But he’s a carpenter, for crying out loud!  He’s not a synagogue leader, a teacher, or a miracle worker.  Pshaw!  How could he be?  How could anything good come out of Nazareth?

By this time, spin has taken effect and dissipated whatever excitement a minority of hometown fans may once have felt.  Spin has produced unbelief:

“And he could do no deed of power there . . . And he was amazed at their unbelief.”

We see another example of spin’s negative effects—a much more significant example—in the Gospel of John, a story we’re all familiar with, when Jesus is standing trial before Pontius Pilate:

An angry mob brings Jesus forward.  Their opinion—their spin—is that Jesus is an enemy of the state and thus a threat to Caesar.  So Pilate asks him directly, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

Here Jesus has the opportunity to tell his side of the story—for there are always two sides to any story.  And he says: “My kingdom is not from this world.  If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.  But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

Then, as if he hasn’t been clear enough, he says, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

And there it is!  Jesus has told Pilate his side of the story.  And it’s nothing at all like the crowd’s spin.  Jesus is not an enemy of the state; he is not a threat to Caesar.

But, sadly, Pilate’s mind is already made up.  He’s already chosen a side—the side of the angry crowd.  He’s a politician, after all, whose goal is not the truth but to get the people to embrace a certain worldview.  Perhaps this is why he answers Jesus with the haunting question, “What is truth?”

Here’s the trouble, then, with spin.  The spinner’s mind is already made up before he ever begins spinning!  Regardless of the initial truth upon which the spin is based—the premise—the spinner knows where he wants his story to go—his conclusion—ahead of time.  This is, simply stated, bias.  Or, another word for it, prejudice: pre-judging; making a judgment ahead of time.

And this is how Pilate picks his side.  He’s biased.  He’s prejudiced.  Despite asking Jesus for his take, Pilate hears only the crowd:

  • The crowd, who is caught up in their own spin;
  • The crowd, who has twisted the truth;
  • The crowd, who refuses to honor justice;
  • The crowd, who lets a condemned criminal, Barabbas, go instead of the innocent man Jesus;
  • The crowd, who shouts, Crucify him! Crucify him!

For Pilate’s mind is already made up ahead of time.  He’s biased.  He’s prejudiced.

Now, the question for us to consider today—with the patriotic sounds of fireworks still ringing in our ears—is, are we too much like Pilate?

And by us I mean you and me as individuals, sure.  But I also mean the St. Paul’s us, this local body; and the Episcopal Church us, the national church body to which we belong; and the broader Christian and American cultures us.  Are all of us too much like Pilate?  Are our minds already made up?

Now, a lot has happened politically and religiously in our country over the last ten days:

The Supreme Court has made historic rulings on healthcare, marriage, and the way we perform executions.

The Episcopal Church’s General Convention has made a significant decision or two as well.

Whatever the issue—whether it be gay marriage, healthcare reform, or issues surrounding human dignity and the sanctity of life—we are hearing a lot of spin right now—more than usual.  We are being persuaded, even challenged, to pick sides.

And with all this buzz clamoring for our loyalties, we should ask ourselves: Are our minds already made up about which way to go?  Like Pilate, is our logical reasoning clouded by an emotional crowd—by partisan loyalties?

Whenever we come to something with our minds already made up—whether a political issue, an individual person, a class of people, whatever; whenever we only give the appearance of listening (and not actually hearing); whenever we embrace an agenda or worldview whose goal is a political ideal; whenever we place loyalties in a political party; whenever we invest in social norms; whenever we believe in our own preferences—we run the risk of a compromised faith—of unbelief—in Christ.

And, as we learned from our Gospel today, unbelief renders Jesus ineffective.

So, again, I ask: Are we too much like Pilate?

And, for the record, I’m asking this question honestly.  In others words, I don’t know the answer.  In the Episcopal Church’s rulings this week, maybe we are being like Pilate, with our minds already made up ahead of time, bent on a certain political agenda.  This is certainly what a lot of conservative Christian groups are saying about the Episcopal Church.

But, on the other hand, maybe we’re not being like Pilate at all but are truly trying to reconcile what a Gospel of love means for our day and age, and how that Gospel should play out.  Maybe it’s actually the groups accusing us of heresy who are being like Pilate here.  Maybe it’s their minds already made up ahead of time.

I don’t know.  This question—are we like Pilate?—is something for us to consider as individuals, as a local church body, as a national church, and as Christians; and as a culture.

But let’s return to the scriptures we looked at today.  Having our minds made up ahead of time stymies the truth and produces unbelief.

The flipside teaches us that not knowing is a good place to be.  Jesus might in fact be calling us to rest in the tension of uncertainty for a while, maybe even a long while.

It also teaches that when we come to a place of surrender, of saying, I don’t know all the answers; I’m not in a position of authority here, but Jesus does and Jesus is—when we come to this point of surrender, our faith is increased.  For here we trust in Jesus—not the spin doctors—to provide a way forward.

Lord, help us rest in the tension of uncertainty.  Amen.

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Book Idea: Chapter 3

Posted in Work in Progress with tags , , , on May 13, 2014 by timtrue

By then I was old enough to have made a couple of really close friends, Haley and Veronica.  It might not seem to adults that kids can make super-close friends.  But these were my besties.  Sure, I couldn’t drive yet, and they lived too far away to walk, and so I was at my parents’ whims as to whenever we could get together outside of school.  But there was a bond of friendship here deeper than most I’ve experienced since.

One day after school, waiting for our parents to finish up and playing on the swings as was typical, I began to suspect that this special braid of a friendship was about to unravel.  It was a Friday, I remember; Haley, Veronica, and I had plans for a sleepover.

“I saw your dad talking to Principal Sheldon today,” Haley said.

“Oh yeah?” I asked, planting my feet in the gravel and stopping my pendulum motion.  Something unusual was in her voice, a tone of urgency.  “What about?”

“I saw them too,” Veronica added, “and I think Principal Sheldon was actually crying.  I didn’t think he ever cried.”

“Yeah, weird,” I answered.

Dad had taught Latin to middle school and high school students for the past three years—and maybe more, but I don’t remember much about school that far back—at St. Augustine’s, where Haley, Veronica, and I attended school.  We were in second grade.

Haley’s dad taught Latin too; and Veronica’s mom was a science teacher.  Which explains why we typically hung out on the playground after school, while our teacher-parents finished up with their daily obligations.

It was a K-12 school, meaning Dad was on the other side of campus most of the week.  But he and I carpooled together every day; and he made an effort to eat lunch with me once a week or so—usually with Haley and Veronica inseparably tagging along.

I appreciate these things a lot now, miss them achingly at times even, occasionally wondering why they had to end at all, why Dad had to be so eager—or restless—to pursue his paranormal musings.

“And I’m not sure,” Haley continued, “but I think Mr. Sheldon might have said a bad word: ‘bastard.’  That’s what I think he said, anyway.  And I think he said this to your dad, Amelia, like he was calling him a name.  But your dad just laughed.”

I don’t really remember any more of this conversation, or even what took place that night.  We probably had our sleepover.  And, if so, I’m sure we had a great time.  But for some reason I remember this conversation—the urgency in Haley’s voice, the unusualness in Mr. Sheldon’s crying, Haley saying bastard so matter-of-factly, like a grownup—and the abrupt change to come over my feelings, like it was yesterday.

It was like I’d just drunk a tall glass of rancid milk.

I also remember how vividly these feelings surfaced again a few weeks later when Mom told me that we’d be moving at the end of the school year.

“But why?” I asked, fighting desperately to hold back the tears that were so quickly rising.

“So that Daddy can complete his education,” Mom said, trying to sound reassuring, I’m sure, but actually sounding patronizing.

“But why do we have to move away for this to happen?” I asked.

“It’s just the way the Church does it, dear.  A three-year program.  Then we’ll come back.”

And all at once I was thoroughly annoyed.  “Three whole years!” I shouted.  “Then I’ll be in sixth grade.  That’s middle school!  That’s my childhood!  What about Haley and Veronica?”

“Listen, I knew this would upset you.  I told your dad it would.  But the decision’s been made.  Let’s try to make the most of it, yeah?”

“I need to talk to Dad,” I demanded and stormed out of the room.

Background: Adolescent Angst

Posted in Background with tags , , , , , , on June 30, 2013 by timtrue

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What this contrast really confronted me with, now as I look back on it all, is something normal for most adolescents.  I was growing up, establishing my own identity, developing my own convictions; or, to put it another way, breaking away from my family.  Recent events may have hastened the process some.  But it was inevitable.

So I entered that time of limbo in human development.  Childhood was over.  Visions of the New Era of Adulthood, that Promised Land of freedom and (like it or not) responsibility, tantalized.  Here in the meantime was purgation, a. k. a. high school.

For me, part of figuring out who I was as an individual person, independent of my family, meant distancing myself.  I didn’t need anyone else’s help, counsel, feedback, authority.  Lame, I know, but that’s where my teenage mind led.  Anything I could do on my own with my own identifying signature attached to it was of interest to me; and the bolder the signature the better.

So team sports were out, for instance.  Well, they were out except for AYSO soccer.  High school soccer wasn’t for me, since it was attached to that institution where I was sentenced to spend most of my limbo incarceration.  But the AYSO soccer league allowed a distraction I guess, time with friends who shared similar feelings about high school as a place of limbo and as a way to stay in shape, or to get in better shape for the approaching winter.  Yes, winter, because in southern California winter was no excuse for staying indoors, and, more importantly, it brought snow to the local mountains, which inevitably meant snow skiing.

Now this was a sport that resonated.  I could purchase my lift ticket and be gone, all day if I wanted, enjoying speed, cold wind in my face, more speed, adrenaline rushes, airtime, and a catalog of glory-laden and emboldened signature stories at the end of the day, sitting in a hot tub or in front of a fire.  Heck, I thought, this is so great I might just have to move to Mammoth Mountain after high graduation.  Who needs college?

I also grew to love motorcycling, hiking, and bicycling; and toyed with surfing, but it never really took, though it beat team sports any day of the week.

Homework was another area I put as much of my own signature on as I could.  Dad was a brilliant engineer, as has already been mentioned.  So I had this great resource at my disposal for any class math- or science-related.  But do you think I used this resource?  I should have, yeah; but fool that I was I did not, unless the gig was up, usually about report card time, choosing instead to take a C on an exam rather than the A I could have earned with a little tutorial help.  Well did Mark Twain say, “When I was fourteen I was surprised at how little my dad actually knew; when I was twenty-one I was amazed at how much he had learned in seven years.”  But I could say they were my grades.

My inherent creativity continued into adolescence.  It just started manifesting itself in ways that were more personal to me.  I wasn’t taking piano lessons anymore.  On my own, without a teacher, I was drawn both to Mozart and Chopin: Mozart appealed to the sanguine side of me; Chopin to the melancholy.  Sanguine and melancholy in the same personality?  A good case study for any psychologist!

A story comes to mind to illustrate this curious personality cocktail.  One Saturday afternoon during this limbo period of life I sat in a living room with my brother and a couple neighbor boys.  Halloween was approaching.  We all felt too old to put on costumes and trick-or-treat; but we all felt too young to stay home and open the door for little ones.  What to do?

My sanguine-melancholy self took charge.  “What if,” I suggested, “we all dressed up as thugs?  We can put on ski masks and grab baseball bats.  Then, let’s make a dummy and go down to the beginning of the street.”  (We lived in a rural setting and the beginning of the street, where it branched off from the more traveled East Loop, promised more traffic.)  “And whenever we see the glare of headlights nearing, we start beating the dummy until we’re sure we’re seen.  Then we run off in every direction and hide.”

They loved it.  And so I, a little brother and nearly the youngest of the group, found myself in uncharacteristic charge of a peer activity–which would bear my signature.

Trouble is, I discovered (as I have seen many times since) that no one really wanted to volunteer their time, talents, or stuff to the cause.  In this case it meant that I made the dummy, using a pair of blue jeans and a long-sleeved shirt and a pair of pantyhose I pilfered from my stepmom’s stash for the head; and stuffing it all with nearly every spare piece of clothing I had.  Shorts, socks, t-shirts, underwear–except for a few changes of clothes, everything went in.

So the night came: Halloween.  Dark set in.  The first trick-or-treaters appeared.  The time had come to execute our plan.  I grabbed my dummy, so lovingly put together, and my ski mask and baseball bat.  Outside my brother and three friends greeted me.  We giggled in anticipation.

Fifteen minutes later we were there, at the corner of East Loop and our street, with the anticipated glare of headlights drawing near.  We threw the dummy down in the middle of the street, straddling the double yellow, and started beating it.  I laughed so hard with each blow that my stomach hurt.  Then the headlights caught us full in the face.  And like a perfectly rehearsed play, we ran off in five different directions, into the avocado orchards and shrubbery of five different neighbors, leaving the dummy in the middle of the road.

That, by the way, was my mistake.  Not that it didn’t work!  Cars would screech to a halt, the driver would get out, poke and prod the dummy, then usually laugh or shake a head before getting back in the car and driving off.  Believe it or not, even a cop did this!  But long about the time our fun was winding down and we were talking about packing up and heading home, wouldn’t you know it, one last car came along.  We threw the dummy down and beat it until the headlights caught us then ran off, each to his own.  But this car’s driver, instead of giving the predictable head shake, kidnapped the dummy and drove off.

I never saw my clothes again.

And being so independent now, I never explained what happened to my parents.  Instead, until Christmas I lived with those three pairs of clothes (and surmise, though I can’t prove it, that thereby I started the grunge style).

I had relished the opportunity to be in charge, showing my sanguine colors to my impressed older brother and his and my friends.  But I moped around for two months–till Christmas when seemingly all my relatives gave me new clothes as gifts–languishing in a melancholy slump over my lost clothes.

So my adolescent angst was fairly typical.  But, on the other hand, I was asking questions none of my friends were.  So many of my friends would gaze at themselves overly long in the mirror, admiring their own growing muscles or gauging the emergence of facial hair, wondering how often to shave or how to catch a girl’s attention.  Or some of my jock friends would preoccupy their time with workouts and football strategies, contemplating and practicing ways to become that much better, faster, or more agile than the next guy.  But I wrestled with questions ontological, epistemological, and metaphysical.  What was the meaning of my existence?  How did I know whether I was awake or in a dream, whether the life I knew each day was actually the dream and my dreams were reality?  Was God real, and if so, how did an immanent God factor into my small world?

It was here, by the way, that the thought first occurred to me that I might be seeing the world too simply.  It was one way or the other to my adolescent mind, without much room for middle ground.  In my mind something was either right or wrong, good or bad, worthwhile or not.  Like snow skiing and high school.  Recognizing this tendency, then, I asked myself if I might perceive the good things I remembered from my childhood as better than they actually were.  I asked too whether the bad things might not be nearly as bad as I recalled.

The contrast I mentioned in my last post then, the one that confronted me abruptly?  Like Hermes, the messenger of the gods, it brought this most excellent question to me for the first time.

Anyway, my adolescent friends thought my questions were far out.  Too far out, in fact.  So I stopped asking them–out loud at least.