Surrounded by Steadfast Love

Surround - All Eyes on Jesus

Surround – All Eyes on Jesus

On Saturday, March 16, Rethink Church’s suggested word for the Lenten “Photo of the Day” was surround. That evening, I saw my daughter setting up the nativity set that my Aunt Marie gave to me the Christmas before Hannah was born. The set she now thinks of as hers could not be more different from the set I played with as a child, an unpainted cast of dozens carved from olive wood in the West Bank circa 1970; but my six year old self had the same instincts as my daughter when it came to the arrangement – everyone crowding around the baby Jesus, surrounding him. After all, he is the main attraction! He is the one everyone is there to see.

SNAP! Once she saw I was taking photos, Hannah started arranging the characters differently, everyone facing out as if they were posing for a group portrait. But without reference to the camera, her gaze and the gaze of the figures were directed towards the baby Jesus.

You may or may not have known that I started off Lent with Rethink Church’s Lent Photo-A-Day challenge. And you may or may not have noticed that I fell off the wagon not quite two weeks into the project. Various life challenges intervened with my ability to stay on track with taking the assigned photo each day… but when I did have time, I didn’t know what to do – should I just take the photo for that day? Or didn’t I need to catch up? If there were gaps in my photo list, people would notice! They would know that I was not keeping Lent properly! That my one Lenten discipline was beyond my capabilities! I would be a public failure!!

[Note: the fear of being a public failure is not limited to my spiritual disciplines. It reaches into all parts of my life, including my wardrobe, as seen in my other post today, at St. Luke’s Episcopal, Durham. See also this parody of “Sweet Hour of Prayer” that I began writing when despairing over my clothes closet this past November.]

Without reference to my blog, my gaze was on Jesus. But once I started posting the photos here, a new layer was added – what had been an intimate time of prayer through creation became a group portrait. The pressure to produce an image turned a spiritual exercise into an occasion for anxiety.

I grew up United Methodist before we went all Revised Common Lectionary and started doing “high liturgical stuff” like paying attention to Lent. ūüėČ If anything, I was raised to look askance at Lenten disciplines: firstly, they were showing off (fast and pray in private, says the Bible), and secondly, they could lead to spiritual laziness (what? are you spiritually disciplined just a couple of months a year?) But during my time in seminary, I was converted to observing the Christian calendar as a discipline in the sense of revealing to me (and giving me language for) the seasonal nature of my relationship with God, as well as my place within the Christian community.

Now I am starting to find a place for the wisdom of my old Lent skepticism, however. I am asking myself two questions: Am I observing Lent for God, or for my public image within my community? And am I being unrealistic – is this Lent a time when I am somehow more able to take up this discipline than at any other time of the year?

Which has led me to a conclusion: I am going to keep taking and sharing my photos on past Lent. But not every day. Instead, I will post as I am able, and as it gives life to me and my community.

In the Rite of Infant Baptism found in the old Methodist hymnal – the rite I grew up with – the congregation makes this vow: “With God’s help we will so order our lives after the example of Christ, that this child, surrounded by steadfast love, may be established in the faith, and confirmed and strengthened in the way that leads to life eternal.”

Just as the figures in my daughter’s nativity surround Jesus, I have a community of sisters and brothers whose gaze is fixed on Love Incarnate. I met some of them at seminary, others in high school or in college, or on Twitter or Facebook, or at church or through work or another friend, and countless other ways. As they order their lives after the teaching and example of Christ, I am confirmed and strengthened. I am surrounded by their steadfast love.

May the steadfast love of my sisters and brothers in Christ serve as my North Star – always recalling to me the way in which I am to go. Amen.

Droning on about Einstein

In my early twenties, when a high school friend and I would e-mail each other, I did not yet realize that being a grad student in the sciences these days almost necessarily involves being an unpaid military contractor. ¬†It is where all the funding for these departments comes from. ¬†(To his credit, he tried to tell me this. ¬†I tried to tell him to bail in that case.) ¬†When pressuring him about what the possible applications for a project he was working on might be, he admitted that there were only military applications – but that he hoped they might use the technology for dodging torpedoes, rather than for better aiming them. ¬†I replied that after dodging the torpedo, it would be foolish to hope that they would not then lob one back. ¬†Poor guy – he just wanted to learn about acoustics, and this is what his studies had come to. ¬†I am amazed he still talks to me after all of my moralizing speeches. ¬†Anyway, he works in the acoustics field now, but his money doesn’t come from the “defense” industry killing business – ¬†it comes from musicians and concert halls – he can finally do what he had intended to do all along.

Likewise another friend found himself pitching a project from his graduate school computer lab to a government killing agency.  He suggested it might be used to redirect their missile to swerve away from their target if they changed their mind at the last minute.  I do not imagine the colonels were much amused.  He is still working with computers, but ditched a job he liked a few years back because he was fed up with the company only pitching the product to the military.

My husband and I were talking earlier today about the drone controversy that has been in the news of late. ¬†He said that it was hard to get worked into a lather over it, because if it weren’t that, it would be something else – some other technology invading our privacy. ¬†And I have to agree that by the time this sort of thing becomes public, there is already something new in the pipeline that we are similarly unprepared for. ¬†And isn’t it grand that illegal government actions (such as violations of the 4th amendment, say for instance) usually go on for years before a case makes its way to the Supreme Court, where they can tell us what the rest of us already know.

Einstein had a number of things to say about the intersection (or lack thereof) of morality and science – perhaps the most personally cynical (or repentant, perhaps) of which was, “If I had known, I would have been a locksmith.” ¬†But what struck me more when I was in high school, and continues to concern me now is this quote: ¬†“Technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal.”

I went to a magnet school in Northern Virginia called Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. ¬†We imagined ourselves to be nationally famous, as we were the only high school in the country at the time to have our own super-computer. (Remember super-computers? Oh, never mind.) ¬†It may be that many of my friends were there for the same reason I was – not because they intended to become scientists, but because they were seeking a place where they would not be bullied for their unrepentant brainy-ness. ¬†But it does seem interesting that, of the friends I am still in touch with who went there, only one of them is still in science – the concert hall guy. ¬†One of them left the field of Venusian volcanology to become a jewelry designer. ¬†Another is a lawyer, another is a writer, another is an English professor…

It also seems interesting how many TJ alums are in the Christian ministry: 3 from my graduating class alone, and 2 more that I personally know of – there must be more. ¬†Makes me wonder if I was not the only one who received an admonition from a science teacher (in my case on my first day of school, and in front of the whole biology class) that I would find that I would “have to choose between science and religion.”* ¬†It was humiliating and confusing at the time, but I came to see it as a call to arms. ¬†When paired with the earlier two Einstein quotes (bemoaning that he did not become a locksmith, and warning about the inevitable evil uses to which our technological advances will be put), the following one sounds like decisive advice against going into a technological field at all if one wishes to remain a moral person:

Concern for man and his fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavors. Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations.

While recovering, The Eyre Affair was recommended to me as some light reading. ¬†While the front cover likens it to Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Monty Python, in my opinion it did not nearly live up to any of these. ¬†But kudos for the not original, but then again not totally overused theme of a scientist thinking “wouldn’t it be cool if I could…?,” then making that thing, having someone unscrupulous get their hands on it, and having to destroy the invention in order to save countless lives. ¬†But as the inventor in the story goes on with his work, I can’t imagine he will stay out of mischief. ¬†It might have been more effective to have killed the inventor within.

“Power always attracts men of low morality,” Einstein wrote. ¬†Perhaps he meant those persons of the sort who would possess an atom bomb, but there is a “will to power”, too, in many of those who do research – a desire to be master over a field, to know more, to see further. ¬†Desiring to be the one who discovers the origins of the universe is a desire for a sort of power.

And, indeed, this desire for power infects more than a few in the parish ministry – there is dangerously alluring power in the pulpit, in the clerical collar, in being the resident interpreter of The Book, in the administration of the sacraments. ¬†That power has attracted many men and women of low morality, and tempted others whose moral fiber was less strong than they had reckoned on. ¬†One of my constant questions, both before going into the parish and when leaving it was “how much do I want this because of the power / insider status it gives me?” ¬†I felt at the time that it required vigilance of the kind that I am discovering coming off prescription pain meds requires.

The danger, I think, of unmanned paparazzi drones, of atomic bombs, of toxic pastors… is that the power-hungry will always be with us. ¬†The snake invites Eve to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, telling her it will make her like God. ¬†A baby cries because unless he is the center of his parents’ universe, he will not survive, and so he comes to learn that he is the center of the universe – the parents make an idol of the child, and the child learns then to make an idol of himself. ¬†Whether you embrace the doctrine of original sin, or take a Niebuhrian view that sin is learned**, ¬†it seems impossible to deny that a desire to be the god of one’s own universe is a universally human sin – and a pernicious weed to uproot.

Thankfully, I cannot follow Einstein in thinking that “we shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.” ¬†If so, I would have no choice but to despair – humanity has demonstrated no tendency to universally adopt substantially new manners of thinking. ¬†Or, as an older saying goes, “One rotten apple will ruin the whole barrel.” ¬†And it seems increasingly clear to me that we are all at least a little rotten. ¬†If the Constitution is to be our salvation, or if world peace is to be our salvation – if the end to all homicide is to be our salvation, or regard for human life is to be our salvation – then we are damned before we have begun.

It is true that it is up to each of us – it is up to me! – to not silently go about my business in the face of evil. ¬†It is up to you and to me to stand up and say no to the forces of death and hate, and yes to life and love. ¬†When my daughter was baptized, I promised to “accept the freedom and the power God gives [me] to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves[.]” – and I must repent daily of my less than thorough-going approach to this call to be a Resurrection sign.

The win does not go to Team Humanity.  We will not be the ones to save ourselves.  Thanks be to God Рfor I have seen no evidence that we ourselves are capable of it.

* I would like to note that this teacher’s actions were in flagrant violation of the 1st amendment to the U.S. Constitution, though I only came to realize this later.

** Nature v. nurture – the field of psychology is beginning to consider this a fool’s debate – will theology follow?