Friday, November 29, 2013

7 Quick Takes Friday (vol. 80) Thanksgiving edition

1. I’m thankful for shelter and heat and all the other comforting amenities.

2. I’m thankful for my relationship with God, for the room my religion provides my growing faith, and for all the saints who set such a wonderful example.

3. I’m thankful for my parents, who are loving, supportive, and generally awesome.

4. I’m thankful for the opportunities I have to go to school, read books, see movies, etc. There is always so much to learn!

5. Related, I’m thankful for opportunities I’ve had to travel and see parts of the world for myself. I’m thankful for the wealth that has given me such opportunities.

6. I’m thankful for technology that makes education, communication, and discovery quicker and easier.

7. I’m thankful extended family, friends, and church family who care about me and make me a part of a community.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Horn of Plenty

Idols are subtle. They rarely reflect the golden calf of Exodus. Instead, idols are often intangible, hard to point out. They are people or things or philosophies that creep in and position themselves before God. Worship of them doesn’t come in the form of prayer and incense but in affiliation and time. Idols become a part of our life, pushing God into the corner. That’s why they are hard to see. 

But sometimes, they are super obvious and look like this:
And we still don't see them.

In his latest encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis says, “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.” Money is an idol that pervades our life (assuming ‘us’ is first-world). Capitalism promotes competition, consumerism, and efficiency. It is a survivor-of-the-fittest system that when unchecked, does not consider the weak, the marginalized, or the suffering.
People are only worth what they can put into the system. They must produce, accumulate wealth, purchase goods. Life has no value in and of itself. If you can’t put into the system, you are lazy, useless, and forgotten. 

As Thanksgiving approaches, the arguments about consumerism arrive. Stores stay open on the holiday because the three-day weekend wasn’t long enough for the shopping frenzy that accompanies the holiday sales. For some, it’s a family tradition to stand in line overnight, rush into a store, and compete with other shoppers for that 60% electronic device. Others point out this absurd (and sometimes fatal) spectacle and denounce the idol of consumerism. Look at how much those people value discount goods over time with their family! Where are their priorities? But consumerism is a part of capitalism. Black Friday is just a magnified version of the daily pursuit of wealth and goods. Those that don't line up on Thanksgiving for Black Friday sales will still go out to purchase Christmas presents, and they will still look for good deals. Consumerism isn't really being criticized, just that extreme kind of consumerism. After all, consumption of goods is part of capitalism.  In capitalist countries, we’re told competition is good. The average consumer is the backbone of the economy. We can fight terror by going to the mall. The wealth will trickle down. 

But the wealth does not trickle down. It makes the rich richer and the poor poorer, because money can buy opportunity. The pope says, “While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation.” Capitalism relies on individualism. From each according to his ability to each according to his ability. If you fail, it is your fault; you didn’t pull yourself up from your bootstraps hard enough. 

People are seen as commodities, capable of value of assessment and replacement. That’s how capitalism creeps in as an idol. Pope Francis says, “Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.” Capitalism keeps us from seeing people as valuable regardless of their production input. Consumerism keeps us distracted from inequality and the needs of others. Instead of seeing people as brothers, a person sees them as competition, an obstruction between him and his money. There is no “us,” no community or communal truth.  

While a person’s relationship with God is personal and individual, there is much about the faith that is also communal. There is the communion of saints, the caring for the poor, the corporate worship. Christians cannot grow in isolated vacuums. The pope says, “The individualism of our postmodern and globalized era favours a lifestyle which weakens the development and stability of personal relationships and distorts family bonds.”  

If only idols were easy to recognize. Smash a statue, tut-tut Black Friday, avoid prayers to Baal before dinner. But idols are more complex than that because to be an idol, it must be held in a prominent place of our life. It’s easy to say, “Only worship God.” It’s much more difficult to see how the prevailing economic system can hinder one’s ability to love others as God commands. Few get to choose what economic system they live under. Capitalism is only an idol if we let it be, if we fall into the trap of seeing people for their utility instead of their humanity or if we place money and position over dignity and community. What’s important is to actively keep God at the center and keep the encroaching idols at bay.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Time for All Seasons

It seems like November is the time of death. The leaves lose their color, the temperature drops, and skies become grey. I’ve had several relationships end in November, and I’ve known several people that died in that month. This seems especially true this year, as the TV goes on about the 50th anniversary of the deaths of John F. Kennedy, C. S. Lewis, and Aldous Huxley, and I find myself attending two memorial services in two days for members of my church family. Death seems to be hanging around.

But death isn’t crashing in. There isn’t stock and depression and weeping. It feels as natural as the tide going out. Death is just another season. There is nothing to fear or dread. It’s a part of life. For the Christian, it’s not the end. It’s a transition. The earthly world wanes into the spiritual. Life continues, free and space and time.

I think I’m supposed to be sad, but I’m not. The memorial services are part mourning, part celebration, but mostly just remembrance. Wasn’t she amazing? Wasn’t he great? And remember that funny time when…? It’s sad the deceased are gone. We won’t interact with them the same way. There is discomfort and pain and uncertainty is learning to get by without that person in your life. But the season changes; the blow softens with time. The dead go on to the next life. The living go on living until their time comes. The cycle repeats over and over. It will be my time one day. And my parents’. And my friends’. Death is a season of living, and it’s quite hard to fear something so reliable.

Death is all around, but it has no power here. Its season is over for now, and life goes on.

Friday, November 15, 2013

7 Quick Takes Friday (vol. 79)

1. I’m really looking forward to Advent. I’m not sure if it’s for the season itself, or if I’m just ready for November and all of its requirements to be over with. So many many papers, so little time.

2. I’m not participating in NaNoWriMo this year, but I wish I was. I think I’m going to hit 50,000 words of school work though, so I guess that’s something. Hopefully I can use Christmas break for some personal writing.

3. Ok, I am looking forward to Advent for some real reasons too. It’s the start of another church year, and I want to treat it as such by making some changes that will help me spiritually.

4. 50 Ways to Pray. I might do a whole other post on it, but since I’m so busy, I want to go ahead and share it. I’m working on doing better about praying throughout the day in little ways, and this list is a great idea generator.

5. I have a reading list for break that I’m excited about. I really want to get a lot written and read, but I’ll have to battle the urge to just sleep and Netflix the whole month.

6. On my reading list is Flannery O’Connor. I haven’t picked a particular book yet, but I keep thinking I need to be more familiar with her work. Especially when I come across quotes like this:

7. In Tennessee weather news, it snowed Tuesday. November snow is practically unheard of, so I was hoping the flurries would incite enough panic to cancel class, but alas, it didn’t. Then yesterday, the temperature ranged from 19 to 55. I seriously don’t know how to dress for the day anymore.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

St. Martin of Tours

Yesterday was the feast day of St. Martin of Tours. It was also Armistice Day, and it’s fitting that the two coincide. Martin was born in 316 to a senior officer of the Roman army. His name comes from the Roman god Mars, the god of war. Martin converted to Christianity when it was still a minority faith in the empire. He served in the Roman cavalry and was mainly stationed in Gaul. 

Legend says that one day Martin came across a beggar. He tore his military cloak in two and gave half to the beggar. That night, he had a vision of Christ wearing the torn cloak. The half of the cloak that Martin kept became a sacred relic to Frankish kings who often carried it into battle. The priests charged with the care-taking of the relic were called cappellani. The term became to mean any priest in the military. The word chaplain comes from this word. Because the cloak was moved with the military, small, temporary churches were built to house it. People called these little churches capella, or little cloak. The word chapel comes from this word.

Just before a battle, Martin declared that as a Christian, his conscious prohibited him from fighting, saying, “I am a soldier for Christ.” He was charged with cowardice, but in response, he offered to go unarmed in the front of the troops. A peace was reached before the battle, and Martin was released from his military service. 

He went home and converted his mother. He then visited Illyricum where he argued with Arians, causing such a scene that he was forced to leave. In Milan, the archbishop was an Arian who also expelled Martin. So Martin went to an island and lived as a hermit. 

In 361, he returned to Italy and established a monastery as a center for evangelization of country districts. He preached around Gaul and became bishop of Tours in 371. He was reluctant to become a bishop and hid in a shed of geese, but the geese made so much noise that he was found. As bishop, he worked to free prisoners and convert pagans.St. Martin of Tours died around 396. He is the patron of beggars, soldiers, wool-weavers, and France.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Deafening Silence

I enjoy reading about the Edwardian era, World War I, and the rise of modernism. There is something haunting about the "first modern war." It removed the ideas of honor and nobility from battle and replaced them with senses of nihilism and inhumanity. So while everyone has been talking about Veterans’ Day, I’m remembering that it began as Armistice Day, a celebration of the end of the “war to end all wars.” The veterans of that war are gone, and so the day has become meaningful for all veterans that have served in the wars since then. But I worry that the day has become a celebration of military instead of a celebration of peace.

So I was interested to come across this quote by Kurt Vonnegut who shares my feelings about Armistice Day:

"I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, and when Dwayne Hoover was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month. It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind. Armistice Day has become Veterans' Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans' Day is not. So I will throw Veterans' Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don't want to throw away any sacred things."
After years of brutal fighting, of orders and bullets and screams, the silence is louder than any sound. God doesn’t need to use a loud, thunderous voice to get our attention. In fact, sounds only get in the way of the communication. A moment of silence. A moment of memory for those who died. A moment of reflection at what destruction we’ve wrought on ourselves. A moment of relief that the nightmare is over, that redemption is coming. One silent moment says more than words could.

Armistice sounds like the stopping of bullets and tanks and planes and yelling. Armistice sounds like two men looking at one another without letting language or ideology or any other divider cause strife between them. Armistice sounds like silence. And silence is a sacred space, untainted by distracting noises. Silence is where we encounter ourselves, our reflections, our emotions when stripped away from noisy influences. Silence is where we hear God most clearly.