On School Prayer

1640-50

Christians, do not ask for prayer in schools.
Make sure that students do not learn
about the God of the Bible.

This is the God who said “Don’t take my name in vain.”*
So unless you want your children to rebuke you
for slapping “In God we trust”
on your currency, your police cruisers, your weapons of war, and your campaign posters,
do not teach them to pray;
Because they will see that you actually worship
Money, Violence, Power;
Pluto, Mars, and Jupiter.
And they will reject your heathen religion.

Do not teach your children to pray
to the God who said “I desire mercy, not sacrifice;”*
whose Chosen One said, “You tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others, but do not lift a finger to move them;”*
and “You lock people out of the kingdom of God,
you yourselves do not go in, and when others try, you stop them;”*
whose wise man said, “A poor person’s land might produce much food, but it is unjustly swept away”*
whose prophet said, “Is not this the fast that I choose:
to undo the thong of oppression and break every yoke?”*

So unless you want your children to reject debtor’s prisons,*
mass incarceration,*
capital punishment,*
and the use of cash bail to force guilty pleas from the poor,*
do not teach them to pray in school.

Do not teach your children to pray
to the God whose writers said it is a sin
to use religion to justify bloodshed,*
to wage war on the trees,*
who condemned rich people and fat sheep for shoving the poor out of the way with flank and shoulder
and polluting the water with their waste and trampling the good pasture,*
for adding house to house and field to field, gentrifying the land
until there is room for no one but them.*

Do not teach your children to pray
to the God who promised to destroy those who destroy the earth,*
or you will see your children and grandchildren
whispering about you
whenever they try to remember what it was like
to hear the sound of buzzing bees by day
and chirping of frogs by night.*

This is the God who says
I AM the one who brings down the mighty from their thrones.
I AM the one who fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty.
I AM the one who opens prison doors and sets the captives free.
I AM, and no other.

This is the God whose Chosen One says
that religious people can become dull
and like salt without flavor,
that they can become worse than useless,
fit neither for soil nor the shit pile,*
who fertilize nothing, preserve nothing, flavor nothing.
These religious people are like desiccants, Jesus implies,
like the little packets found in plastic-wrapped containers,
marked “DO NOT EAT,”
leeching life out of whatever they touch.

No, you should not ask for prayer in school,
for it will be as if you had lit an oil lamp,
and then hidden it under your mattress,*
because those who actually come to know the God you claim to worship
will become a flame,
and then
you will burn while you sleep.

How to Kill an Imaginary Giant

Good gravy, liberal armchair politicians are the worst generals. Goliath comes walking along the front lines, full of taunts and contempt, and y’all are literally like, “no, no, this person can’t fight him. This person can’t fight him. OMG, what are we going to do?”

That’s part of the story: a whole army of terrified, traumatized soldiers. They should be crawling over each other to punch that SOB in his puckered sphincter of a mouth, but none of them do. It takes a shepherd boy to do the job. And his big brother is like, “How arrogant of you to show up thinking you can win.” (1 Samuel 17)

Y’all are like, “there are too many people running!” I am glad we’ve got a variety of people throwing their hat into the ring to fight. I expect them to throw some punches and get elbowed in the face on their way to do a job that maybe slightly less than half the country will hate them for. If only one person volunteered to do the job, or stepped aside meekly when someone you think is more qualified showed up, I would weep for humanity.

This guy isn’t even a giant! He’s literally the worst president in history who posts photoshopped images of himself as a fighter. Never actually been in a damn fight in his life, can’t walk with other world leaders without getting winded. Has to ride in a golf cart. Tweets from the toilet at 3AM. Only in power because a corrupt cabal of oligarchs will lie and cheat to keep a useful idiot in power.

And of course, all of this physical violence metaphor is fiction anyway. Trump isn’t even real. He’s in your imagination. Nobody’s throwing punches, they’re just saying words. The real violence happens down the chain, far away from CNN.

Our biggest enemy is our fear and hopelessness. This is why, in the story, it takes a poet to kill a giant.

Space Force is a Stupid Movie

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I love many sci-fi movies. But too often, battles in space feature explosions that have no debris. Space ships just magically disintegrate while their attackers dramatically fly through the colorful explosion.
This is one thing (among many others) I enjoy about the TV show The Expanse: it portrays the unintended consequences of stuff blowing up in space. Tiny bits of shrapnel continue traveling at incredible speed with no atmosphere to slow them down, penetrating metal and flesh. Blowing something up creates new problems for everyone, and the collateral damage may be you.
Good science fiction and fantasy reminds us that there are always unintended consequences to cool weapons or powerful magic. Actions that seem heroic or impressive (at first) can cause disasters. We often say, “If I could wave a magic wand…” we could make our troubles disappear, but good fantasy reminds us that waving a magic wand creates a cascade of other social or political actions that cause complications for our protagonists. Good sci-fi does the same: there are unintended consequences to inventing time machines, gaining superpowers, cloning warriors, or militarizing space.
Which is why we know that creating a Space Force is just stupid. Military action in orbit is just stupid. And Donald Trump is stupid. He has shown, time and time again, he has no understanding of unintended consequences. One significant military action in orbit could ground humans beings almost permanently, rendering further space travel prohibitively dangerous and expensive. I don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure this out, because rocket scientists are telling us that space junk is a significant problem already. Just like I don’t need to be a climate scientist to understand the logic behind climate change, or a political scientist to understand what creeping fascism looks like. All I need is the ability to read, an imagination, and a capacity for critical thinking.
People who read and tell stories about these things understand them better than wonks who dismiss them as “fantasy.” Communicating ideas and using our imagination is the superpower of our species. You hold a cellphone in your hand, in part, because Gene Roddenberry made a television show about people exploring space and talking on flip phones. The futures we imagine, we have the capacity to build. The problems we imagine, we have the capacity to avoid.
“Space Force” is terrible science fiction. Our policy-makers don’t have the imagination required to appreciate good science fiction or fantasy or anticipate potential problems with militarizing space. They suffer from a stunted imagination and chronic stupidity. This is “vincible ignorance,” ignorance for which there is no excuse.
Or perhaps we are living in great classic science fiction. Perhaps we’re living a farce about the hubris of a stupid president and his stupid supporters doing many stupid things that future humans will regret for decades. Perhaps it’s about how people can hear a story and totally miss the lessons it teaches, whether that story is the Bible or Starship Troopers. Perhaps it’s about how we export human sin wherever we travel, even into space.
Perhaps it’s about how we invent an amazing global communication network called the internet but cannot escape the human tendency to tell lies until we believe them. Perhaps it’s about how we are so good at imagining world-ending apocalyptic narratives that we create self-fulfilling prophecies that kill us, and if only we could imagine a better “apocalypse,” a better revelation, we could imagine our way to a better, more peaceful, more life-giving future. I wish we would imagine and share more and better futures instead of recycling stories of magical explosions and pathetic men trying to be badass.
Lack of imagination is a particular kind of sin. We have a God-given capacity for creativity and imagination. Let us not kill ourselves with vincible ignorance because we simply failed to imagine a better future for ourselves. Let’s imagine a better story than this F-rated flop film we’re watching now.

The Parable of the Addicted Students

“When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenant farmers?” They said, “He will totally destroy those wicked farmers and rent the vineyard to other tenant farmers who will give him the fruit when it’s ready.” (Matthew 21:40-41)

 

A Drug Dealer came to the playground of a boarding school. “Hey,” he shouted through the chain-link fence. “I’ve got something you need to try.”

Some students stopped their play and gathered near.

“It’s called Fuel™. It’s a performance enhancer,” he said. “You will run faster, throw further, and jump higher than you ever did before.”

“Throw farther.” Said one precocious girl. “No thanks. My parents taught me that drugs will mess up your grades.”

“Not these drugs, sister,” he continued. “I told you they are performance enhancers. Fuel™ will give you more energy to do everything, including study. You will get better grades. See if you don’t.”

The Drug Dealer had not lied. In the coming days, the students began to excel on the playground. They ran faster, threw farther, and leapt higher than they ever had. Students who were reluctant at first realized they could not compete unless they also took Fuel™.

They spun so fast on the merry-go-round that some flew off, crashed through the fence, and died. But they had never had so much fun. The see saws presented their own dangers. A couple of student were catapulted clear over the school building, never to be seen again. But in spite of the danger, the students kept using.

Their schoolwork also improved dramatically. They went from making C’s and D’s to all A’s. In fact, they excelled so much in their schoolwork, the administration had to readjust their criteria and invent new grading systems. Students went from making A+++ to grades like AQA450. They changed the school motto from Ex Sapientia Modus (out of wisdom comes moderation) to Work Hard, Play Hard.

The administration was delighted. “It’s our innovative educational model,” they boasted to the world. “We have the best pedagogy and the brightest students in the world.” They won grants and cash prizes for their outstanding work.

In response, they raised tuition and school fees. They also blocked all the windows so the students wouldn’t be distracted by the view from outside. They reduced recess and lunch from an hour each to fifteen minutes for both. They eliminated summer and Christmas vacation, so the students could spend more time on their grades.

One day the students noticed that their playground had become a mostly empty gravel lot. There were no more trees to climb. The merry-go-round was rusted. Sticky puddles of some unidentifiable substance had collected beneath the swings. The sky was rust-colored. They were miserable.

They also noticed that the building itself was running down. Rain leaked through the roof and filled buckets stacked on desks. It was stiflingly hot in summer and bitterly cold in winter.

Some of the students approached the drug dealer one day on their ten-minute lunch-and-recreation break.

“You did this!” they said. “You knew this would happen.”

“Knew what would happen?” he replied. “Everything is the same as before.”

The students went to the administration.

“You need to do something about the drug dealer who is ruining the school and our lives,” they said.

“Oh, you mean Provost Drug Dealer?” the administration replied. “Sorry, he’s in charge of security now. He also writes most of our rules.”

“This is wrong,” the students said. “We must stop using Fuel™.”

“What is wrong about it?” replied the administration. “You all have new crisp school uniforms. We have the highest-paid administration and best educational model in the world! Would you throw all of that away?”

“But we are miserable and our school is falling apart!” complained the students.

The administrators were too busy to answer; they were packing up gold fountain pens, expensive computers, framed art, certificates, and awards into boxes and loading them into their limousines in the parking lot.

The students went down the hall to Provost Drug Dealer’s office.

“You have ruined our school and our lives,” they said to him. “How long have you known?”

“Oh, we’ve known the side effects of Fuel™ for decades,” said Provost Drug Dealer, as he stuffed bundles of cash into a duffel bag.

“You must pay to make things right,” they said.

“Fat chance!” said Provost Drug Dealer, as he put on his hat and headed for the door. “I’ve got business at other schools. See you, kiddos.”

Now, what will those students do? Will they do the hard things and learn the hard lessons? Will they not protest, kick out the Drug Dealer, hold sit-ins and teach-ins, take over the administration, and create a curriculum of life?

For the king of the poor willingly took up his own cross and carried it with help, but the kings of the rich had to be dragged to the guillotine.

 

Hippocampus’s Performance Review

 

 

Hey, Dave, how’s it going?

Uh… hello Hippocampus. Fine, I guess.

Hey, that’s great to hear. Feeling happy? Generally unbothered?

…Until now.

Hey, that’s super. Great to hear it. What are you doing right now? Getting something done? Writing something?

I was, yes.

Wow, writing is great. Takes a lot of concentration, yeah? Don’t seem to have much on that page, though. It looks kinda blank—

Look, do you mind? I’m kinda busy.

Oh, hey, I get it. The direct approach, right? That’s what I like about you, man, you’re a straight shooter. Okay, I’ll get to the point. Me and Amygdala were talking.

Indeed.

Yeah, I’ve been going through these memory files. You know, there’s a whole drawer of folders labeled “Embarrassing Memories from Adolescence.” Anyway, here’s one file I thought we should probably review. Take a look at this memory right here.

Oh, God.

Yeah, that’s some amazing detail, isn’t it? Auditory and visuals are crystal clear. You remember that part? And what you said? And what you probably should have said instead? Man, that stings. So cringeworthy. Wow, are you sweating? That’s a lot of sweat.

Please stop.

I’m just saying you sure sweat a lot. Well, so Mygs and I were just wondering if you and that big ol’ smart mammalian Cortex of yours there had any, you know, any lessons you could learn from this. Again. Since the last time we reviewed this memory. Or the time before that. Anything at all? You have any ideas, any takeaways, apart from a general feeling of shame and worthlessness? 

No. No I do not. Not last time. Not this time. Not next time. Why do you keep doing this?

Why? Oh, you know, it’s important to do occasional reviews of how badly it is possible for you to mess up. We’re just trying to help you survive, man, like we’ve been doing for millions of years, and for that we need to do, you know, occasional performance reviews while you’re awake. This is our schtick, man! Learn from your mistakes and stuff, or be doomed to repeat them.

That was thirty-five years ago!

Hey, we’re millions of years old, big guy. Thirty-five years is an eye blink. If we didn’t do our jobs for your ancestors, you wouldn’t even be here, right? These performance reviews are essential. So let’s look at this part in slow motion. Look right there. See that part? Wow, that was pretty dumb. That feels bad, right? Here’s some salt and lemon juice to rub right in that wound. Yeah, massage that in there, baby. That hurts pretty bad, right?

Can we be done please?

Oh, hey, man, sure, we can do this, you know, some other time when you’re less sweaty. I mean less busy. Like, next time when you’re folding laundry or about to make a speech or sitting at a traffic light. Don’t worry, dude! We know how to be patient and wait for your attention. We’ve got, like, buckets of shame and guilt on hand whenever you need. 

Gee, thanks. Thanks so much. I think you know the way out.

Okay, yeah, I’ve got this other folder labeled “Irrational Remorse” here that I’ll just hang on to until our next review.

Goodbye.

And this other folder with the title “Jr. High Dances.” Hey, you sure you don’t want to see what Mygs and I found special about that?

Leave. Now.

Oh, right. No worries, man! We’ll check in with you later! You and Cortex have fun writing!

An Imprecatory Prayer for Glorious Leader

I would like for someone to visit upon you
All the pain you’ve given others;
But that would not reach you.
You would simply curl in on yourself even more,
Justifying yourself to yourself,
Inflicting hell on others
Because you are in hell.
The cruelest prayer I can pray for you
Is that you would have an experience
Of pure joy:
The kind of joy that makes you unfold yourself
That makes you regret
Every second of your precious life
Wasted in contempt
And lies
And harm
Every second you resisted
Love you couldn’t earn or buy.
I hope this joy breaks your heart.
I hope it hurts
And hurts
With an exquisite grief
For a long time
In the best possible way;
Until it is swallowed up again
By the joy that unfolds you.
You don’t deserve such grace,
Such a garden-variety conversion experience.
Nobody does.
And that’s why,
Little one,
This prayer
For you, especially unspecial,
Is the cruelest one of all.
Amen.

Beware This Kind of Article

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I want my progressive friends to understand how harmful this kind of headline is. I encourage you to read the article, then come back for my commentary.

If we truly believe in “neuroplasticity,” we recognize that people’s brains can and do change. While our brains are certainly more plastic as children, they continue to be malleable until we die. What, then, does it mean to say someone is “hard-wired” to be gullible? What are we being asked to believe about these conservative Christians referenced in this article?

I am more suspicious of this argument because, as a progressive Christian, I am inclined to agree with it. It gives us a science-y reason to denigrate those awful conservatives who are “hard-wired” to reject reason and believe stupid things, to fret over the way they home-school their children and teach bad science.

While I am not a neuroscientist, I am a rhetorician, and I think this is a misuse of the term “neuroplasticity” in support of an old, old argument that says religious people are taught to be gullible. “Neuroplasticity” generally refers to the way neural pathways become strengthened and the brain physically changes over time through experience. But I question why we’d be using this word instead of just “learning” or “conditioning” in this instance. Do we draw a different picture in our heads if we talk about learning instead of shaping neural pathways? Does one carry more weight or have more authority than the other? 

Now, it may be TRUE that fundamentalists are taught to be gullible, but the claim is simply not supported by the evidence in the article. That it takes effort to disbelieve something is interesting, but that is the *only* research referenced—the extrapolation to how children are taught to be gullible is not directly supported by the research cited. The word “neuroplasticity” also has nothing directly to do with the research; it is thrown in here as window-dressing.

I do think fundamentalist theology tends to encourage people to suppress their own experience and intuition, to quiet doubts and accept authority. These are points made in the article. But you can make those arguments without an MRI, and the scientific observations of brain activity in this article do not directly support the claim that conservative Christians do not develop “the neural pathways that promote healthy skepticism.” That would require a different study with different data.

I believe this is an example of people giving more credibility to lab coats because science.

If we would be less like gullible conservative fundamentalist Christians, as the author of the article suggests, we should take these assertions with a grain of salt, question the use of the phrase “hard-wired,” and be alert for confirmation bias. We already know our brains have a tendency to cherry-pick data that support our beliefs.

This is the kind of article that bots will repost to increase our dislike of our neighbors. It gives us scientific reasons to gin up our contempt and anger.

So let’s be less gullible.

A Sermon for the New Year

If you love your neighbor
as you love yourself
stop looking at your phone while you are in the car.

Stop looking at your phone while you are in the car
because I want to live.
The cyclists and pedestrians and stray dogs
and your fellow drivers
all want to live.
We are on our way to visit grandkids
or parents
or to adopt kittens
or to give a birthday present
or to get groceries
or to interview for a job.
We are on our way to work
to earn money
to pay for a vacation
or a child’s tuition
or to pay bills
because we believe in the future
and we have hopes and dreams,
or we are on our way home
to people we love.

Stop looking at your phone while you are in the car
because we are all worthy of love
and we all want to live.

Stop looking at your phone while you are in the car
because God wants you to be amused
by the puffy bird on the wire
and the bobble-head on your neighbor’s dashboard,
by the misspelled sign
or by the dog with her head out of the window.
God wants you to live like that,
with your head in the wind
paying attention
enjoying the breath in your lungs
loving life in the moment.

I know you steal a look
because you are stressed
and you crave that little shot of dopamine
but it’s poison
and it’s killing us.

Stop looking at your phone while you are in the car
yes, even while you are stopped at a traffic light
waiting for a few minutes
because if you look while you are at a traffic light,
you are practicing looking at your phone in the car—
you are building a habit
that makes it more likely
that you will look at your phone in the car.
Don’t think it’s safe
because you are stopped on the road
with people waiting behind you
when the light turns green
because someone is flying down the road
not expecting you to be stopped at a green light
because they are looking at their phone while they are in the car.

Instead, pull into a parking lot
or a curb
or a gas station,
and if you must text
or if that reply is so compelling
give it your full attention
so you can fully appreciate it
and then get back to driving
and trying not to kill people
with your one-ton hunk of metal and glass and plastic
hurtling through space.

Yes, I’ve done it.
Yes, I’ve been a distracted driver.
I am no better than anyone else.
I have failed to love my neighbor.
And I realized I was failing to love my neighbor
because I didn’t love myself enough
to stop looking at my phone in the car
and notice the world,
because I was too afraid of being bored
and alone with my thoughts
and I craved distraction
and it was a habit
and this one conversation was so important
and I just needed to check this one thing.

And it hit me: that if I want to change the world
and stop war
and oppression
and climate change
and prejudice
and greed—
that if I wanted to change the world
what I was really expecting
was for people to change their habits.
How could I expect people to change their self-destructive,
self-hating,
neighbor-ignoring habits,
how could I change the world
if I couldn’t even
change myself
and stop looking at my damned phone in the car.

You may think it’s presumptuous
or arrogant
or sanctimonious
to tell you what your New Year’s resolution should be,
but because it could be me on the bicycle
or walking on foot
or in the car that you don’t see
while you are looking at your screen,
because I want to live,
and because I know many of us are trying our best
to love our neighbor as ourselves
which is one of the hardest things to do:

Just stop looking at your phone while you are in the car.

I love you
and I want us to live
and I have this crazy notion
that if all of us
who are able to own mobile phones
and cars
could all agree to stop looking at our phones while we are in the car
if we could manage this basic level
of loving each other the way we love ourselves
we could probably change the world.

Please.

Condemning White Supremacy

While I’m encouraged to see more white clergy naming the sin of white supremacy, I just want to point out to the church that speaking out against mass shootings is a really low #$%!! bar.

Trace the sin and the language of white supremacy back further; it is in the criminalization of black and brown people, in the incarceration and deportation of black and brown bodies, in excuses made for vigilante executions and lynchings through “stand your ground” laws, in the leaders we elect and the dog-whistles they use, in functional apartheid through redlining and gentrification, in anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric, in white apathy over disproportionately dismal health and economic statistics for black and brown people, in our collective shrug whenever we think or say, “that’s just the way things are.”

White supremacy is simply the formal doctrine of the folk religion of whiteness. It’s the church you automatically join when you are born white (or passing) in this country. You may not attend regularly, but you have been tithing to it and enjoying its blessings your whole life.

Mass shootings, like lynchings, are a white sacrament: the visual representation of our invisible policies. It’s the sacrifice our religion requires. It is what our inaction looks like when it becomes action.

So yes, preachers, please condemn white supremacy for the heresy and idolatry that it is. And please go ALL the way in.

What Christians Do

It’s interesting to me that there are few descriptions of what early church worship was actually like. We have fragments, sure: they met in homes and broke bread with glad and generous hearts (Acts 2:46), sometimes discussion dragged on so long that someone fell asleep and fell out of a window (20:9). But the book of Acts doesn’t spend a lot of time detailing what the order of worship was.

Most of the action happens outside of worship. The apostles get dragged before religious and city officials (Acts 4 & 5) and they speak boldly and get killed for it (7). Philip proselytizes an Ethiopian eunuch (8), Peter extends the reach of the church to Gentiles (10), and so on. If Acts is the story of the early church, most of that story is not worship.

I want to be careful here: As Will Willimon has said, there is a tendency to downplay worship, as if the real activity of the church happens outside of worship, as if the important work of the church is whatever those outside of the church deem worthy. I happen to think worship orders the life of the church. Worship is central. When Paul sends greetings in his letters, he sends them to the church that meets in Nympha’s house or Prisca and Aquila’s house. Apparently meeting together for worship was a regular feature of life for the early church. We just don’t know much about what actually took place there.

The public life of the church, the stuff that Acts records, is about disciples doing the kinds of things that Jesus did: meeting with the wrong sorts of people, scandalizing religious and political leaders, getting in trouble, and seeing God do amazing things.

I am struck by the discrepancy in what Acts describes and what church professionals describe. For most of my ministry, I’ve listened to church professionals talk about how to get more people into a sanctuary and how to get more people involved with the stuff the church organization is doing. I just don’t see that emphasis in Acts. I don’t see mega-churches; I see micro-churches. I don’t see programs; I see practices. There are a few situations in which the apostles speak to large crowds, but those are usually tense situations where they are as likely to be killed as to be celebrated. Most of the situations that are recorded in Acts are meetings with just two or a handful of people. Most of the activity of the church is in the streets and around tables.