"This has been mostly a sheep day, and of course studies have been interrupted." John Muir

Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Best Nightmare

Last night around 2:30am, my little 3-year-old son Thomas had a nightmare. It was like what they call a "night terror;" he woke suddenly and began to shout. He shouted over and over, "Daddy! Daddy!" When I went to him, he settled back down into his bed right away, hugged his tiger and his brown bear, and slept peacefully through the rest of the night.

When I became a father, I knew I wouldn't be the best one ever, but I did want to better than my own. Of course, I don't want Tom to have nightmares, but that he called for his daddy means very, very much to me. I realized when I went back to bed from his room that I never, ever would have called for my dad when I was a child. I always would have wanted my mother. I lay in bed and felt my heart bursting that I am a comfort to this child, at least sometimes.

Friday, September 29, 2006

An invitation to join the enemy

I read "Creek Running North" and generally enjoy it very much.

Please read the latest there about the miserable state of our democracy.

In Support of the Real Ban

Here in Arizona, a state with a populist heritage, we have the opportunity to vote in many, many referenda. Sometimes, two referenda make the ballot that oppose each other. We Arizonan voters face such an instance this fall. Proposition 201 (funded by associations that work against smoking) will ban smoking in almost all public places. Proposition 206 (funded by Big Tobacco) will roll back existing bans in many progressive AZ municipalities. For more information, check out this very helpful website.

I hate smoking and am perfectly content to legislate it out of my life. It would be ok with me if smokers were allowed to smoke only in their own homes, and then only when children were not present. I will be voting for Prop. 201. I found out today that if both initiatives pass, the one with the highest number of votes will become law. Unfortunately, Prop. 206 is also presented as a "ban" of sorts. So, anti-smoking folks like me might vote for both of them, thus endangering the passage of Prop. 201. It's telling to me that R. J. Reynolds would support a fake ban. This seems like a move out of desperation. I can't wait until they go down.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Church as a Non-Profit

Recently, an Episcopal Church in Pasadena, CA, was in the news for refusing to answer a summons for documents from the Internal Revenue Service. It seems the former rector of the congregation had made an anti-war sermon some time in 2004. Now the IRS wants to see copies of all sermons, newsletters, etc. from the period to see if the church violated the part of the tax law that says churches and other non-profits may not speak for or against a specific candidate in an election.

The church has rightly responded that this is intrusive and intimidating. It is an attack against free speech. I buy that. And as the press has reported, this kind of thing is a two-way street. It affects (or ought to) those of us on the left as much as the mega-churches that preach the antigospel of capitalism and militarism. I've certainly not shied away from politics in the pulpit, and my congregation knows where I stand on particular candidates. This, of course, does not constitute an endorsement by the whole church.

But what I've been wondering in the wake of this story is: Should we have this kind of issue with the IRS at all? Why do we accept tax breaks that partially silence our witness? I've long enjoyed several pretty nice tax breaks as a clergy person, but I've also thought that the laws that approved these tax breaks for both me and for my congregation were passed in a different time, in a time when the separation of church and state was interpreted far differently from how it is today, in a time when our nation was more homogeneous than it is now. I'm definitely unsure that we should still have these kinds of tax perks.

I'm not saying that we should pay taxes like a for-profit corporation or business. We are not that. We don't make a profit and shouldn't be taxed like we do. But, if not paying certain taxes means silence from the pulpit, then maybe we need to pay. I am content to say that the Bush presidency has been a worldwide disaster founded not only in bad policy decisions but also in sin. It's the sin of hubris, of fallenness, of brokenness, of faithlessness, of supremacy, of exploitation, of willful ignorance. The church should denounce this kind of abuse of our collective humanity because that humanity is the body of Christ. And we have a message of hope and good news as well. We should share that, too.

There was a section from the gospel lection this morning that makes the point clear: "Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’" (Mark 9:33-37)

We should speak to our public policy and demand our leaders to show this kind of hospitality to the weak, to the powerless, to the poor. We must quit arguing with our guns and our blockades that we are the greatest. If saying this outloud means that the rich churches of America have to lose their tax status, then that's fine.

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Passion of el Cristo

As I've mentioned in previous posts, I serve a small Presbyterian congregation that includes several members who are new Mexican immigrants. We pray every Sunday that Christian hospitality be extended to people who have come here, with documents or not, to work to support their families. Just this last Sunday, a faithful attender from Chiapas recounted to me how he is a coffee farmer. But since NAFTA, his ability to farm had been wiped out by the lack of price controls on his crop and the intervention of foreign multinational corporations. Now he's here in Arizona in the Valley of the Sun doing day labor with his oldest son.

Here in Arizona, the situation is quite polarized among immigration supporters, the Minute Men, and those who find other human beings to be "illegal." Now, I realize that the issue is immensely complicated--unless, of course, you confront it from a Christian perspective. There is absolutely no warrant in our faith to exclude and exploit the foreigner in our midst. Indeed, the kingdom of God knows nothing of our boundaries.

This week, the Phoenix art weekly, the New Times, came out with a killer cartoon essay about what it would be like if Jesus returned as a Mexican undocumented immigrant. I encourage you to read it. Cameo appearances include our notorious sheriff, Joe Arpaio, and Senator Jon Kyl, who plays the part of Satan.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Quetzalcoatl and Whether or Not There Is Such a Thing as "Religion"

In the discipline of Religious Studies, there is a theoretical debate concerning the category of "religion" itself. Many people (starting with the great sociologist of religion Emile Durkheim) would say no, there is no a priori component of human existence that we could call religion. We may have behaviors, social structures, beliefs, etc. that fall into the human category of "religion," but these elements of our lives are not inherently religious. These types of arguments tend to focus on religion's social, cultural, political, economic, and semiotic functions. Religion is, then, an extremely complicated mechanism to propel important parts of human experience.

Others would disagree. They argue that there is, indeed, something specifically religious in the human. These types of arguments tend to fall into two categories: 1) those who are deeply religious, and find in their own religious experiences something that transcends other categories; and 2) those who make psychological arguments about religion, saying that religious behavior and institutions grow from a unique psychological place that crosses cultures, histories, and subjective experiences. This latter stance was made popular by Joseph Campbell on public television. He was a disciple of an important scholar named Mircea Eliade. Eliade identified what he considered to be common traits that were at the heart of the world's religions, especially evident in what he called "primitive" religions and cultures.

Now, I generally hold the conviction that there is not something inherently religious about the human. I find that, methodologically for the scholar, this is a more useful paradigm from which to study religion. If you're not caught up in trying to poke certain behaviors into a religious category, you can ask all kinds of analytical questions about meaning, value, social structure, etc. The problem with the other school that says that religion is sui generis is that once you "prove" that something fits the mold of what you find religion to be, there's not much more to say.

I recently read a book that most certainly fell into the "religion is something real" school. The author, Enrique Florescano, is a prominent Mexican intellectual and historian. The book, entitled The Myth of Quetzalcoatl, traces the fascinating threads of Mesoamerican religion that, in some way, all weave together around the central figure of Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent. Quetzalcoatl comes to represent creator gods, gods of the winds and air, death and rebirth, and a supposed axis mundi stretching from the nether regions to the heavens. He also gets tied up in indigenous understandings of the invading Spanish. In some accounts, the Nahuas of Tenochtitlan supposedly thought Cortes was Quetzalcoatl come from the east to rejoin them. These same accounts all proceed to point out that the indigenous people were quickly disabused of this notion when Cortes's men went on a killing rampage.

The book is mostly fascinating. Florescano's use of sources is masterful, and he lends creedence to the notion that Mesoamerican religion was by no means a fragmented mess of discrete practices but rather a worldview worthy of being considered a world religion (a discussion best kept for another blogpost). But he errs mightily in his final chapters when he compares the myths of Quetzalcoatls with other myths of the western world, specifically that of Isis and Osiris (Egypt) and Tiamat and Marduk (Babylonia). He insists that agricultural societies will all create similar myths, of which Quetzalcoatl is but one example. His explicit claim is that religion is a response to environmental questions the world over. And since many environments are similar, ergo many religions are similar. The problem with this argument is that it is only true until it is not. In other words, it has no way of explaining difference. It simply is not fruitful to try to find the similarities between two religions. The most you can discover, if you're lucky, is that there really is something called "religion" behind our actions. But then what? Florescano would have been far better served to describe in detail the many differences between the myth of Quetzalcoatl and other myths. Differences tell us something. They illumine the fractures between us, they show us different options for explaining similar phenomena, and they enrich our collective human experience.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Good-bye to Luis Gonzalez

Yesterday it was announced that the face of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Luis Gonzalez, will not be returning to the team next year. He gets about $10 million a year, and the management would prefer to split that money between some younger, promising players. On his side, Gonzalez wants to keep getting that kind of salary and be a daily player.

A lot of people grouse about money in sports, and they're all right. But I guess I'm resigned to it. What can Rev. Hendrickson say to change the situation. Besides, in this case, I can definitely understand the decision that was made.

However, I will miss Gonzo. I'm a pretty new fan of the D-Backs (only 2 1/2 years), but I'm dedicated. He's absolutely a blast to watch, he's extremely gracious, and he's got a pretty good set of life time stats. This year, it has been especially fun watching him hit double after double, inching his way up the list of players with the most career doubles (he's around 20th right now). He's not perfect--he often helps local Republicans with their campaigns, but he also gives a lot of his 10 mil every year to local charities. With most fans, we're sad to see him go, understand why he's going, and wish him well.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Too Funny Not to Put Here

I saw this the other night on the Daily Show. If you've seen the Geico ads, it's especially funny.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

My Mother

This is a picture of my mother holding me when I was younger than my two kids now. She died eleven years ago today of lung cancer.

Monday, September 11, 2006

My Uncle Arlo

My uncle Arlo Van Veldhuizen was a complicated man. He graduated valedictorian from his high school in rural Iowa but was excruciatingly shy. My grandfather Van Veldhuizen, Arlo's father, was an over-bearing man; this combined with Arlo's introversion and social awkwardness--along with a dose of bad decisions--kept Arlo on our family dairy farm for the rest of his life. He never married, had no close friends, and rarely traveled outside of Sioux county.

But I loved my uncle. He was witty and surprisingly well-read. He loved to tell stories of the old days when all the old Hollanders would gather together and help each other with their farms. He was nostalgic for the past in a way that was very appealing to me as a boy, though I was afraid of how bitter and angry he sometimes got if his memories turned to my grandfather, the Vietnam war, or the changes in farming culture in the area.

In 1987, the year of the government's dairy buy-out, my uncle made the national news. In order to curb milk surpluses, the government spent billions of dollars to buy out dairy farmers' herds. To make the deal with the government, farmers had to agree to destroy or export their entire herds, no exceptions. But my uncle had an old pet, a 15-year-old cow named "Old Mama." She hadn't given milk for years, but he never culled her because of his emotional attachment to her. I don't know how he did it, but somehow he got Old Mama exempted from the buy-out; she was the one and only pet cow saved from slaughter in the entire program. My sensitive and sad uncle found a way to save a decrepit cow from an early end. For this act, Arlo soon found himself in the national press including the New York Times, Time magazine, and a snarky piece in the New Republic. I lifted the following picture from the New York Times archive:

Arlo received thousands of letters from supporters--mostly animal lovers and other old farmers whose hearts had been hurt by sending away old cows. The other 26 cows in my uncle's herd of 27 were sent away, but Mama stayed on for a few more years until she had to be put down.

Arlo died in the fall of 2002, fifteen years after he saved Old Mama. My father called in the middle of the night and told me that Arlo had died alone in the farmhouse of a heart attack. He was not discovered for several days, not until a neighbor realized he had not seen him puttering around the yard. We prayed for him in church that Sunday, and then again on All Saints' Day, for his witness and for his memory.

This Wednesday, my mother will have been dead 11 years of lung cancer. I suppose that's why I started thinking about Arlo today; grief leads to grief. I wish he had been spared the indignity of dying alone.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Labor Day Worship and Creepy Liberal Prejudice

Last Sunday was the day before Labor Day, and so many people of faith of a sort of a liberal bent took advantage of the weekend's worship services to celebrate work and workers. There's an outfit called Interfaith Worker Justice that puts out worship materials every year around this time for Christians, Jews, and Muslims. This was my first year I knew about it and decided to participate.

My congregation is in Guadalupe, Arizona. It is small--approximately ten to twenty people on most Sundays with more Easter, Mother's Day, and the Sundays around Christmas (I'm only part-time). Over half of the town, and the congregation, are Yaqui Indians. The others are new immigrants from Mexico and Central America with a few white people thrown in, including me. If you are not familiar with Yaqui history, they are a tribe from northwestern Mexico that fairly recently settled in Arizona because of intense persecution under Porfirio Diaz, the dictator of Mexico from 1876 to 1911. Most of the Yaquis are bilingual in English and Spanish. Others in the congregation speak either one or the other of the two languages. Our worship service is conducted bilingually. Probably needless to say, everyone in the pews works hard. They have done and do manual jobs with few exceptions. They are janitors, construction workers, landscapers, homemakers, childcare workers, and work in other service related industries.

So, I thought going into the Labor Day service that this would be a great opportunity to celebrate all the hard work that they have done in service of their families and their community. But when I opened the Labor Day materials from IWJ and the Presbyterian Church (USA)--my denomination, they weren't right. Most of the prayers and liturgies were terribly clunky. When liberals get a hold of the liturgy, they mangle it with their words, words, words. Here's an example (warning: .pdf file). And the emphasis of the whole kit-and-caboodle was to remember the poor underclass that provides our every need that we so often forget or neglect. Surely I support remembering the people who put food on the table and clean the streets, and I most definitely support union efforts and important boycotts. But this kind of talk doesn't belong in a Labor Day service, at least not in Guadalupe. And here are the reasons:

  • The Guadalupe Presbyterians are the service workers. Yes, they consume services as well, and should be reminded to remember other workers. But the liturgies and prayers sent out were almost universally implying that white, upper middle class Presbyterians don't work--that's for other people! On Labor Day, we remember the hard REAL work that brown people do. The rest of the time, we don't need to trouble our pretty heads about it. And of course, no brown people might actually be saying these prayers with us, right?
  • This one's the doozy. There is absolutely no theology of work in simply remembering people who work for you. The sad thing about this is that we actually have a very compelling theology of work. Here it is: God the Creator invites us to be co-creators in our work. We are called to create alongside the Holy One as stewards, as craftspeople, as people who delight in all that was once called good. The work that the people of Guadalupe have done, though they are numerically few, has changed and enhanced God's creation in faithful and mysterious and tangible ways. Even in our work, God calls us to relationship. This is a theology that also includes the work that fussy, rich, Republican white Presbyterians do. They should pray for themselves and their own faithfulness in work.
Anyway, I didn't just blog about it. I called the local representative of IWJ and shared my concerns. She's bringing them to the national board this week. Hopefully we'll get something a little more Christian and little less bleeding heart next year. Sheesh! It's getting complicated to call yourself a liberal Christian these days. I feel like I'm being forced into a curmudgeonly orthodoxy well before my time by a bunch of touchy-feely leftwing Christians who have forgotten to fear the Lord.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

We've made three of the 22 recipes in the big freezer project.
1. Fish with cilantro and lime;
2. Crock pot beef with peppers;
3. Meatloaf.

The fish was definitely the best. After defrosting, I grilled it outside. I'm guessing that the marinade frozen with the meat doesn't actually function when the meat is frozen, but while the meat freezes and as it thaws, the marinade has a long time to penetrate the fish. Very tasty.

The crock pot beef would've been better if I'd used better meat in the first place, but this is a budget project. I haven't had much success with cooking meat in the crock pot--it always seems to get dry and stringy.

I hated meatloaf as a child. Grand dramas and traumas occurred in our household when meatloaf was served, and I devised various ways to dispose of the stuff without eating it. A few times I got away with stuffing my whole serving in my mouth, saying, "I hah to guh to duh bahoom," and then spitting the whole mess down the toilet. They got wise to that scheme pretty fast, though. After that, I settled for cutting the meatloaf into horsepill-sized chunks and then swallowing them whole with various glasses of milk and water. If I could control the gag reflex, this worked ok. So, I had promised myself long ago that I would never, ever make meatloaf as an adult. But now I've done it to stay true to the project. We ate it, too. To tell you the truth, it was just fine. Still not my favorite food, but I guess the weight of adult responsibilities has dulled my tastebuds. That, or everything tastes better when you can eat it with beer. I can't believe my parents never suggested that--they were pretty desperate to get me to eat meatloaf!

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Drug addiction

I'm the pastor of a small Presbyterian church in a very economically depressed area of metro Phoenix. Two members of the church who I love very much have a middle-aged son who has been a heroin addict for over twenty years. He's a sweet man when he's not high or drunk, though his personality is hard to make out given the years of abuse he's done to himself.

Since I've been the pastor in this church, this man has been in and out of jail several times, he has had his head bashed in with a blunt object and spent time in a coma, and most recently, he has been suffering paralysis and seizures. Through it all, he has maintained his habit. I've visited him in the hospital, thought often that he was going to die, and prayed and prayed and prayed for him and his family. His most recent bout of seizures, according to his doctors, is probably going to end things for him. He will take the drug, have a seizure, and then he will die.

His parents are beautiful and complicated people with several other successful adult children. His mother today told me that she wished she could commit her son to keep him from killing himself. But there is no where for poor people to go. It costs thousands of dollars a week for a residential dry-out program. Jail is a lot cheaper, but hardly a good alternative. This man, who is lot like a boy, is going to die soon from drug abuse, from poverty, from racism, and from really stupid choices. His mother's grief and fortitude break my heart, and she is an example to me of how strong and constant a parent can be.

On a personal level, I have at least two profound fears. I look at my sweet babies and know that I'm hardly a better parent than my parishioners. I fear for what may happen to them, what choices they may some day make. The second has to do with my best friend in college. For various reasons of her own, she always entertained an unhealthy fascination with heroin, though she never used the drug when I knew her. She and I kept in pretty good touch for several years after I moved away from her. Then, a few years ago, I quit hearing from her. She didn't return my calls and letters. I worry often that she began to use heroin and is gone from me now. I hope so much that it's something else--that she just got angry with me, or disillusioned with our friendship.

On a professional level, I have prayed every Sunday for two and a half years for this man's deliverance from his addiction. I have prayed for him as an ill man, as a victim, as a person responsible for his own problems, and nothing has changed. In fact, he has gotten worse and worse. Perhaps the only positive is that I love his parents more and more every time I pray. But that is not enough. I get up in front of the congregation with my alb and stole on, with my prayerbooks, with the Bible, with my formation, with my arms spread, and my strange liturgical acts. I pray for the man, I want him to stop this, stop killing himself, and stop destroying his mother and father. Lately, I feel more sure than ever that I will pray for him at his funeral. I'll tell whoever asks that I'm not a good pastor, and this is the reason: I'm not sure that the joy of the gospel is greater than the crushing grief of this addiction.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

The freezer is full

Yesterday I wrote about our family food activity in which we bought tons of food to pack it away in the freezer in little pre-made meal packs. We're following an online meal service. This service claims that once you have all your ingredients together, it should take you approximately TWO hours to do all the prep work and get the food up in the deepfreeze. Now, I'm no slow-poke in the kitchen; I mean, this isn't my first rodeo. But it took me FIVE straight hours of constant chopping, processing, stuffing, packing, etc. to get all twenty-two recipes ready.

In any case, hopefully the time spent in the kitchen today will be worth it as we enjoy lovely meals around the dinner table en familia. In coming posts, I'll let you know how the food actually tastes. For your review, I include below a photograph of our freezer. The upper shelf is now stuffed with meal packs. Please note on the lower left the giant box of dinochicken.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Our mega-menu project

Alex discovered an online recipe service for harried working parents like us. For 9 bucks you can download this big packet of information that includes 22 recipes. For each of them, you do most of the work ahead of time and put everything in the freezer until you're ready to eat it. Included is this great big shopping list divided into categories. I've been looking through the recipes, and it seems like the basic steps are defrost the packet, cook it, add a couple of side dishes (they suggest which ones).

So tonight after supper we packed up the kids and headed to the supermarket to buy all the ingredients for our 22 meals. They have these carts now that are like race cars. Both of the children cram into the cab of the race car and fight their way through the store with a brief pit stop in the shouting when we get to the bakery, where they may each have one cookie. We bought everything on the list, except for the lamb shanks, which our store didn't have--not surprising since their meat section is subpar. It all came to $170. So with the side dishes and libations, it'll probably be around $10 a meal with leftovers for the next day's lunch.

Sometimes I wish I had the kind of life where after I eat my breakfast in the morning, I then browse my cookbooks to find what I plan to make for dinner. Then I spend a good part of the rest of the day strolling through specialty shops and small markets to get the ingredients and the perfect wine. I cook everything slowly and serenely in the late afternoon, and then we dine to light music and fascinating conversation. Instead, we eat dinochicken (see previous post). I think this frozen meals thing will improve our eats around here while keeping us sane.