‘Our Ugly Failure to Evolve’ — On the Mystery of the Incarnation, after Newtown

160229699212188623“On the Mystery of the Incarnation”

It’s when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart:
not to a flower, not to a dolphin,
to no innocent form
but to this creature vainly sure
it and no other is god-like, God
(out of compassion for our ugly
failure to evolve) entrusts,
as guest, as brother,
the Word.

Denise Levertov (h/t Andrew Foster Connors)

Image source

Friday Link Love: Tickling, Ambition, Funky Geometry, and More

Away we go!


Mrs. Melissa Christ — New Yorker

I tweeted and FBed this but if you missed it:

Then Jesus came over and introduced himself and we chitchatted about everything, from keeping the Sabbath to how we both felt really sorry for the lame. Then I asked Jesus about his family, and he said, “My father is a carpenter,” and I could feel myself getting all flushed as I immediately thought, Hello, new coffee table.


I Giggle, Therefore I Am — Slate

How tickling helps us know we exist:

“When you look at the evolution of the development of tickle, you’re also looking at the evolution of the development of self,” he says.  What’s at work in tickling, he argues, is the neurological basis for the separation of self from other. After all, as Provine noted so indelicately, you can’t tickle yourself. Your body knows that you are you; you can’t fool it. “Otherwise you’d go through life in a giant chain reaction of goosiness,” Provine says. “You’d be afraid of your own clothing if you could never distinguish between touching and being touched.”

When a baby senses a foreign hand lightly brushing his bare feet, he’s experiencing something that is recognizably other—which means that there’s something that isn’t other, too: There’s himself.

So if you don’t like being tickled, does that mean you aren’t self-differentiated or something?


What God Can Do — Rachel Hackenburg

A friend and I talk a lot about ambition—how does this work in a Christian context which emphasizes virtues of cooperation and humility? Pride is one of the deadlies, eh? Rachel provides some good fodder as well as some blunt honesty:

I want to be great. I want to be great at everything I do, and I give myself a hard time for not being brilliantly excellent 100% of the time — as a pastor, a preacher, a mother, a writer. I long to be stellar … and not just to be stellar, but to be known for being stellar. It’s entirely vain of me, and I want to repent of it as soon as I see it glaring in front of me. But the desire always returns. I’ll see news on Facebook about a clergy colleague’s invitation to the White House, or about another mother who is teaching her children how to cook five-star meals after they finish their homework each day, or about a writer friend who’s on his fifth book … and the demon wells up again: “I want to be great too! I want people to see that I’m great.”


Neil Gaiman’s 8 Rules of Writing — 99U

Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.


Meet the Hexaflexagon — io9

And it will indeed blow your mind:

First discovered in the 1930s by a daydreaming student named Arthur H. Stone, flexagons have attracted the curiosity of great scientists for decades, including Stone’s friend and colleague Richard Feynman. Here, the ever-capable Hart introduces the folding, pinching, rotating, multifaceted geometric oddity with her signature brand of rapid-fire wit and exposition. She even shows you how to make your own.


Eternal Clock Could Keep Time after Universe Dies — Scientific American

I can’t speak to the science of this, but the idea of such a clock makes me feel all fizzy inside.

The idea for an eternal clock that would continue to keep time even after the universe ceased to exist has intrigued physicists. However, no one has figured out how one might be built, until now.

Researchers have now proposed an experimental design for a “space-time crystal” that would be able to keep time forever. This four-dimensional crystal would be similar to conventional 3D crystals, which are structures, like snowflakes and diamonds, whose atoms are arranged in repeating patterns. Whereas a diamond has a periodic structure in three dimensions, the space-time crystal would be periodic in time as well as space.

Too bad Madeleine L’Engle is no longer with us.


Hacking Habits: How to Make New Behaviors Last for Good — 99U

Seems very sound to me:

Habits consist of a simple, but extremely powerful, three-step loop. Here’s Duhigg:

First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is areward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop… becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges.

The first rule of habit-changing is that you have to play by the rules. That is, there’s no escaping the three-step loop (e.g. cue, routine, reward) because it’s hard-wired into our brains.


I will be off the next week. (Gasp!) I’m spending the weekend with friends, then attending the Presbyterian CREDO Conference at Mo-Ranch. I am very psyched to be there, having heard universally positive things about this gathering. I also have many dear friends who will be there too.

If I blog, they will be photo-blogs, which I sometimes do as a spiritual discipline when I’m away on retreat, to get myself beyond the words that so often fill my days.

Or I may not feel guided towards that at all. We will see.

Friday Link Love: Mrs. Jesus, Mandatory Sandwiches, and a Wee Bit of Death

Let me first dispense with the Links of Self Promo:

New Website // Order the Book // Sign up for the Goodreads Giveaway

OK. Now that that’s done…


Interactive Cloud of 6,000 Light Bulbs — O.C.L.

That’s Obligatory Colossal Link:



Small Good Things — Paris Review

A lovely little essay about how writers illuminate the sacramental nature of ordinary things, particularly food.

The author talks about Raymond Carver’s story “A Small Good Thing,” which you may recall is about a couple who lose their 8 year old son, and they are tormented by the phone calls from a hapless baker who is demanding payment for the birthday cake he made for the boy.

I performed that piece for Prose Interp competitions in high school. I read it now and cringe to think of my performance. What did I know at 18 about the heartbreak within that story? Nothing. I knew nothing.


Famous Writers on Death and Mortality — Flavorwire

I’ll say it—Christopher Hitchens was a pretentious old crank—but I cannot wait to read his book Mortality. In honor of its publication, here are 20 writers on the last great mystery:

“We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves.

I wish for all this to be marked on by body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography — to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience.” – Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

By the way, if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend Sum: 40 Tales of the Afterlives by David Eagleman. So, so imaginative and poignant.


How the President Gets Things Done — 99U

I really like 99U. Lots of cool ideas there. Here are some things that Barack Obama does to make his life easier and more efficient, including offloading trivial decisions like what to eat and wear.

#5 warmed my Sabbath-loving heart:

5. Your personal time is sacred.

The president has three moments in his schedule that are unquestionably his: the morning workout, his dinner with his daughters, and the nighttime after his family falls asleep. Each block of time serves a different role for Obama: the gym keeps his body in good health, the late night helps him catch up on work, and the dinner is especially sacred time, with the added benefit of giving the president a bit of perspective outside his hectic workday.


Historian Says Piece of Papyrus Refers to Jesus’ Wife — NYT

This has been making the rounds. This scrap of papyrus suggests that Jesus might have had a wife—it would not have been unusual at the time, folks—and  that there were female disciples (not earth-shattering to anyone who’s actually read the gospels—sisters are all over that good news!). Here’s the pertinent bit:

“This fragment suggests that some early Christians had a tradition that Jesus was married,” Dr. King said. “There was, we already know, a controversy in the second century over whether Jesus was married, caught up with a debate about whether Christians should marry and have sex.”

People have been wondering and arguing about this guy for a very, very long time. Disagreement over contested truths are nothing new. Giddy-up and praise be.


Should Lunch Breaks Be Mandatory? — BBC

I’m not sure how I feel about mandating lunch breaks. Especially for people with a long commute and/or kids at home, there’s something to be said for compressing the workday so they can get home at a decent hour. Still:

One obvious reason to do lunch is to slow down and gain some perspective. If we burrow into work, and don’t come up for air during the day, we will have a hard time thinking strategically or putting our daily tasks into broader context.

By taking a lunch break, we can think outside the box. In the interviews I conducted for my book, I was struck by how many senior leaders stressed the importance of strategic “downtime” – lunch or some other block of an hour or more per day – to break up their thinking and spur them to be more strategic.


What Americans Actually Do All Weekend, in 2 Graphs — NPR

What do you see in this graph? I see:

  1. A lot of sleep.
  2. Religious activities are only 37 minutes… and yet many worship services last an hour. So what’s up with the other 23 minutes? Oh right: sleeping.

Well, whatever the weekend holds for you, I hope that the leisure bit is a nice big piece of the graph.

I Am Iron Man

MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
July 8, 2012
Parables and Pop Culture: Comic Book Superheroes
Mark 6:1-13

I Am Iron Man

Jesus left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief. Then he went about among the villages teaching.

He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

*          *          *

Can anyone name the source of the quote on the cover of the bulletin?

Live as one of them… to discover where your strength and your power are needed. Always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage. They can be a great people, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you… my only son.

Yes, that’s from the 1977 movie, Superman, with Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel. But if it reminded you of another unique son with awesome powers, who was sent from the heavens to be a light to the people, well, that’s no accident.

When I first got the idea for this sermon series, I knew I wanted to talk about the allure of the superhero, but that’s not my area of expertise. But I have a lot of friends who read comic books, so I asked them what they thought these about the faith/spiritual lessons that come out of comic books, especially superheroes.

I received reams of information and articles, more than could be discussed today. Several friends excitedly pointed out the similarities between Superman and Jesus, as we’ve seen… but also with Moses. Moses, you recall, is put into a basket as a baby to escape destruction, only to be found by someone who raises him as her own. He grows up to be a great and mighty leader. Replace “basket” with “spaceship” and “Pharaoh’s daughter” with “Jonathan and Martha Kent” and you can see the connection.

We could have a whole series on these matters, but it’s beyond my ability and probably beyond your interest, though I understand that there are some superhero superfans in our midst.

Superheroes are a cultural mainstay, and not just among the comic book geeks I have as friends. This summer we have the usual bumper crop of comic book blockbuster movies, including The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man. Even superheroes who’ve already made it to the big screen come back for more. Michael Keaton’s Batman of the late ’80s was good enough for me, but now we have a reboot of Batman with the Dark Knight series, which wraps up in just a few days with the final movie in the trilogy.

Often these new movies have a focus on the superhero’s origin story. How did the superhero become the superhero? Who were they before luck or providence intervened, before a radioactive spider plucked them from mediocrity and made them who they are? I remember the first time I saw one of these reboots, thinking that an origin story is redundant. We know the story of Superman, or Spider Man. Does it really need a new spin? Why rehash it?

And yet… that’s a compelling part of the story, isn’t it—this matter of identity. Who is this guy? (or gal) we want to know. It’s fun to watch the hero become the hunted as people search for clues, try to figure out, who is Superman? Even if the superhero doesn’t have a secret identity, we are still fascinated by the inner struggle, this intersection between extraordinary power and flawed humanity. Spider-Man slings webs, but is also a typical teenager; Batman is a vigilante with a cool car, but is also the devasted little boy whose parents were killed right in front of him. We like to see the struggle: How did they get to be who they are? Are they going to put on the power that they have been given? Are they going to fulfill their destiny, be who they were created to be?

One of the iconic “identity” scenes in recent comic-book film lore is in the story of Iron Man. Tony Stark has just wreaked havoc and saved the day in his specially made suit, and as we will see, the press is trying to get to the bottom of what has happened. The press has dubbed the armored hero “Iron Man”. Tony Stark has a cover story he is supposed to use… let’s take a look:

You see the conflict, the attempt to be coy. I’m a flawed person, I can’t possibly be a superhero… and then he gives up the pretense, and says, this is who I am.

In the gospel of Mark we have the origin story for Jesus. Over and over again people see Jesus as he is and call him various names: the Son of the Most High God. A prophet. A healer. In two chapters he will ask his followers: Who do people say that I am? Who do YOU say that I am? Peter says, you are the Messiah, and Jesus warns them as he does repeatedly in Mark: “Don’t tell anyone. Nobody is to know who I am. The time is not yet right.” It’s not altogether clear what Jesus is up to in Mark, but one thing is clear: there are issues with secrecy and identity, all throughout the gospel.

In today’s story, he’s just a hometown boy, and the kinfolk don’t know what to do with him. It’s easy to see why: he’s not exactly acting like your typical carpenter from Nazareth. He’s already blown off his family: his family comes calling for him earlier in Mark, and he says,  ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?… Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’

Given that comment, it’s not surprising that Jesus would be the least popular guy at the high school reunion. He seems to expect the rejection—and the rejection is great; Luke’s version of this story has the hometown folk trying to throw him off a cliff. Jesus is able to heal a few people, but his powers seem lessened in his hometown. Maybe it’s like the way many of us feel: capable adults until we go home to be with parents and aunts and uncles and people who changed our diapers, and we feel 8 years old again. I don’t know what’s going on there, but for whatever reason, Jesus is vulnerable around the people who know him best. He has found his Kryptonite.

*          *          *

Professor Andy Root at Luther Seminary in Minnesota has suggested that the driving question for young adults today is who am I? It’s the question of identity.

These young adults are the very people the church is losing, incidentally. Which is also the same demographic that reads comic books and goes to see the Dark Knight movies. If we cannot give them the language and tools to help them grapple with the identity question, they will find other myths and means to do so.

Sometimes that works out well. Meet 4 year old Anthony Smith, a huge comic book fan and a boy with a hearing impairment:

He has a hearing aid but woke up one morning and told his mother that he would not wear it because there were no superheroes with hearing aids. In desperation, his mother wrote to the Marvel folks asking whether there was ever a superhero with a hearing aid.

In a stroke of genius, the illustrators at Marvel invented a brand-new hero inspired by Anthony:

This is Blue Ear, who can hear people in trouble with his listening device. They sent the illustration to little Anthony, and he has worn his hearing aid ever since.

The Spirit moves in mysterious ways. [source]

*          *          *

Who are we? The good news for us as followers of Jesus is that our sacred story, the scriptural story, is all about matters of identity: who God is, who we are, who we’ve been and who we’re called to be in the future. What do we live for? What do we fight for? What is our moral code?

These are all identity questions.

And as followers of Jesus, we do not understand ourselves—our identity—apart from God. No less than John Calvin, one of the fathers of the Reformation, said as much: without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God. Those are not the same, but there are many ties between them. Knowledge of self inevitably leads us into a deeper knowledge of the One who made us.

Jesus assures his followers of who they are and what they are to be about. You will have authority to heal and teach! You will do mighty deeds! You will be about the things that I am about!

But for followers of Jesus, there are no capes—one tunic, not two. No utility belts—not even bread for the journey. No invisible plane like Wonder Woman, just a pair of sandals.

You will travel light, Jesus says.
You will not stay anyplace too long.
It can be a lonely life.
You will be misunderstood.
You live by different rules than the rest of the world.
Doing the right thing will cost you something… but it won’t cost you your soul. Your integrity. Your identity.
Whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.

Jesus also maks clear, we go about this work two by two – our story is a buddy movie. We are not Batman, working alone. We are the Legion of Justice.

Speaking of Batman, you may be familiar with this guy:

This is the “Route 29 Batman.” This Montgomery County Batman gained some notoriety some months ago when he was pulled over by the police for no license plate. (The plates were in the car.) Turns out Batman’s alter ego is a businessman named Lenny Robinson. Like many superheroes, his origin story is complicated—he has had his own troubles in the past—but now he visits hospitals as Batman and provides encouragement to children who are battling life-threatening illnesses such as cancer. [source]

This may seem very grand. Who wouldn’t love to be a superhero, right? Drive a Lamborghini. Make kids happy. But it’s actually pretty hard work—he loses 5-6 pounds of water weight every time he dons the 35 pound costume. He signs every autograph, takes every picture that is requested, spends his own many on Batman bracelets and gifts to handout.

It’s also modest work. It takes an emotional toll to see so many sick kids. He has to leave the hospital each day knowing that not even Batman can fix what is wrong.

One day as Batman drove away, a little boy cried. “I want to go help him fight the bad guys,” he said. His mom said, “You need to go help your sister fight cancer.”

We’re not going to save Gotham City. Jesus promises us deeds of power, sure, but our call is rather modest: to love one another as best we can. To see the face of Christ in one another. To fight back against the darkness with every ounce of strength we have.

No superpowers. Just our own flawed humanity.

Because that’s our identity. That’s who we are.

Photoblogging Collegeville: Art

Our time is unstructured here—write in the morning, write in the afternoon, break for meals—but each evening we’ve gathered as a group in a different location here at Saint John’s University. This piece was on the wall in the room where we met last night. I love it because it’s crucifix and empty tomb at the same time.

Lamb: Book Review

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore

I’m not sure how it happens, but several times in recent years I’ve found myself experiencing a fictionalized account of Jesus’ life during late winter and/or the season of Lent. One year our church youth group presented “Godspell” and I spent several weeks listening to the soundtrack nonstop whenever I was in the car. Another year Robert had a conference in Snowbird, Utah and I tagged along with The Last Temptation of Christ tucked into my suitcase. I remember reading it in the lobby of our hotel, next to a plate-glass window with several feet of snow piled against it. By the way, The Last Temptation of Christ is an incredible book that had a profound impact on my faith, and deepened my love for Jesus. (There, I said it.)

This year it’s Lamb, a book that’s almost 10 years old but I’m just now getting to. I actually recommended this book before even reading it myself; a friend was looking for novelized accounts of Jesus for a Sunday School class he was teaching. OK, this book would SO not fit the bill for that audience—way too ribald for that—but (and?) I enjoyed it immensely. It is completely irreverent, yet done with such gentleness and even reverence. And irreverent reverence is one of my favorite things.

In Moore’s book, Biff is reanimated in the present day by a ditzy angel named Raziel, who commands Biff to write his own gospel account of the life of Jesus (called Joshua in this book). Since Biff’s the Messiah’s best friend from childhood, he’s able to fill in the story from birth to age thirty-ish, when Joshua begins his public ministry.

This story is ludicrously implausible, but then, the source material isn’t exactly pedestrian, eh? Jesus spends his adolescence and young adulthood tracking down the three magi who visited him at his birth. He finds them living in Kabul, China and India, where they mentor him in everything from kung fu to Confucianism, Buddhism to the Bhagavad Gita. I was reminded of the old Ray Wylie Hubbard lyric, “Buddha wasn’t a Christian but Jesus would’ve made a good Buddhist.”

Through it all, Biff remains by Joshua’s side, and I found myself hoping that Jesus really had such a steadfast and loyal friend, someone who wouldn’t let him get a swelled head, someone with whom he could laugh and express his doubts and fears.

The book is frequently profound. One musing on prayer by Biff:

Before you think I was a little rough on God, there’s another thing you need to know about my people. Our relationship with God was different from other people and their Gods. Sure, there was fear and sacrifice and all, but essentially, we didn’t go to him, he came to us. He told us we were the chosen, he told us he would help us to multiply to the ends of the earth, he told us he would give us a land of milk and honey… Since he came to us, we figure we can hold him responsible for what he does and what happens to us… We have that kind of relationship with God. We’re family.

Anyone who’s read the Psalms knows that Biff is right on. And the end of the book is quite touching.

The book is also laugh-out-loud hilarious, especially near the end, when the events of the book mirror those of the gospels, but with The Funny added. (Actually the gospels have a lot of humor too.) It’s painful not to quote liberally from the book, but I will refrain. One favorite bit is when Joshua heals two blind men, who are thoroughly underwhelmed at the desert landscape.

“What’s that color called?”


“And that one?”

“Also brown.”

“You’re sure it’s not taupe?”

Later they argue over the pallor of the resuscitated Lazarus. “See? Olive! I told you he wasn’t chartreuse!”

Frederich Buechner once wrote that the disciples were forever missing the point, jockeying for position—they’re kind of a sad bunch of bumblers. Moore nails this in his characterization, but what they lack in intelligence they more than make up for in loyalty and pluck.

It’s no exaggeration to say that this book was painstakingly (I’d even say lovingly) researched. Don’t count on it to provide completely accurate historical background; the anachronisms are numerous. But after reading this book, I might finally be able to keep the Sadducees, Pharisees and Essenes straight, something I have not been able to do with three years of seminary and a few decades of reading the Bible under my belt.

And the image of Jesus teaching a little girl to give the Pharisees the finger using the withered hand he just healed is one I won’t soon forget.