The Best Nightmare

September 30, 2006

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.

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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

September 29, 2006


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.

The Church as a Non-Profit

September 24, 2006

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.

The Passion of el Cristo

September 18, 2006


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.

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.

Good-bye to Luis Gonzalez

September 15, 2006

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.