Things are winding down here. Monday we move to the farm.

So last night Heather and I watched some episodes of an old TV favorite of mine, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A good introduction:

Another great scene is when Buffy learns there is a prophecy of her death, in "Prophecy Girl"

She was also chosen "Theologian of the Year" in 2002 by The Door magazine! The article is no longer available on their site, so here it is:

The Door Theologian of the Year

by Skippy R.
Issue #183, Sept./Oct. 2002

Perilous times call for bold theology.

Let's face it. Evil is running rampant. Terrorists strike without warning. Corporate executives defraud the public and their own employees. Politicians tear apart the fabric of national unity for their own agendas. Popular culture has become a banal river of unadulterated trash, a "hellmouth" slowly dumbing down our sense of reality. The people are paralyzed by indecision, ennui or terminal cynicism.

Meanwhile, the ozone layer is perforated, glaciers are melting, and crazies set wildfires that denude the landscape. While Generation X passes the baton to Generation Y, adolescence is still hell, AND THERE'S ONLY ONE LETTER LEFT!

We need someone who can not only deconstruct the problem of evil, but kick it's hiney; someone with a preternatural sense of comic timing and an eye for fashion.

We need Buffy.

Hidden among the stupid sitcoms, copycat dramas and reality shows of broadcast TV, Buffy the Vampire Slayer has been acting out a modern-day morality play for seven seasons, delivering what a growing number of critics say is the edgiest show on television, dealing with topics like evil, redemption, resurrection, sex, guilt, existential angst, selflessness and sacrifice, religion and the occult, often all before the first commercial break.

Joss Whedon, the screenwriter of Toy Story and Speed, created Buffy in the 1992 movie of the same name. When the TV series began in 1997, he was free to expand of the basic story: An ancient prophecy foretells, "In every generation there is a chosen one. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons and the forces of darkness. She is the slayer."

Buffy, a high school student (now in college) in Sunnydale, Calif., discovers that she's the vampire slayer, and that her town sits on a "hellmouth" where demons are constantly trying to make an opening to escape from perdition. They take over human bodies, turning them into vampires. The cast of characters includes Giles, Buffy's Watcher, a walking encyclopedia of the occult who works for the Council, the shadowy group that oversees the slayers; her friends, the Scooby Gang, a reference to Scooby Doo, Where Are You?, Hanna Barbera's mystery cartoon that originally aired from 1969-1972 whose characters chased monsters every week; and a shifting gang of human and undead friends and enemies who alternately help and hinder her mission.

A Hellmouth Hermeneutic

OK, sure. Buffy has been criticized by some religious reviewers for its emphasis on the occult, violence and sex. But consider these points:
— Star Sarah Michelle Geller did homework for her role by reading the whole Bible through in 1999.
— Two actors in the series have become Christians on the set.
— A spinoff show, Angel, about a vampire who receives a soul and struggles with guilt and redemption, was hailed by Chuck Colson's Breakpoint review as a "flower" in TV's wasteland.
— Ms. Geller (no relation to spoon-bender Uri Geller.... we hope) told Entertainment Weekly, in response to questions about the show's controversial content: "We're like the most religious show out there! We're more religious than 7th Heaven!"

Of course, her personal religion isn't exactly orthodox. "I believe in an idea of God," she told a Scottish newspaper. "although it's my own personal ideal. I find most religions interesting ...I've taken bits from everything and customized it."

But Geller's spiritual walk doesn't reflect the theology of Buffy, the TV show. That seems to be generated by Whedon's vision, and perhaps the supernatural "powers that be" that stand-in for God in Buffy's fictional universe.

Don't get me wrong. This show is not Touched by an Angel. But neither is it From Dusk Till Dawn, the gruesome vampire-wasting bloodfest film produced by Quenton Tarantino a few years back. When vampires in Buffy are dispatched with a wooden stake or crossbow, they disappear in a puff of dust. The complicated folklore of traditional vampire tales has been reduced to a caricature, or more to the point (so to speak) ... a parable.

Then there's all that teen angst. Between patrolling for demons and taking down outlandish monsters, Buffy worries about her math test and what she'll wear to the prom. Verbal put-downs always accompany an altercation with a vampire. There is a whole lexicon of coolness that permeates the show, much of it made up by Whedon. The surface attitude-somewhere between ironic and naive- is summed up by Buffy in the first season: "If the apocalypse comes, beep me."

In another episode, she faces off with a vampire, who asks: "Uh, are we gonna fight, or is there just gonna be a monster sarcasm rally?"

But it's the show's handling of moral and religious themes that keeps viewers thinking long after the credits roll each week. Dozens of websites carry essays and papers on the philosophical, religious and moral questions raised on Buffy. Two books have been published this year analyzing the show: Reading The Vampire Slayer, edited by Roz Kaveney, and Fighting the Forces: What's at stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, edited by Rhonda Wilcox and David Lavery.

And there's some heated debate concerning the role Christianity plays in the series. Religious references permeate the scripts.

Sacramental Sarcasm

The program is filled with references to the cross. The symbol is prominent in the show's opening, and Buffy wears a cross as a symbol of her role as a slayer. Vampires recoil when it is displayed, for the most part, although in one episode, a vampire says "Oh, whatever" and just walks away.

The crucifixion is treated as a real event. When Spike, a leading-role vampire, first arrives, we hear a vampire saying, "This weekend, the night of St. Vigeous, our power will be at its peak. When I kill her, it'll be the greatest event since the crucifixion. And I should know. I was there." Spike answers, "You were there? Oh, please! If every vampire who said he was at the crucifixion was actually there, it would have been like Woodstock. I was actually at Woodstock. That was a weird gig. I fed off a flower person, and I spent the next six hours watching my hand move."

The Buffy cosmology includes what sounds like a very literal hell. In season two's finale The Becoming, the universe is threatened by an ancient demon who has been turned into stone. If he revives, the world will end.

Willow: "Okay, somebody explain the whole 'he will suck the world into hell' thing, because that's the part I'm not loving."

Giles: "Well, the, uh, (puts on his glasses) the demon universe exists in a dimension separate from our own. (sits on the table) With one breath, Acathla will create a vortex, a-a kind of, um... whirlpool that will pull everything on Earth into that dimension, where any non-demon life will suffer horrible and... eternal torment."

Buffy: "So that would be the literal kind of 'sucked into hell'. (smiles nervously) Neat."

Later Willow says to Buffy: "This means I can't help you study for tomorrow's final."

Buffy: "Ah, I'll wing it. Of course, if we go to hell by then, I won't have to take 'em. (worried) Or maybe I'll be taking them forever."

The show pokes fun at religious institutions of every stripe. In season two's What's My Line episode, Giles and Buffy sneak into a cemetery at night and enter a mausoleum...

Giles: "It's a reliquary. Used to house items of religious significance. Most commonly a finger or some other body part from a saint."

Buffy: "Note to self: religion freaky."

She leans against the wall as Giles scans around the rest of the room with the flashlight. He spots a name engraved on a stone high above.

Giles: "Du Lac. Oh dear, oh dear."

Buffy: "I hate when you say that."

Giles: "Josephus du Lac was buried here. He belonged to a religious sect that was excommunicated by the Vatican at the turn of the century."

Buffy: "Excommunicated and sent to Sunnydale. There's a guy big with the sinning."

Giles: "You remember the book that was stolen from the library by a vampire a few weeks ago?"

Buffy: "Yeah."

Giles: "It was written by Du Lac. Damn it! I let it slip my mind with all the excitement."

Buffy: "I'm guessing it wasn't a Taste of the Vatican cookbook."

Episodic Exegesis

Many episodes are concerned about the consequences of breaking or overstepping moral codes. In the second season's Reptile Boy episode, Buffy-getting burned out by her role as slayer- and her friend Cordelia sneak off to a party at the Delta Zeta Kappa fraternity house, whose "pledges" happen to pledge allegiance to a giant snake-shaped demon. After a battle, when everyone is safe again, Giles isn't happy with Buffy.

Giles puts his fists on his hips and gives Buffy a stern look. She looks down in shame.

Buffy: " I told one lie, I had one drink. "

Giles: " Yes, and you were very nearly devoured by a giant demon snake. The words 'let that be a lesson' are a tad redundant at this juncture."

The story of the origin of Buffy's world has been seen as a denial of the traditional biblical narrative in Genesis.

In one program, Giles explains: "This world is older than any of you know, and contrary to popular mythology, it did not begin in a paradise. For untold eons, demons walked the earth, made it their home, their hell. In time, they lost their purchase on this reality, and the way was made for mortal animals. For man. What remains of the Old Ones are vestiges: certain magicks, certain creatures..."

In fact, this tale is pretty close to the Fundamentalist Scofield Reference Bible exegesis explaining, from passages in Ezekial 28 and Isaiah 13, that Lucifer walked on earth as his rightful domain before Adam and Eve were created. Yikes! Is Whedon actually a Fundamentalist?

Gregory Erikson, in his essay in Fighting the Forces called Sometimes you Need a Story: American Christianity, Vampires and Buffy, maintains that Buffy and the Scooby Gang reflect the postmodern American attitude toward religion that falls between faith and disbelief. Breakpoint columnist Roberto Rivera agrees, saying Whedon's characters acknowledge that there are "consequences" to their actions, but never draw a clear-cut moral line to say why.

As an example of this postmodern view, Erikson points to a scene in the fourth season called Who Are You?, in which vampires take over a church and hold the congregation hostage.

Vampire: "It's hard to believe. I've been avoiding this place for so many years, and it's nothing. It's nice! It's got the pretty windows, The pillars... lots of folks to eat. Where's the thing I was so afraid of? You know, the Lord?"

But the rest of the scene, which Erikson leaves out, answers the vampire's question.

The vampire says, "He (the Lord) was supposed to be here. He gave us this address. Well, we'll just have to start killing off His people, see if He shows up."

Buffy arrives, enters the church and closes the door.

Vampire: "I told the cops, they send any one in, I start the whole massacre thing."

Buffy: "Well, I'm not the cops. I just come to pray."

Vampire: "Now's a good time to start."

Buffy: "You're not gonna kill these people."

Vampire: "Why not?"

Buffy: "Because it's wrong"

(Multiple vampire-dusting ensues).

So in effect, the Lord does show up in the form of the Chosen One, the Vampire Slayer.

Transyvanian Transfiguration

The questioning and searching for identity that drives many of the characters doesn't mean they've given up on finding a meaning to life. It means they're open to finding one. The transformation of Angel illustrates this best.

Angel is a studly vampire who early in his 240-year long career was affected by a Gypsy curse that gave him a soul and a conscience. Now his irresistible vampire desires for blood are countered by the anguish of guilt for his crimes. He is constantly being faced with how to atone for his deeds, a quest for redemption.

In short, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a parable, a postmodern morality play in which Buffy is a Christ figure, her Scooby Gang is the church and the vampires and demons represent the variety of temptation and moral hazards we all encounter in life. (In the throes of their blood lust, the special effects make the vampires develop features to emphasize they are "brute beasts"). How the characters respond in these trials determines their destiny. And in the Buffyverse, self-sacrifice is the only act that can bring salvation.

So, despite the characters' put-downs, wisecracks, sexual innuendos and apparent detachment, the long-term character development on the show tells a remarkable story of the power of giving.

The show severely critiques the cliches and assumptions of modern American Christianity:

Conservative Girl: "Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior?"

Buffy: "Uh, you know I meant to, and then I just got really busy."

But week after week it illustrates humanity's attempt to be whole, our struggle with alienation, our longing to belong, our need for a sense of destiny and real redemption.

As Jerome, an early church father and biblical scholar, remarked: "The marrow of a parable is different from the promise of its surface." Thus Buffy is not what she appears.

Buffy's Passion

The finale of season six, The Gift, concerns Buffy and her sister, Dawn. Only we know that Dawn isn't her real sister. "She was created by some mysterious monks," Buffy says. "She's me. The monks made her out of me. I hold her ... and I feel closer to her than ... (looks down, sighs) It's not just the memories they built. It's physical. Dawn ... is a part of me. The only part that I- (stops)..."

Here we have a new metaphor taking shape. The identification between Buffy and Dawn is similar to that of Christ and his Bride/Body on earth. There is an overwhelming love there. And Buffy's response will be the same as Christ's. She will give her life to save Dawn.

Bear with me here as we set the stage.

The villain this time is named Glory, a demon so powerful she is referred to as a "god." She is trapped outside her own dimension. The threat (as usual) is the total annihilation of the world. She has captured Dawn, and Dawn's blood will be used in a ritual to open a portal briefly that will allow Glory to return to her own world. When Dawn dies, the portal will close. But the universe as we know it will be destroyed.

In a previous season, Buffy had to sacrifice Angel, the man she loves, to save the universe. But since then she's been experiencing a Garden of Gethsemane of doubt.

BUFFY: "I loved him so much. But I knew ... what was right. I don't have that any more. I don't understand. I don't know how to live in this world if these are the choices."

Buffy and her friends battle Glory and think they've won, but Dawn has been cut, blood flows and the portal begins to open. Dawn says she understands she has to die for the portal to close. But Buffy remembers that her blood and Dawn's are the same. She remembers the Spirit Guide once told her "death is your gift." She has always thought that meant she was to be a killer, a slayer of vampires. Now she sees a greater fulfillment before her.

She has a conversation with Dawn reminiscent of Christ's parting words to his disciples on the cross. "I love you. I will always love you. But this is the work that I have to do. You have to take care of them now. You have to take care of each other. The hardest thing in this world... is to live in it. Be brave. Live... for me." The camera catches Buffy leaping from the tower where the ritual was taking place, her outstretched arms forming a cross. The last scene is at the cemetery where the tombstone reads, "Buffy Anne Summers, 1981-2001, Beloved Sister, Devoted Friend, She Saved the World... A Lot."

Now, all that would be enough to rank Buffy as our Theologian of the Year. But the second episode of the next season finds Buffy-you guessed it- resurrected.

Her friend Willow concocts a spell to bring her back and that's when things really start getting weird. Buffy seems uncomfortable in the world again. Her friends are happy they brought her back, thinking she had been in a "hell dimension." Buffy's hands are bloodied from clawing her way out of her coffin after she woke up. They wonder if she's a zombie now, if she's really OK, and they make jokes about "jet-lag from hell."

But she confides to Spike what really happened.

BUFFY: "I was happy."

Spike looks at her in confusion.

BUFFY: "Wherever I ... was ... I was happy. At peace."

Spike stares, shocked.

BUFFY: "I knew that everyone I cared about was all right. I knew it. Time ... didn't mean anything ... nothing had form ... but I was still me, you know? (glances at him, then away) And I was warm ... and I was loved ... and I was finished. Complete. I don't understand about theology or dimensions, or ... any of it, really ... but I think I was in heaven."

Spike continues to stare at her in dismay.

BUFFY: "And now I'm not. (almost tearful) I was torn out of there. Pulled out ... by my friends. (Spike continues staring, listening) Everything here is ... hard, and bright, and violent. Everything I feel, everything I touch ... this is hell. Just getting through the next moment, and the one after that ... (softly) knowing what I've lost..."

She looks up, realizes Spike is still there. She looks uncomfortable, gets up.

BUFFY: "They can never know. Never."

To quote theologian Paul Tillich in The Shaking of the Foundations, "The new life could not really be new life if it did not come from the complete end of the old life."

Buffy has had many more adventures since that episode, and the sixth season ended with, of all things, a musical rendition of the Prayer of St. Francis playing in the background:

"Lord make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
And where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master grant that I may
Not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.
And it's in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Uh... I'd like to see 'em try that on The Sopranos.

"I realize every slayer comes with an expiration date on the package," Buffy once confided. "But I want mine to be a long time from now, like a Cheeto."

We hope so too, Buffy.



on the same page

I just noticed that there's a new website for the Ignatian Spirituality Project. I've written about them before, Bill Creed and Bob Stephan, Jesuits at Loyola University who are doing retreat work with the homeless.

Heather and I were planning to attend a conference with them this weekend, but it's been postponed. I'm sure, though, that we'll be consulting them (and perhaps collaborating with them) as we start our retreat work at Plow Creek.


"to love you"

There was a wedding here this past weekend, and it got me thinking about marriage vows. I've written about this before, about how I saw a danger in making many different commitments, how our one commitment should be to God, to love. So I wanted whatever I promised at our wedding to reflect this. I was also inspired by the six scripture passages we're going to use at the wedding (here and here). Plus I wanted to say something at least a little romantic, poetic.

So here's what I'm thinking:

I never liked "till death do us part"...


sitting at table together

As he sat at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were sitting with Jesus and his disciples; for there were many who followed him. And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, "Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?"

When Jesus heard it, he said to them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners." (Mk 2.15-17)

This morning I saw something in this story that may help answer a question I've been struggling with. I've written before about my struggles figuring out how to serve people with many needs. But recently I've recognized that some people who have "chronic" needs seem to cling to their needs, making it very difficult to really help. It even seems that the usual aid and expressions of sympathy encourage this clinging to hardship and need. So that the person is not helped, but actually seems to become more needy.

I think it has something to do with hard experiences and the accompanying feelings of deprivation and loss, that leave the person with a sense of being cheated or short-changed in life. A sense that they are owed. They feel that they didn't get what they were supposed to get, what everyone else got, that they have been wronged by life (or God?). Seeing themselves as victims, they expect much from others, but little from themselves. This creates a feeling of being freed from responsibility for their actions or for what happens to them. Of course this doesn't lead to anything good, but it does give a false sense of freedom and dignity, being the "wounded one."

What to do about this? I've figured out that showing sympathy ("poor you") certainly doesn't help. And just doing things for them doesn't help. I've pulled back from that. But what could actually help them, what could help them break out of their victim mentality?

Most people don't want to be around the chronically needy, who are constantly complaining and asking for things. And I feel like I don't want to, either. Especially when I've decided it's not good to just keep giving them things, it becomes very difficult to keep saying no and still be around them. But Jesus' example in the story seems to say that we should stay among the needy, especially when it's difficult. Perhaps that continued presence, treating them as equals (sitting at table together) instead of treating them like victims, may help them see themselves in a different way. And sharing our own lives and struggles may encourage them to start responding to the challenges in their lives. The challenges God has put before them, for their good.



angel, pt.4

Continued from yesterday...

Her brother. Crying. Something stirred in the dark place inside her head. Slight at first, then rushing over her, pulling her in, gathering intensity until she thought she might throw up. She staggered a little, and the woman grabbed her. The grip was firm and sure. She felt power in the hands that held her, a fierce power in the gaze that urged her to follow. The only family you got. Momma flipped. You knifed their girl. She dead now. Your brother an' herself. Only family you got. Angel.

"Angel... Angel!" She looked into the eyes of someone who knew her, who was holding her up, who would protect her. Her friend. Her sister. Who knew her. "We gotta go. Now!" She felt like she was falling as they started to move, out of the alley and down the street. She stumbled, but the strong hand kept her upright and moving. They were falling together.

The cars and people and storefronts flashed by them, indistinct, a wash of color. They fell faster. Then a sudden cry startled her and she tripped hard and hit the pavement.

When she looked up there was a child. A young girl, with tears in her eyes, her mother bent over her. Lifting her and gently brushing the dirt from her dress. "It's okay, honey. See? Good as new." The girl wiped the tears, then for a moment their eyes met.

"Ange, c'mon!" She was lifted from the pavement by the strong arms, but then she didn't move. And this time she answered the fierce gaze with a shake of her head. "You got the wrong..." She pulled away from the insistent grip. "I'm not Angel." She turned and started the other way, ignoring the shouts.

Within a block, Christie found a pay phone. She pulled the slip of paper from her pocket.

(The whole story is available as a RTF file here.)


angel, pt.3

Continued from yesterday...

The day after Maria brought her some clothes, she just got up and walked out of the hospital. The sunshine felt good. But she didn't know where she was going; she just followed the main street, hoping something would look familiar.

She hadn't walked five blocks when someone approached her. "Ange... Hey, Ange!" She didn't recognize the rough-looking woman, who was definitely talking to her. "Angel! Girl, where you been?" She didn't know how to respond. "And what you doin' out here? You gotta lay low, I thought thas what you were doin'. They's lookin' for you."

She finally found her voice. "Who?" The young woman stared at her, unbelieving. "Whatchoo mean who? You knifed their girl. She dead now. So now they want you dead." The woman looked around, then pulled her off the street into an alley. "But don' worry, we got you covered. There's a place you can go, jus' let me get holda K and we'll get you there. They won' be able to touch you."

She stepped back from the woman. "I don't know... I don't remember...." The woman had her phone out, making a call. "I got her. Yeah. Yeah, I know where it is. Okay." She took another step back, looking to see if anyone was nearby, and said again "I don't know...." "Angel, trust me. You gotta do this. I ever let you down before? C'mon." But when the woman took her arm, she pulled away. "Wait... hold on... who... I don't know you." That stopped the woman, her face darkening. "Angel, quit that shit. You known me since forever. I know you scared, but you gotta trust me." When she showed no sign of moving, the woman took a step closer, lowering her voice. "I took care a you when your momma flipped and killed your brother an' herself, and I'll take care a you now. We the only family you got. So c'mon, we gotta get outta here."

Continued tomorrow...


angel, pt.2

Continued from yesterday...

After her bath, she slept. When she awoke, Maria was there again. This time the older woman spoke of herself and her daughter. They were leaving soon, moving far away to live near Maria's relatives, where they would be safe. Maria was sure that the fire had been set by her ex-husband, and she wasn't going to give him another chance. They had nothing left here anyway.

"Where do you live, dear?" She couldn't answer. She didn't know where she lived, or even if she had a family looking for her. It was a horrible feeling, as if she had been thrust into a place where she didn't belong... yet in some unknown way, she did. She needed a connection badly, a connection to her lost life. Something Maria couldn't give. Something the hospital couldn't give, either. The orderly had told her they had no identification for her, assuring her, though, that the memory almost always came back in time. "I don't know." It was all she could say to Maria, her voice trembling. "Oh honey, I'm sorry. Don't worry about that. I'm sure that will be taken care of. Someone's looking for you right now, you can be sure of that." Maria took her hand. "And you're always welcome with us, any time, for as long as you need. It's just me and my girl now. And we owe our lives to you." The older woman's eyes were wet. She began to look through her purse. "We're not leaving for a week, if I'm not here call me, for anything... you could even go with us. You're family now." Maria gave her a slip of paper with a phone number on it. "But I'm sure someone will come for you soon."

The days that followed were a blur of nurses and tests and no new information. She felt stronger and grew impatient with nothing to do but sleep and watch television. Her muscles itched to be used. And the hospital had no answers for her—no one had come for her. Maria was faithful, even bringing her daughter a few times, and she liked them both. Missed them when they weren't there. But she felt an increasingly urgent need to know more, to find her connection, her real life.

Then, the day after Maria brought her some clothes, she just got up and walked out of the hospital.

Continued tomorrow...



I haven't written a new story for quite some time. But I got another idea the other day, so I think I'll post it here as I write it...

"He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it..." The rhythmic voice pressed into her head, then droned on, buzzing in the cloud that surrounded her. And slowly the darkness lifted. Light crept through the haze, spreading with a pinkish glow, and then her eyes opened to life again.

As her vision found its focus she saw the shape of a woman, her face averted. Then the woman suddenly turned, looked right at her, and smiled warmly. The droning voice clicked off. The woman's voice was softer and richer. "Hello, honey. My name is Maria..."

She was in a hospital room, attached to beeping monitors and tubes poked into her arms. She did not remember how she had gotten here. She did not remember what had happened to her. The woman, Maria, told her that she had been in a fire, that she had saved Maria's daughter and had come back for Maria but was unable to free her and was knocked out when part of the ceiling fell on them. She had been fearless, the woman said. A hero. Firefighters had arrived in time to pull her and Maria out of the house, but they had a hard time reviving her. Maria had been praying for her life. She tried to speak, croaking "I...," then stopped, surprised at the strange sound of her own voice. The older woman nodded, waiting. "Who...," she began again, then faltered, her voice dropping to a whisper, "do you know my name?"

Christie. Maria told her she overheard the paramedics asking many questions when they got her breathing again, to make sure her brain was okay, but she had only answered, "Christie, Christie." She didn't remember that name. But when the orderly came and Maria had to leave, she saw it. The orderly removed her shirt to bathe her, and there on her arms were dark tattoos. On one arm a rose etched in red, drawn with blood dripping from the petals. And the other arm was wrapped with a band of thorny vines woven together, with elaborate lettering above and below: Domine Iesu Christe miserere mei peccatricis. She didn't understand the words. But she saw the name.

Continued tomorrow...


God's work of art

During church yesterday I was reading in Ephesians and came across verse ten in chapter two. I immediately recalled hearing it years ago in a different translation (the Jerusalem Bible, I think). This is how I remember it:

We are God's work of art, created in Christ Jesus for the good life...

Heather drew this picture for our wedding invitations. It's based on a photo of us taken at one of Heather's favorite places in France.


"a new creation"

The sermon this morning was about forgiveness and reconciliation. And these words came to mind:

Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation... (2 Cor 5.17-18)

After being disappointed or angry with what someone has done, my biggest difficulty with forgiveness is getting back to a place of trust with that person. Or hope. Hope that I can approach them again with good results, that we can be or do something good together, that we can feel like brothers again. I truly believe that's how I should be able to approach any Christian. But it's hard to feel it after repeated disappointments with a particular person.

I think this "new creation" is not just a one time thing. We have to be made new repeatedly. Every time we fall back into false, destructive ways we have to be forgiven and given a new start. I've experienced that myself, and have tried to count on God creating a new me to face the challenge of the moment, a challenge that's bigger than I can trust my past self to handle. So when I forgive someone else, I should also count on the possibility of meeting a new creation in them when I encounter them next time.

Of course, it's hard to keep up this hope with repeated rejections and disappointments. Then it feels more like waiting for a miracle. But our new creation is always a miracle, isn't it? Always a work of God. So it's God we're trusting, and loving our brother by not giving up on them.



"simply a power in the world's service"

The crowd attempts to silence the prophetic voice through intimidation (as I wrote yesterday) or assimilation. This second way is more subtle and usually more effective.

For example, in the protest scenario, the protesters feel that they are resisting the powers that be, making their prophetic voice heard. But by using mass action—the strength of "We, the People"—as the means to be heard (and be influential in the political realm) they are becoming just one more party in the struggle for power. They may be resisting on one particular issue, but on the deeper level they are supporting and becoming part of the worldly exercise of political force. They are not a threat to the powers that be. They have been effectively assimilated. In modern democracies, this is clearly perceived by those in office—protests are tolerated and even embraced: "See, we welcome dissent, it's part of our great democratic system... the system that has given us the power that we wield."

Assimilation is also the more perilous threat to the Christian. Because it undermines our true purpose in the world while making us think we're "succeeding." In The Politics of God and the Politics of Man, Jacques Ellul states very well the Christian's place and purpose in the world, based on Jesus' own path to the cross (my italics):

The action we attempt will always be regarded by the world as a failure, and the more so the more it is authentically faithful. We cannot be successful or show the church to be effective in the world unless we adopt the world's criterion of efficacy, which means adopting its means as well.

As the world sees it, action which is faithful to God will always fail, just as Jesus Christ necessarily went to the cross. Such action always leads to a dead end. It is always a fiasco from the standpoint of worldly power. But this should not worry us. It does not mean that our action is in truth ineffectual. Efficacy measured in terms of faithfulness cannot be compared at any point with efficacy measured in terms of success.

...These successes, this efficacy as it would be called from man's standpoint, and especially in our own society, will never amount to anything more than the approval given by the world, by society, to certain acts and means. It is the stamp of a group of men, a social body. But if we do not believe that society is good and right, this approval proves nothing except that the action is in conformity with the world. It does not mean that the world has changed; quite the contrary. Each time the people of God becomes effective according to the world's criteria, this only implies that society has absorbed our action and is using it for its own ends and for its own profit. ...The efficacy we think we have is simply a power in the world's service, for the perfecting of its own being, for its better organization....

There can be no question of securing the approval of the world or its conformity to us. ...We have simply to be, and we can only be a question put within the world, a question invincibly confronting it. This is our efficacy. It is the efficacy of the question, a question which society and sociological movements cannot assimilate. Israel and the church have never been efficacious except to the degree that the world has been unable to assimilate them. This is the vocation of the people of God incomparably more authentic than "service" or "works."

It is not at the level of works and their results that this efficacy may be seen; it is at the level of inassimilability.


ecce homo

With all the joy and happy plans leading up to a wedding, it's easy to forget this is the season of Lent. But I was reminded this morning as I read of Jesus' humiliation (in Mt 27). Perhaps the central thrust of that suffering is its social nature, that the crowd attacks him, isolating him, pushing him below them, mocking, making him seem to be nothing in the eyes of "We, the People."

The social nature of our actions came to mind a couple days ago as well. I was looking at an announcement for a nationwide protest and prayer vigil concerning the Iraq war. Several local churches are promoting it, in religious terms. The first reason given for the protest begins, "Like Isaiah, we are called to raise our prophetic voice..."

But my first thought was, "Did Isaiah need a crowd behind him in order to raise his prophetic voice?" Did Jesus? Crowds certainly gathered around Jesus, but his prophetic voice drove them away again and again, and in the end he stood alone against the money changers in the temple. And he stood alone humiliated before the crowd when Pilate proclaimed, "Behold, the man!"

Our inclination is to hide in the crowd. To stand where we feel secure, with the power of the people gathered around us. We do this even when we're trying to be "prophetic." But the courage of the prophet is that he speaks his challenging words from a place of utter vulnerability, that he trusts in the God who speaks through him and is not silenced by the power of the crowd. Conversely, speaking from the security of a crowd demonstrates, not trust in God, but trust in "We, the People."

The crowd always wants to make the individual seem like nothing, like they did to Jesus. And we reinforce that message when we have to gather into crowds to make our voice heard.


the cell

Reading Psalm 88 this morning, I was reminded of a short story I wrote years ago while in the Dominican novitiate. I still have it, and it's not too bad. I have to admit, though, that I borrowed some scenes from Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, a nonfiction book I was reading at the time. Here's the beginning...

“...the darkness is my closest friend.” Psalm 88

Just before midnight, Dmitri’s shaven head snapped up. A key was rattling in the lock. He saw Ivan and Yuri jerk their heads up also as the door swung open; and then a new prisoner stumbled into the cell. He stared blankly at Dmitri. Relaxing enough to offer a weak smile, Dmitri dropped back heavily on the thin straw mattress. Just another zek. Maybe no one will be called tonight. He noticed that Pytor, lying next to him, had not looked up, though his eyes were wide open.

As soon as the door slammed and the key rattled again, Ivan and Yuri began whispering at the stranger. Yuri asked if he was from freedom. Ivan wanted tobacco. Ignoring Ivan, the new­comer mumbled something about freedom that sounded sarcastic, and began to lay out his blanket on the concrete floor between the two beds. The blanket appeared to be his only possession. Ivan lay back down, but Yuri persisted with a soft barrage of questions until Dmitri silenced him. “He’ll be here tomorrow. Go to sleep!”

Pulling his blanket close around him to keep out the cold, Dmitri resisted the urge to tuck his arms under it. Once a minute, a hostile eye peered into the cell, checking that all the prison­ers’ hands were in sight. As if on cue, the peephole cover slid open with a soft click. Dmitri closed his eyes tightly against the harsh brightness of the cell, and tried to remember that some­where it was dark.

(The whole story can be downloaded as a RTF file here.)


popping the question

Heather just sent this out to her friends and family...

So the story goes like this: right after the Plow Creek meeting Paul started wondering out loud when we would feel ready to get engaged, and ended up suggesting that if I wanted to "pop the question" whenever I felt ready that might be a great way of doing it. Well, a week passed and Plow Creek gave us their yes, and another week passed as I thought: am I really sure, am I really ready to make such a big life commitment, I've gotta be one-hundred-percent sure now because leaving someone at the altar's not very nice...

Then one sunny day (it may have been cloudy but it sure looked sunny) I made the decision, after praying with a dear friend who's been a spiritual mentor to me, and I felt completely at peace—but I had to wait till the next day because I'd promised myself for some reason that I would call my parents first and tell them I'd decided, and I didn't think they'd thank me for calling at two a.m. French time.

I could hardly stand the waiting...

The next day I called them, and told them, and after hanging up I just booked it over to Paul's house as fast as I could. I found him downstairs on the half-basement floor fetching something for Bob, the disabled man he takes care of. Did he want to go for a walk, I asked. He said, "Well, Bob's on the toilet just now, so I can't leave, and I have to make lunch for him and me in a few minutes. You could stay for lunch and we could take a walk right after..."

After lunch??? Noooo...

Me: Oh.
Him: Or we could have a really short walk before lunch.
Me: Maybe... (hem, haw)
Him: Did you want to talk to me about something?
Me: Yes.
Him: Did you want to talk about your novel?
Me: No. (uh oh, uh oh, I can feel it coming...)


Him: [completely surprised, laughing delightedly] Is that what you wanted to talk to me about?
Me: Yes! SO? Will you marry me?
Him: Yes!

[Then I asked her to marry me (in French): "Veux-tu m'├ępouser?" I even pronounced it right.]

And so we kissed at the foot of the basement stairs, and he went back up to help Bob off the toilet, and I sat on the counter while he made lunch and we chatted with his housemates and laughed and we were very happy.

Now isn't that the most romantic story you ever heard?


Probably my favorite Calvin & Hobbes cartoon. A friend who lives with me at the house (there's 13 of us at the moment, plus a baby) just gave me a book of these, including this one.


"a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife"

I took a look at Jesus' genealogy this morning. With the wedding coming up, we've given thought to the tradition of the wife taking the husband's family name. It's a tradition bound up with the male-dominated culture we live in, a culture that has also undervalued and oppressed women throughout history. As a sign of my commitment to break with that culture of oppression, I offered to take Heather's family name (instead of her being automatically expected to take mine). But the question was raised about whether this was biblical, or something Jesus would support. So Jesus' own genealogy came to mind.

The tradition about family names wasn't exactly the same in Jesus' time, but in the two recorded genealogies (in Matthew and Luke) it is clear that the male lineage is followed. This was traditional in Jewish culture as it is in ours. Looking over the names in the two lists, however, immediately raises a question. They're not the same. Why not? Scholars still argue over this, but it seems the most prevalent view is that one genealogy is Joseph's and one is Mary's. Both texts do lead to Joseph's name, perhaps to keep with the practice of tracing male lineage, but it's hard to come up with another explanation for the stark differences in the genealogies (they even have a different number of ancestors).

What caught my attention this morning, however, was that even though both genealogies seem to lead along a line of male descent to Joseph, Jesus is not a physical descendant of Joseph and his fathers. Matthew hints at this by ending his fatherly list with a motherly twist: "...Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born" (Luke calls Jesus "the son—as was supposed—of Joseph"). The story of Jesus' conception by the Holy Spirit immediately follows. If actual descent from David's royal line is important, then it has to be through Mary. Not the father's line but the mother's.

So I don't think Jesus would mind if we choose to embrace the lineage of the wife rather than the husband. (God did it!) And I think he would approve of our reasons, too. Jesus was always a friend of the undervalued and oppressed.


"the imagination is continually at work"

The other night we read a children's book at the dinner table, because the illustrator is a friend in the neighborhood. It was a story about a classroom of kids (in an underprivileged neighborhood, I think) who couldn't go to the zoo because of bad weather, so their teacher encouraged them to imagine a story with zoo animals. The animals talked with the kids, and included a blue lion king, a pink and green zebra piano player in high heels, and a rapping elephant drummer with his hat on backwards. Pretty amusing. The motto repeated several times in the story was "If I can see it, it can happen, it can happen right away!"

That got me thinking. I assume it was meant to encourage imagination in kids. Which is important, imagination is a good thing. But I wondered if that was the right use of imagination, or whether imagination was being promoted as a means of escape from reality.

Because what else can this mean? "If I can see it, it can happen, it can happen right away!" It's not about reality, reality doesn't change just because we want it to. And even if it means getting a vision that we can work towards, that change definitely doesn't happen "right away." I can certainly sympathize with disappointment about the world around us, and I've often used imagination to try to escape the reality I don't want to face—but is this a good thing? Is this something I want to teach others?

I don't think so. Because I don't think that's what God gave us imagination for. I believe God gave us imagination to explore and understand reality, the real world around us and our real selves. To appreciate the imagination that conceived the real world, God's imagination. Not to "create" an alternative world in our minds that we like better, to try to hide in a false world because we don't want to deal with the real one.

These thoughts reminded me of some lines by Simone Weil in Gravity and Grace:

Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it. We must continually suspend the work of the imagination in filling the void within ourselves.

The imagination is continually at work filling up all the fissures through which grace might pass.
She's saying that the sufferings and emptiness that we experience can become the places where we encounter God, where his love (grace) fills us. But if we try to fill those painful voids ourselves, through the wrong use of imagination, trying to comfort ourselves with a temporary escape from reality, we miss the chance for God to enter there. Attempting to heal ourselves, we miss God's healing. And when we make a habit of depending on our own power to change an imaginary world inside us, we do not depend (in faith) on God's power to change the real world around us.



I don't talk about the vultures much. For obvious reasons.

Their first appearance was many years ago, when I was still in training for the Navy. I wrote about them in my first journal, while I was walking on the Appalachian Trail in the summer of 2000, right after it had become clear to me that God was leading me into a larger pilgrimage, perhaps even a life's vocation:

When I was in Navy nuclear training in Idaho [a very stressful time in my life], I used to drive up to where the mountains started and crawl up this steep craggy monolith. From up there I could look down over rolling fields of various grains—divided by the bends of the Snake River—and out to the town of Idaho Falls. I would sit up there on my day off. It was isolated and quiet; sometimes I would gather sticks for a fire. And there was a man-sized hollow, that looked like it had been scooped out by a giant finger. I would sit in there and pray. I called it ‘the Sanctuary,’ inspired by Moses’ song on the banks of the Red Sea: "You will bring them in, and plant them on your own mountain, the place, O Lord, which your hands have made." (Ex 15.17) I loved that place.

Near the end of my time in Idaho, I was up there praying about my life, praying for guidance. I wondered if I would get married or maybe become a monk. I had only been a Catholic for two months, but I had been visiting monasteries and admired the Trappists. I was also still close with [my first girlfriend], however, despite the fact that we were broken-up at the time and she was in Germany for a year, studying. We wrote weekly, and called every two months or so (very expensive). She was to return later that month. So I was praying for guidance or light or something. Give me a sign, I pleaded.

But it was very quiet on the mountain.

There was a peak above where I sat. Not far, but much higher, with a squat, twisted evergreen on top. Gazing up at that peak, as I often did when I prayed, I noticed a vulture circling slowly. Then another. Another. Soon there were eight vultures soaring around the gnarled tree on the rock. I counted again (since seven is usually God’s magic number). No, eight. This was my sign, I decided. Eight vultures, eight years. Not an answer, exactly—I would have to wait eight years for an answer. Then I would know. I was satisfied, thinking I would either marry or enter a monastery by that time. I started waiting.

That was the beginning of August, in 1992. Eight years ago.

During the many long walks in the years that followed, I noticed that vultures appeared everywhere I went. Other birds varied in different parts of the country, but the vultures were always present, circling.

But I forgot about them until last year. Right after our invitation to the retreat house in Virginia fell through unexpectedly, I was taking a quiet walk through the woods to clear my head. I was confused and a little frightened. I didn't know what we were supposed to do next. It seemed like a dead end. But as I neared the retreat house again something caught my eye, a dark shape. I looked up and there was a vulture, sailing quiet and low over the house, circling once and then disappearing over the trees.

It wasn't a remarkable sighting. But it reminded me of my experience in Idaho, and in my state of mind (and spirit) at that moment, it seemed to me to be a sign. One year. I would know what God had for us within a year; I would only have to wait a year. I thought I could do that. And it even felt like God was saying he would open a way forward for us by then.

That was the beginning of June last year. Within a few days, I had the idea of contacting Plow Creek with the retreats-for-the-poor idea. And now we're moving there. We'll be married there on May fifth—with three whole weeks to spare...



Yesterday at church there was a great play telling the story of Esther. And, like in the Jewish celebration of Purim, the congregation was encouraged to cheer and boo loudly when the story called for it. The villain even wore a sinister black cape.

One line in the story stuck with me. Mordecai says to Esther,

"If you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father's house will perish." (Esth 4.14)
I've written before that the fulfillment of God's will is not dependent on our cooperation (thank God!). It's actually amazing that God does invite us to participate in his will. That we can be a willing part of what God is doing, with all the excitement and joy and fulfillment of that experience. Of course, we can also choose not to willingly participate. In which case God does what he intends anyway, despite us, by some other means, and we are left out of what God is doing in the world. As Esther demonstrated, the other way is much better.


"a nest for herself"

The sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may have her young—
a place near your altar, O Lord Almighty, my King and my God.
Blessed are those who dwell in your house;
they are ever praising you.

Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.

As they pass through the Valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs;
the autumn rains also cover it with pools.
They go from strength to strength,
till each appears before God in Zion.

I really like the NIV translation of these lines from Psalm 84. My mother wrote them on a card celebrating our engagement (and our acceptance at Plow Creek and our upcoming walk). And they take on an added meaning for me because Heather was once nicknamed "swallow"...