His heart beats (In which Rachel over-analyzes her new favorite song)

Andrew Peterson released a new Easter album on Saturday and it's wonderful and you should go download it right now and listen to it on infinite loop for the next 50 days.

I mean, I assume it's all wonderful. I fell so in love with the first song that I've just been listening to that one on infinite loop since I first played it on the way home from the Great Vigil Saturday night. I'll get around to the rest of the album at some point, I'm sure.

The premise of the song took my breath away: it imagines the exact moment of the resurrection -- the first heartbeat, first breath, of Jesus' resurrected body. How have I never thought about it this way before? I asked myself. This was the most important moment that EVER HAPPENED, and yet I've never even thought about it.

But as the song looped over and over in the blessed night, I started having second thoughts. I remembered that part of the reason I've never thought about the moment of resurrection from Jesus' perspective is that Scripture is silent about it. So anything we say about it is imaginative speculation. Which isn't to say artists shouldn't engage in such speculation -- much great Christian art is the product of exactly that kind of imagining -- but there's a difference between our imagining and the teaching of the faith.

Just a couple days ago, I encountered another song (to which I will not link, in order to protect the guilty) that was also an imaginative retelling of part of the Easter story. I was appalled its theological vacuity and sentimentality. So I hesitated over my immediate affection for this song. It at least merited further reflection about how well-founded the speculation in question might be.

Further, I grew troubled that this depiction of the resurrection could give the impression that resurrection was simply reanimation of a corpse. Resurrection isn't just that a dead body stopped being dead. The resurrected body is transformed, glorified.

Peterson gives some indication of this in the lyrics:  "He rises / Glorified in flesh / Clothed in immortality / The firstborn from the dead." But what do these things mean? One could hear these lines and still imagine that the resurrection here described is essentially tantamount to waking up from a really, really deep coma. Which is not what the church teaches.

Just what, exactly, the glorification of the the resurrected body entails is largely mysterious. Immortality, clearly. And evidently some degree of liberty from the spatiotemporal constraints affecting our fallen bodies, to judge from some of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus.

Yet, still flesh. Still human. Still one's own body. And if that's the case, then whatever else resurrection involves, surely a beating heart would be part of it -- because it's still HIS body, it still contains HIS heart, and if living, that heart beats. Right?

And that's when I was confronted anew by the scandalous particularity of the Christian teaching about the resurrected body. Do I really believe this? If I believe that his heart beat on that first Easter morning, then I believe that his heart beatS, now. That right this moment, at some real place (whatever "at the right hand of the Father" means), there exists a human heart that has been beating continuously for nearly two thousand years, and will keep on beating forever. And not only that, all our hearts will someday start beating again, and keep beating forever.

At first blush, that idea seemed even more implausible than someone rising from the dead. And would it even be desirable, even if possible? I thought of the sentiment I've heard from multiple nonagenarians expressing a fatigue that my middle-aged self can't even comprehend -- not just of the day's labor, but of continuing to be alive -- as though their stubborn hearts just keep on beating willy-nilly, and while they don't actively wish to die, they would be happier to just stop living. Multiply that by 20, and then by infinity? Is that good news?

But then I remember that I'm using our fallen-world, perishable bodies with their tired hearts as a yardstick for the imperishable, glorious bodies of the resurrection; comparing apples to Easter eggs. A two-thousand-year-old beating human heart seems impossible because human hearts always die a long time before that, and when they die, they decay. But things that keep living keep being renewed. There are some plants that have lived for thousands of years and still grow, so a two-thousand-year-old organism is not inherently incredible. Furthermore, when we're imagining resurrected bodies, we're stipulating that God's already done the hard part -- undone death, and transformed a dead, decaying body into a glorified, immortal one. Compared to that, sustaining it for centuries -- forever -- is child's play. So as crazy as it sounds, yeah, I think I do believe that his heart beatS.

But do I, as Peterson sings, "know, I know, his heart beats"? Not quite. (And this is why I probably wouldn't program this song as part of a worship service, unless perhaps there was also going to be a sermon about the resurrected body that could caution against the mistake of reducing resurrection to reanimation.)

Since the exact nature of the resurrected body is so mysterious, I must hold my conclusions about it lightly. I believe he lives. I believe he still has his human body. (Lord, help my unbelief.) I think it makes the most sense that that would mean his heart beats. As John Updike put it in his justly-famous Seven Stanzas, "if he rose at all / It was as His body; ... The same valved heart / That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered." And yet, I don't know for sure that a beating heart is an essential part of what it means for a body to be human. God created human bodies in the first place, so he gets to decide what makes them human. If at the end of days he laughs and says, "Oh, the pump? That's so humanity 1.0! The new improved version runs on a flux capacitor!" I'm certainly not going to reply, "But I like my pump! If I can't bring it with me into the New Creation, I'm not coming!" Still, since when he created humanity in the first place, he called it "very good," I suspect he's not going to deviate too much from the original design.

Anyway. It's a cool song. It's even more cool when you remember that Jesus isn't a zombie, and Easter isn't just the celebration that someone who was grieved by his friends as dead for a couple of days came back to them. As Peterson also sings, "[He] put death to death / Where is your sting, O grave? / How grave is your defeat / How great, how great is his victory."

He is risen indeed.


The king is dead; long live the King

The king is dead, and not only is there no heir apparent, we don't even have anything remotely resembling a plan of succession.

In the history of human society, this is normally a very bad situation for a group of people to find themselves in. It's why kings have historically been anxious to make sure they have heirs and spares, because having no one clearly in charge creates an opportunity for chaos, division, and war. It's why universities and churches and corporations so often end up with presidents/pastors/CEOs with the same name as the founder, only with a "III" or "IV" tacked on the end. It's why George Washington deciding not to run for re-election a second time was such a freaking big deal. Everybody dies; it's the one thing you can count on; so to know that it's coming and not plan for it is just sloppy leadership.

But when your leader is not the leader of an institution with a formal structure, but of an amorphous movement, a loose coalition of like-minded people and groups with no clear boundaries and an ever-shifting center, it's not like there's a mechanism to identify a spiritual heir who can claim the mantle that was bestowed by a unique combination of gifting, stewardship, networking, decades of discipline, and being in the right place at the right time. Any attempt to coronate a successor without the consensus of the movement is doomed to fail, and the movement is incapable of consensus. So we have no king, and we will probably never get another one. Grant Wacker masterfully captured this reality when he answered NPR's question about whether there will ever be another Billy Graham by quoting evangelicalism's other patron saint, C.S. Lewis: "The one prayer God never answers is, Encore."

As I've observed the current crisis of evangelical identity, I've been ruing the vacuum of leadership in American neo-evangelicalism in the decade-plus since Billy's retirement from public life. The names who are now commonly cited in the media as evangelical leaders are far lesser men whose pronouncements are more likely to elicit cringing or cries of protest from me than followership. The names who come to mind as the ones I now look to for leadership of the evangelical movement are, often as not, people who have chosen to distance themselves from the label "evangelical," concluding that it's become too polluted with political baggage to be a useful self-description in the public square. Another apt line sometimes attributed to Wacker, sometimes to George Marsden: "An evangelical is someone who likes Billy Graham." Without that unifying figure, the movement that he was instrumental in founding and forming is adrift. It's been this way for a while; his death just makes it complete and final.

I'm only now realizing that as long as Billy was alive, there was a little part of me that hoped that, even if he never again made a public appearance or met one on one with a president, he might still knock some sense into Franklin, might still remind the purported "leaders" of evangelicalism what a horrible idea it is to get too closely involved with a morally bankrupt politician, might still exercise some sort of high priestly office over the evangelical movement that that he was destined to soon leave on our own. We weren't really without a king as long as he drew breath. We could still think fondly of Billy, and honor him and his legacy, and stay in denial about the future of the movement by cultivating warm feelings about its past.

Then Billy died, and Christianity Today hit "PUBLISH" on the special obituary edition that it's had in the works for a couple of decades, and pundits started contesting his legacy almost instantaneously, and there's no going back. The young adults who know not Billy will never have the opportunity to know who he is, only who he was. And the evangelical movement will have maybe a few lingering weeks of being "people who like Billy Graham," but then we're going to have to find another way to define ourselves.

And this beckons a couple of questions: (1) Can American neo-evangelicalism as we know it survive without a figurehead like Billy Graham? and (2) If not, is that necessarily a bad thing?

Probably not. And probably not.

"As we know it" are of course the key wiggle-words in Question 1. Of course evangelicalism will look different when it's not organized around whether you (or your grandma) like Billy Graham. And that's surely for the better in the grand scheme of things -- for all the good Billy brought to a movement of otherwise-fundamentalists, it's not healthy for a religious movement to be so identified with its prophet that it loses focus on its God. Still, the question remains, can American evangelicalism continue as a recognizable thing anymore (if it's even recognizable now!), or is it going to be reabsorbed into fundamentalism while the theological moderates who used to call ourselves evangelicals find new homes in other traditions and decide it's no longer worth the effort to cultivate the pandenominational identity that we once upon a time found so essential to distinguish ourselves from the liberals/mainliners that we used to think of as the enemy but now recognize as near-kin? (Yes, I know that sentence was way too long. But it's my blog, and I'll indulge in Pauline syntax if I want to.)

I don't know. But I realize I don't need to know. Human institutions don't last forever. Maybe neo-evangelicalism was a movement that the American church needed in the mid-20th century, but it needs something else for the 21st. The evangel doesn't depend on evangelicalism in order to survive. "Evangelicalism" has been, for most of my life, a comfortable shorthand for describing what kind of Jesus-follower I happen to be. But my loyalty is not to a sociological category, it's to a Person -- and not Billy Graham, but the Savior he spent his career proclaiming.

A recurring theme in the Bible is that God's people keep clamoring for a king, no matter how many times he tells them that he alone is to be their Sovereign.

"Give us a king! It's scary and uncertain without one!" They demand, again and again.

"Trust me on this," God answers. "You wouldn't like having a king. Kings will always end up abusing their power. You don't need any king but me."

"No, really!" God's people say. "We know what we're asking for. We'll be good subjects. Give us a king!"

"Okay," God finally answers. "But don't say I didn't warn you..."

And they get their king, and everything goes to hell, just like God said it would.

Evangelicals are my tribe, and I confess that I'm nervous about our future without an earthly king. Of course, evangelicals are just the kind of people to loudly insist that WE HAVE NO KING BUT JESUS, even as we're staking our identity on our favorite charismatic leader of the hour. We have just as much trouble as the ancient Israelites really trusting in a king we cannot see.

We may be in for a bumpy ride. We may find our hopes and plans dashed when we put our trust in leaders who lead us astray. We may fracture into a million little sects, each following our own favorite little leader. We may cease to be a recognizable people, and have to find new homes and new descriptions for ourselves as we try in new contexts to do the work that we believe we were once called to do as part of a movement called "evangelical."

But whatever happens, we do in fact have a King whose Kingdom endures when our own institutions and movements do not. We have a King who will not die, because our King has already conquered death. We have a King who will not abandon us, even if we get obsessed with our little power struggles and forget to seek first his Kingdom. And so we can endure uncertainty, because the King reigns.

The king is dead. Long live the King.

An autobiobibliography

(Scroll to the end of the post if you want my list of personally significant books by half-decade of my life without the navel-gazing backstory.)

If you ask me what my favorite book is, I will just laugh at you for asking such a silly question.

If you ask me what my five favorite books are, I will still just laugh at you for asking such a silly question.

If you ask me what my 12, or 15, or 20 favorite books are, I might say, "Now there's a number that I might be able to work with. Let me get back to you on that." And then I will spend a couple of days pleasantly musing about the question, then forget about it for seven years, and never get back to you.

If you ask me again what my 12, or 15, or 20 favorite books are, and cut me off before I have a chance to say "Let me get back to you on that" to insist, "No, no, don't overthink this; it doesn't have to be your all time top 20 list, just tell me what comes to mind right away!" I will say, "Don't overthink this? Have you met me? If I'm not allowed to overthink in this game, I don't want to play." And I will, once again, never get back to you.

The only time I have ever successfully compiled a list of "My Books" off the top of my head was in response to this prompt from First Things, and I totally broke the rules. They asked for two books; I came up with sixteen. That's about as low as you'll ever get me to go on one of these kinds of questions.

But it was a fun exercise, even if I failed at the intent. So now, having mentioned the existence of the list to people whose curiosity it piqued, I will eventually share it with you.

The question in First Things was to name TWO books that most define you. These are called "bookends" in the piece, but I think the two foci of an ellipse is a more apt analogy. As Carter notes, a pair of books, especially if they are of somewhat disparate character, is much more illuminating than a single book. So even though I generally just laugh at any request for fewer than 10 books, I actually gave this one some thought -- and found it much easier to identify a pair of books than one single favorite.

But as I considered my pair, I realized that the pair was definitely definitive of myself around the time I read them (18-20ish), but did I want to claim them for my whole life? As Rusty Reno observes in one of the few comment threads on the whole internet that is worth reading, "most personality-defining books come early in life, during the formative years." So it stands to reason that my pair would come from that period of life. But I still wasn't sure about committing to my me-at-20 pair.

So I tried again, and came up with a completely different pair -- and quickly noticed that those suited 25-year-old me to a T. But my whole life? I still wasn't sure.

But observing that my first two attempts had landed neatly at roughly 5-year intervals, I wondered, could I trace my life in books in 5-year chunks, two books per half decade? And lo, I found that I could. And since this was for me both more interesting and easier than naming only two, ONLY TWO books for my whole life, I abandoned that quest and took up the other: the compilation of my autobiobibliography.

A few notes:

  • It gets harder to be confident of my picks the closer I get to the present. This is probably in line with Reno's observation of formative reading happening earlier in life, plus the lack of critical distance. This is why the last pairing isn't yet finalized.
  • There are some books on this list that are parts of series. I chose the particular volume I did on purpose. In most cases it is fair to take those books as synecdoche for the larger whole, but in a couple of cases I didn't even finish the series and/or loathed other installments.
  • There are some books on this list that were later expanded by their authors into larger, more definitive treatments. My selection of the earlier, shorter versions is deliberate. 
Now then, if you're still with me, my list:

5ish

Honorable Mention: The Great Green Turkey Creek Monster by James Flora

10ish

15ish

20ish

25ish

30ish

35ish

40ish

If any of my friends finds it an interesting exercise to examine their lives in terms of books (in whatever intervals of years and number of books per interval works for you), I would be delighted to see the resulting lists.

A Few of My Favorite Podcasts (#Trypod)


A bunch of my favorite podcasts are engaged in a viral marketing push called #trypod in which they encourage their listeners to introduce their friends and families to podcasts they might like. I'm totally onboard with giving them free publicity because podcasts genuinely add joy to my life. The problem is that I have so many favorites that it's had to know where to start in making recommendations. So instead of trying to narrow it down to a tweetable short list, I'm posting this list, with hyperlinks, in an attempt to make it easier for my friends to find the podcasts that catch their attention from among the many that I love.

(Here's a quick-start guide from This American Life on options for downloading podcasts if you don't want to just listen through your web browser. DAD.)

Most of my favorite podcasts are nonfiction storytelling programs. Here are some of them, with their major themes:
I am usually quick to lose patience with unscripted roundtable-style podcasts, but a couple of my absolute favorites are in the smart people with microphones category:
And one delightfully surreal serial fiction show:
For even more attention-worthy podcasts, these producers and networks have reliably high-quality offerings on a variety of topics:

I asked for a trigger warning on Ovid before it was cool

Discussions about the possibility and role of trigger warnings in higher education always make me a little depressed, because it seems that any mention of the theme instantly devolves into a shouting match between two camps, both terrified that the other will leverage power and privilege to trample on their cherished values, with the result that no one ends up listening to the valid concerns of those who disagree.

Those opposed to any use of trigger warnings in the classroom typecast those who dare request them as "an insufferable breed of self-centered Care Bears," members of a generation so coddled from infancy that they can't stand to have their feelings hurt or be forced to grapple with an uncomfortable idea. They point out that the notion of a trigger warning has been diluted by the wide range of content to which it has been applied, and argue that since it's impossible to provide warnings for every possible category of disturbing content, we shouldn't try at all.


Now, to be clear, I appreciate the academic freedom concerns that are raised by some of the more draconian proposed policies about trigger warnings. I don't think that the onus should be placed on instructors to imagine every possible "trigger" in every text they assign out of fear of reprisal should they fail to anticipate a student's distinctive pressure point. I oppose policies that demand or even suggest the censorship of course content, and I don't think that instructors should be compelled or pressured to provide alternative assignments for students who find certain content distressing (with the possible rare exception of students with confirmed diagnoses of PTSD, in which case requests for alternative assignments should be handled as ADA accommodations through a university's disability services office). I believe that an important part of a college education is grappling with ideas and depictions that challenge our comfort zones, and that students should be treated as adults with the capacity to deal with challenging material.

But I don't think any of this requires the disdain and vitriol that I so often see poured out on those students who have the courage to speak out about course content that they, because of their unique background and experiences, find especially difficult to face.

It turns out, I was way ahead of the trend on this issue. I requested a trigger warning on Ovid before I even knew what a trigger warning was.

Fifteen years ago, in an advanced Latin reading class, I was part of a small cohort of students working our way through Ovid's Ars Amatoria ("The Art of Love"), basically a first-century Pick-Up Artist's Manual. Somehow, when I was preparing the text in advance of the class meeting, I was so caught up in the nuts and bolts of figuring out the vocabulary and syntax that the message of the text didn't really sink in. It wasn't until we were working through the translation in class and Ovid's description of rape as something the victim desired was meet with awkward silence from my female classmates and nervous giggling from the males that the content really hit me. I was shaken and nauseated by the text and disturbed by the experience of having it left completely unchallenged. I tried to console myself with the idea that the wrongness of that assertion goes without saying, but given the ongoing crisis of sexual assault on university campuses, now I'm not so sure it does.

Now, I was not harmed by the experience of reading that text and witnessing that reaction. I was physically and emotionally disturbed for a little while, but I got over it. But then, I have not experienced sexual assault. Someone I love has, and it was the association of this text with her story that triggered my reaction. 

That evening I sent an email to my instructor, suggesting that when he teaches this text in the future, it might be helpful to offer a disclaimer. I made it clear that I didn't want the text to be censored, I just wanted him to be cognizant of the near-inevitability that sooner or later (and probably sooner than later), he would have a sexual assault victim as a student in his class, and this passage could be difficult for them to read. 

I didn't mean it as a complaint; I didn't blame my instructor for my uncomfortable experience. But I knew he was at the very beginning of his teaching career (he was a graduate instructor, just a year or two older than us students), and I thought it might be helpful for him to be aware of the strong reaction this text could provoke.

I never heard back from him.

I also wrote one other email that night: a thank you note to a professor whose class I had taken three years before. He had made a passing comment condemning and rejecting Aristotle's misogyny in the context of an introductory lecture about Aristotle's philosophy and his tremendous contribution to the history of Western thought. At the time, I had felt like the comment was nice but not really necessary -- of course Aristotle was wrong about women; let's say no more about it. After my experience with Ovid, though, I was grateful for the memory of a man in a position of power and privilege stating in no uncertain terms that a revered author of the classical canon was just plain wrong in his attitude toward women. 

Instructors: it costs us nothing to err on the side of kindness. We can't, and shouldn't try to, issue warnings and disclaimers about every possible thing that might discomfit a student, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't ever give advanced notice when we know (and our students don't) that we're approaching especially difficult material. Often, all a student needs to be able to productively engage with an emotionally challenging text is the opportunity to prepare themself psychologically instead of being caught off guard by something that reminds them of a personal trauma. Remember that not everyone has the luxury of being able to approach texts from a position of detached analysis, and the voices of those who cannot muster such detachment may be an especially valuable part of the education of all our students. So do what you can to offer them a place at the table. 

Unreal absence

It's funny. When my father's father was dying, I wanted to tell my facebook friends about it, but I felt like I couldn't. Because I knew that no matter how carefully and clearly I explained it to the contrary, people were going to jump to the conclusion that the grandfather in question was the grandfather I've been living with for the last five years, and I didn't have the emotional energy to make the correction over and over again.  (And sure enough, when I finally did make the announcement, even though I explicitly prefaced it with a disclaimer that I was not talking about Ben, a number of people demonstrated lack of reading comprehension.)

Now my mother's father -- the one I have been living with for the last five years -- has also died, and I don't really feel like talking about it.

But I so appreciate the compassion and kind words of my friends, and I want to honor the concern of those who wonder how I'm doing. So. A couple observations:

(1)

Quite a number of people have expressed concern that it must be hard for me to be alone in the big empty house that I used to share with GrandDad. But I've actually been surprised over how not-strange it feels. When I moved here, one of the things that was almost unsettling was the very palpable absence of my grandmother. So when my grandfather left, I fully expected that profound sense of absence to double, that the whole property would be haunted by the privation of both of the people who had given it life for more than half a century. But it doesn't feel that way at all. Even when I occupy my grandfather's room (I'm sitting on his bed as I type these words), the place is not consumed with his absence.

And then I realized that what made my grandmother's absence so profound was the undying heartache of how much he missed her. The emptiness that's filled the house for years has been the emptiness of separation. Now that my grandparents are no longer separated, that emptiness no longer fills every corner of the house. It's peaceful here, not depressing or eerie.

It is, admittedly, sometimes a little bit lonely. I am glad in those moments especially that I have a cat.

(2)

I take immense comfort in the way the details came together in the final week of my grandfather's life. I feel like God knew exactly who needed to be here, and who didn't, and arranged it just so. The people we all would have expected to be here for the end -- the daughter who lives in the next city and myself -- were both on vacation. Because of that, two other daughters and the necessary professional caregivers were here. I do not regret that I was not here at the very end, but I am very glad that my mother and her sister were.

I expected to be devestated when this happened, and am surprised that I am not. I miss him, to be sure. But having witnessed how he struggled with the physical limitations that plagued him in his final months, it feels like it would be selfish to wish him back. I'm sorry that I didn't get the chance to sit with him and go through his watch collection and have him tell me the stories of where each one came from, as we were planning to do when I came back from my vacation. But I'm not sorry that he is free from the "thorns in the flesh" that were such a burden to him of late. And I am grateful that the painful part of the dying process was not drawn out, and that he got the death he wanted: at home, not hooked up to machines, with his children at his side.

I am somewhat anxious about what comes next for me, although there are some developments just in the last 24 hours (that I'm not going to tell you about just yet -- sorry!) that make it feel like that, too, is coming together in possibly wonderful ways. I am hopeful, if unsettled by the uncertainty. And I am deeply grateful for the prayers of caring friends.

Apt descriptions

So, there are a lot of bad theological habits embedded in evangelical popular piety.  And often (for me, at least), a person can run into some such expression and feel like there's something just not right about it, but be hesitant to quibble because it seems petty or unspiritual to object to something that's couched in pious-sounding language.  That's probably the reason I so appreciate it when I come across a turn of phrase that does an especially good job of naming just what is wrong about certain ways of thinking/speaking/acting, as I have several times in the last couple of days. To wit:

"Romantic Prosperity Gospel" -- the myth that trusting in God and sexual obedience guarantees the reward of an out-of-this-world romantic marriage experience.

"Spiritual Incantations" --  quoting snippets of scripture out of context in the hopes that applying the Word of God to an unrelated situation will compel God to act the way we want him to.

“Thou shalt not use the name of thy Lord and Savior as a tool for passive-aggressive manipulation!"-- the best response to those religious chain letters/memes that imply that the reader is a bad Christian if s/he doesn't pass on the spam.

In Praise of Facebook

A new article over at Relevant Magazine talks about the dangers of Facebook envy and the threat social media poses to true community. 

I want to be sympathetic to the author's concerns, but I have to object to the way she universalizes one kind of experience with social media and suggests that it is inherent to those media themselves.  For some of us, Facebook can be a valuable tool for promoting true community.

Niequist writes:

We check [Facebook] when we’re bored and when we’re lonely, and it intensifies that boredom and loneliness.

Huh?

I check Facebook when I'm bored and/or lonely, sure.  (Not only when I'm bored or lonely, but some of the times I check Facebook are also times that I'm bored or lonely.)  But it doesn't intensify those feelings -- it helps to relieve them.  I cease to be bored because my friends invariably post really interesting stuff that's worth reading on Facebook.  I cease to be lonely because there's a reasonably good chance that checking Facebook (at least at certain times of the day) will lead to having a real-time chat conversation with someone who loves me who is also on Facebook at the same time. And even if I don't end up in a direct exchange with a friend, I feel less alone simply by being connected with my friends' lives, sharing their everyday sorrows and joys as they come across in their status updates.

She continues:
... it only takes one friend at the Eiffel Tower to make you feel like a loser.

Again, Huh?

I can't say it any better than Jon Stewart:  "I'm not a doctor, but if you get upset because other people are happy, it seems your problem might not be Facebook, but that you're an asshole."

Seriously: if you respond to the news that one of your friends is in Paris by throwing a pity party for yourself rather than thinking, "That's so cool!  I hope she's having a great time!" -- you need to get over yourself.  And/or seek therapy.

Now, I freely grant that I have an exceptionally good experience with Facebook because I have extraordinary Facebook friends.  Every once in a while I am reminded that most people who use Facebook probably don't encounter a newsfeed filled with articulate, thoughtful, faithful reflections on life, the universe, and everything.  But Niequist's discussion seems to imply that every one of her Facebook friends uses the service only to present a carefully crafted persona that shows them in the best possible light.

I find this kind of hard to believe.  (Although, if it is the case, I guess I can understand why Niequist would find Facebook depressing.)  What I find when I log in to Facebook is not a newsfeed full of show-offs, but an opportunity to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.  I pray for my friends who share their fears and struggles with me using Facebook.  I commiserate and offer encouragement to those who vent their frustration over the annoyances of living in a fallen world.  I laugh with delight at the pictures and anecdotes of my friends' brilliant and beautiful children.  I cheer the victories when my friends share the good news of a major goal accomplished.  Yes, I know, my friends don't show me everything that's going on in their lives, but in the aggregate, I feel like my Facebook feed gives me a realistic snapshot of the daily ups and downs in the lives of people I love, not just a set of "carefully curated images."

...I don’t think you can build transforming friendships that take place only in a public sphere like Facebook or Instagram.

I guess my point of disagreement with Niequist here is in her classification of Facebook as only "a public sphere."  To be fair, in calling her readers to "stop comparing" and "start connecting," she says, "You can use Facebook if you want," while arguing that other media like email, Skype, or text messages might be better suited.  She seems to experience Facebook as a format that encourages the user to passively consume status updates rather than interacting personally with the people who posted them.  But there is nothing about Facebook that forces us to use it that way.

Many of the most intimate and life-giving exchanges I have had on Facebook have been through mechanisms that Facebook provides that are decidedly NOT in the public sphere:  a private, invitation-only group that has become a place where members can reach out for moral support when dealing with hostile interlocutors on more public areas of Facebook (or the broader internet); a private message thread through which a group of friends organized a surprise for a new mother; another private message thread in which we rallied to encourage and pray for a friend with cancer.  I imagine these communications would fit Niequist's definition of connecting and building community.  They did not happen in spite of Facebook; they were things that happened in part because Facebook made them possible.

To my own great surprise, I have true friends whom I have never met in real life, but only know on Facebook.  I do not mean here "friend" only the Facebook sense of the word (I've got a number of those, too), but real friends -- people I love and pray for, people I would be delighted to welcome into my home if they ever come to my side of the country, people I trust, whom I genuinely believe I could call on for help in a crisis, and to whom I would readily offer my assistance if they needed it.  These are people for whom I am immensely grateful, and chances are we would never have known each other (and surely not known each other as well as we do) without Facebook.  They are for me the greatest possible testimony of the potential of Facebook to be a vehicle for real community.

The world is about to turn


I am a devotee of the Great Vigil of Easter.  The most important thing I will do all year is a three-hour worship service tonight that starts with the kindling of the New Fire and recounts the epic story of salvation on which the Christian faith is founded.

I am also a Presbyterian, which is a bit of a problem, because most Presbyterian churches (including my own) do not observe the Vigil.  So for the last eight years, come Holy Saturday, I have been an ecumenical tourist, seeking out some Episcopalian, Lutheran, or (in one case) Methodist church in my area that does have a Vigil.  I've only lived in two cities in this time, but I've attended Easter Vigils at eight different churches in five different cities over the same interval.

I am thankful that my wilderness wanderings with respect to the Vigil are at an end, at least for now, because dear friends of mine who are also devotees of the Great Vigil are living in a neighboring city and are on the steering committee of the new church plant.  There is no way that their church is ever not going to have a Vigil, which means that I have a home to go to for this great service.

It's a 45-60 minute drive, each way, for me to get to their church, so I've put together a playlist for the drive there and the drive back.  Because the Vigil takes place after nightfall, this creates a weird kind of cognitive dissonance: on the way to the Vigil, I am usually driving through a brilliant SoCal spring day, with the sun sparkling off the vivid blue of the Pacific Ocean out to my left, while listening to mournful music of quiet waiting that speaks of darkness and death and entombment.  On the way from the Vigil, I am driving through black night, while listening to/singing along at the top of my lungs with triumphant music about a glorious morning that witnessed the defeat of death and the dawn of new life. 

Really, though, I think there's something profoundly right about the mismatch between my music and my environment on these drives, because Easter is an event that confounds expectations.  This world, even at its brightest and most glorious, is profoundly broken and in need of redemption.  This world, even at its darkest and most despairing, is being redeemed by the same power that brought Jesus Christ back from the dead.

 Songs for Holy Saturday -- Before the Vigil


Songs for Holy Saturday -- After the Vigil

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?

Last year, I noted with some surprise and some relief that Valentine's Day didn't feel like a huge emotional ordeal anymore.  This year feels different still: I'm fairly sure this is the best Valentine's Day I have ever had.  At least, it is almost certainly the best Valentine's Day I've ever had since the worst Valentine's Day I've ever had, which was the day as a teenager when I first really had my heart broken.  (First runner-up for worst Valentine's Day ever: I came down with the chickenpox on Feb. 14, 1989. So I think I come by my antipathy for the holiday quite honestly.)

It has been a beautiful day today.  I have had several rich conversations with people I love, who love me.  And I have received several serendipitous little surprises that have added joy to my day, from discovering that something that I thought might be a problem with my vehicle turns out not to be a problem to happening upon a book that I have long desired for my personal library at the Friends of the Library sale at my public library.

I scroll through my facebook feed, and I find myself reacting with equal delight to the creativity of those who lampoon Valentine's Day as a made-up, manipulative scheme of the Hallmark corporation and to the sincerity of those who use this occasion to declare their love for their spouses, boyfriends or girlfriends, parents, kids, siblings, friends, what have you.  I am blessed with such an amazing collection of people to love, and this fantastic technology that makes it easy to keep in touch with them (even if a certain proportion of them did just sign off for forty days of social media fasting for Lent).

Yet there's a part of me that feels like it's just WRONG for me to be having a good day today, because of something else that is going on at the same time as these rich conversations and little surprises and fun facebook reminders of friends and loved ones: today, someone I love deeply and will miss profoundly is going through the very hard work of leaving this world for the next.

This is a mercy, coming at the end of a long illness that has brought much sorrow to my loved one and those closest to him.  It is a Good Death, with a devoted son keeping vigil, with many other loved ones accompanying him with their prayers, with excellent, compassionate medical and personal care (High Desert Hospice and Pelican Pointe Memory Care Community: may your tribes increase!). He is not suffering, and, as my mother loves to say, "heaven will be better."  Not only that: heaven will be perfect.  But the world will be a poorer place for those of us who are going to catch up later.

But even if today ends up being the day that this precious, faithful soul finishes the race set out for him, I don't think that's going to catapult 2013 to the top of the list of worst St. Valentine's Days Ever.  I'm reminded of how we got Saint's Days in the first place: the early church commemorated the faithful departed not on the dates of their births, but on the dates of their deaths, for that was the date on which they were born into the new life to come.  If this is the day, then St. Valentine's Day will forever after be for me St. Jim's Day, an unshakeable reminder that I have been truly, deeply loved, and I have the precious and privileged heritage of sharing that love for as long as the Lord gives me life.

Give rest, O Christ, to your servant with your saints, where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting. Amen.

ETA, 8 p.m. PDT:  A blessed St. Jim's Day to all, especially his family and beloved friends.  Acknowledge, O merciful Savior, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace,
and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.

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