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Things worth worrying about

The Large Hadron, you may remember, is the 17-mile-long particle accelerator being built near Geneva. Once it’s up and running, its designers believe it will take particle physics research to a whole new level. Its critics think it may create a black hole that will swallow up the universe. This is what is known as a wide range of possibilities.

I am bringing this up now because it is always important to remember that things could be worse. You may be worried about a new cold war or a major bank failure, or afraid of losing your job or your house or your credit rating. You may be depressed by your first look at the fall TV schedule.

Whatever your concerns, it is important, in these dark moments, to remember that other people have been having a worse summer than you. To name just a few: John Edwards, the mayor of Detroit and all the people involved in the making of “The Love Guru.”

Perspective is all. If you’re going to fret, I say, fret about that black hole. For one thing, it makes it much easier to schedule unpleasant tasks for the second half of September. Heads, the planet survives. Tails, the root canal never happens.

– Gail Collins, “Digging Ourselves A Black Hole“, NYT, 23 Aug 2008

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What To Do About Evil

“We see evil all the time. We see evil in Darfur. We see evil, sadly, on the streets of our cities… It has to be confronted squarely…[but also it] is very important for to us have some humility in how we approach the issue of confronting evil, because a lot of evil’s been perpetrated based on the claim that we were trying to confront evil…in the name of good. [J]ust because we think that our intentions are good, doesn’t always mean that we’re going to be doing good.” – Obama

“Defeat it.” – McCain

“But I say to you, ‘Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.'” – Jesus

“He who is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly.” – The book of Proverbs

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Some scraps from this week’s reading

“Indecisiveness, capriciousness–these qualities in Rema never irritated me. I’ve always thought of my own mind as an unruly parliament, with a feeble leader, with crazy extremist factions, and so I don’t look down on others for being the same. Maybe that’s what ‘our humanity’ means. My mother was like this also: often she’d run bathwater, set the kettle for tea, and go out for a walk nearly all at once…” 

“My heart always goes out to beautiful people, which I realize really isn’t fair, but at least my heart goes somewhere.”

– Rivka Galchen, Atmospheric Disturbances

 

“…Anna is not aware that the casualness in Rafael she witnesses is inconsistent with his nature (save for the territorial precision with which he flicked that bee off his guitar in her presence a few days earlier), while he knows scarcely a thing about her. Who is she? This woman who has led him into this medicine cabinet of a room where most of her possessions exist–books, journals, passport, a carefully folded map, archival tapes, even the soap she has brought with her from her other world. As if this orderly collection of things is what she is. So we fall in love with ghosts.”

– Michael Ondaatje, Divisadero

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An Evil Man

If you haven’t been paying attention, there are some really bad things going on in Zimbabwe right now. Robert Mugabe, the president of the country, who is an evil man, lost his bid for re-election a few months ago but refused to step down, instead forcing a runoff election which is scheduled for this week. His government and the police forces have used the intervening time to systematically kill and torture members of the opposition party, with the explicit intention of scaring off voters who might vote against him in the runoff.

These are the words of Mugabe from last week: “We are not going to give up our country for a mere X on a ballot,” he said in a speech last week. “How can a ballpoint pen fight with a gun?” (quoted in the NY Times today in an article called “Assassins Aim at Zimbabwe Opposition”. Read it if you have the stomach for it.)

It makes me feel both angry and helpless to read this. How can this be going on right now, under this same sun that is shining out my window? A year ago I flew over Zimbabwe, looking down at the forests and farmland of that beautiful country. It is a real place, not just a story on the news. But what can I do?

The attached PDF contains some images and an article from someone who visited the country recently. They are not easy things to think about or see, partly because if I see, I start to become responsible to act. It’s much easier to look away.

PDF: who is zimbabwe

If nothing else, and maybe most importantly, we can pray for the country and pray for the people who are suffering under an evil government addicted to power and pray that truth and justice prevails.

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One of the biggest reasons I’m voting for Obama

I just had dinner at a Nile-side restaurant with two Egyptian officials and a businessman, and one of them quoted one of his children as asking: “Could something like this ever happen in Egypt?” And the answer from everyone at the table was, of course, “no.” It couldn’t happen anywhere in this region. Could a Copt become president of Egypt? Not a chance. Could a Shiite become the leader of Saudi Arabia? Not in a hundred years. A Bahai president of Iran? In your dreams. Here, the past always buries the future, not the other way around.

Yes, all of this Obama-mania is excessive and will inevitably be punctured should he win the presidency and start making tough calls or big mistakes. For now, though, what it reveals is how much many foreigners, after all the acrimony of the Bush years, still hunger for the “idea of America” — this open, optimistic, and, indeed, revolutionary, place so radically different from their own societies.

In his history of 19th-century America, “What Hath God Wrought,” Daniel Walker Howe quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson as telling a meeting of the Mercantile Library Association in 1844 that “America is the country of the future. It is a country of beginnings, of projects, of vast designs and expectations.”

That’s the America that got swallowed by the war on terrorism. And it’s the America that many people want back. I have no idea whether Obama will win in November. Whether he does or doesn’t, though, the mere fact of his nomination has done something very important. We’ve surprised ourselves and surprised the world and, in so doing, reminded everyone that we are still a country of new beginnings.

– Thomas Friedman, Obama On The Nile, NY Times, 11 June 2008

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How to save the world

I know this is long and nobody reads long blog posts, but it’s a challenging piece of a challenging article. And I think if you pay attention to it, you’ll find it exciting and it may stimulate you to do some creative thinking, like it did for me…

The idea is to find one thing to do in your life that doesn’t involve spending or voting, that may or may not virally rock the world but is real and particular (as well as symbolic) and that, come what may, will offer its own rewards. Maybe you decide to give up meat, an act that would reduce your carbon footprint by as much as a quarter. Or you could try this: determine to observe the Sabbath. For one day a week, abstain completely from economic activity: no shopping, no driving, no electronics.

But the act I want to talk about is growing some — even just a little — of your own food. Rip out your lawn, if you have one, and if you don’t — if you live in a high-rise, or have a yard shrouded in shade — look into getting a plot in a community garden. Measured against the Problem We Face, planting a garden sounds pretty benign, I know, but in fact it’s one of the most powerful things an individual can do — to reduce your carbon footprint, sure, but more important, to reduce your sense of dependence and dividedness: to change the cheap-energy mind.

A great many things happen when you plant a vegetable garden, some of them directly related to climate change, others indirect but related nevertheless. Growing food, we forget, comprises the original solar technology: calories produced by means of photosynthesis. Years ago the cheap-energy mind discovered that more food could be produced with less effort by replacing sunlight with fossil-fuel fertilizers and pesticides, with a result that the typical calorie of food energy in your diet now requires about 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce. It’s estimated that the way we feed ourselves (or rather, allow ourselves to be fed) accounts for about a fifth of the greenhouse gas for which each of us is responsible.

Yet the sun still shines down on your yard, and photosynthesis still works so abundantly that in a thoughtfully organized vegetable garden (one planted from seed, nourished by compost from the kitchen and involving not too many drives to the garden center), you can grow the proverbial free lunch — CO2-free and dollar-free. This is the most-local food you can possibly eat (not to mention the freshest, tastiest and most nutritious), with a carbon footprint so faint that even the New Zealand lamb council dares not challenge it. And while we’re counting carbon, consider too your compost pile, which shrinks the heap of garbage your household needs trucked away even as it feeds your vegetables and sequesters carbon in your soil. What else? Well, you will probably notice that you’re getting a pretty good workout there in your garden, burning calories without having to get into the car to drive to the gym. (It is one of the absurdities of the modern division of labor that, having replaced physical labor with fossil fuel, we now have to burn even more fossil fuel to keep our unemployed bodies in shape.) Also, by engaging both body and mind, time spent in the garden is time (and energy) subtracted from electronic forms of entertainment.

You begin to see that growing even a little of your own food is, as Wendell Berry pointed out 30 years ago, one of those solutions that, instead of begetting a new set of problems — the way “solutions” like ethanol or nuclear power inevitably do — actually beget other solutions, and not only of the kind that save carbon. Still more valuable are the habits of mind that growing a little of your own food can yield. You quickly learn that you need not be dependent on specialists to provide for yourself — that your body is still good for something and may actually be enlisted in its own support. If the experts are right, if both oil and time are running out, these are skills and habits of mind we’re all very soon going to need. We may also need the food. Could gardens provide it? Well, during World War II, victory gardens supplied as much as 40 percent of the produce Americans ate.

But there are sweeter reasons to plant that garden, to bother. At least in this one corner of your yard and life, you will have begun to heal the split between what you think and what you do, to commingle your identities as consumer and producer and citizen. Chances are, your garden will re-engage you with your neighbors, for you will have produce to give away and the need to borrow their tools. You will have reduced the power of the cheap-energy mind by personally overcoming its most debilitating weakness: its helplessness and the fact that it can’t do much of anything that doesn’t involve division or subtraction. The garden’s season-long transit from seed to ripe fruit — will you get a load of that zucchini?! — suggests that the operations of addition and multiplication still obtain, that the abundance of nature is not exhausted. The single greatest lesson the garden teaches is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum, and that as long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world.

– Michael Pollan, New York Times Magazine, April 20, 2008 (read the full article here)

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On How Things Are

It is quite true what philosophy says: that life must be understood backward. But then one forgets the other principle: that it must be lived forward. Which principle, the more one thinks it through, ends exactly with the thought that temporal life can never properly be understood.

– Soren Kierkegaard, quoted by Joseph Bottum in “The Judgement of Memory”

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Book Review: On The Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness by Andrew Peterson

book cover

I have to admit that I was a little skeptical about this one. Andrew Peterson is high on my list of favorite singer/songwriters, but I wasn’t sure that his considerable talent would translate well to the novel format. After all, you need more than a couple verses and a hooky chorus to make a storybook sing.

But aside from a few reservations about the sheer ridiculousness of some of the character names, I loved it. I found the book to be really enjoyable, suspenseful, quite funny, and possessed of its own unique voice.

The story follows the fantastic adventures of three children–Janner, Tink, and Leeli–as they look for treasure, hide from the bad guys, and try to unravel the mysteries of their own past. The pace and tempo are similar in some ways to the Harry Potter books, but with much more fun and much more hope.

Along the way, they are chased by all manner of strange creatures, including toothy cows (which are hilarious to imagine, but not to meet in person) and the Fangs of Dang (which are smelly, ill-humored villains with a taste for maggotloaf.) They explore Anklejelly Manor. They end up in the Fang dungeon twice. They narrowly escape certain death numerous times. In the end, they…well, you’ll have to read it, I guess.

For me, what made this book more than just light entertainment was the presence of two deeper themes. The first–a fierce love of family–was a refreshing departure from the dysfunctional relationships and remote or absent adults of so many other modern children’s stories.

The second theme, which gave this book its heart, was the acknowledgement of and longing after something deeper, some mystery beyond understanding. To quote Frederick Buechner quoting Rinkitink, the king of Oz, “Never question the truth of what you fail to understand, for the world is filled with wonders.” After a day of near disaster, little Leeli sings a song of sadness and hope that makes even the dragons fall silent. And then the moment of beauty passes without explanation and we never understand what really happened there on the rock overlooking the Dark Sea. But in the gloom a light shimmers and brings hope of something bigger, some deeper magic. Despite the danger and doubts, still we discover a world full of wonder. As far as I’m concerned, that, and a toothy cow or two, is all you really need for a pretty good adventure.

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Patrick Oden on Knowing Who You Are

“If you aren’t being creative, then you have no idea who God has made you to be.”

– It’s A Dance: Moving With The Holy Spirit by Patrick Oden

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The Story of Stuff

home-digger3.gifIf you saw the post from a couple weeks ago on plastic, you know that I’ve been thinking about my own consumption habits. I keep seeing plastic everywhere I look and thinking about the fact that it will last pretty much forever. That seems like a high price to pay for that plastic bag and the 45 seconds it takes for me to move my groceries from the checkstand to the trunk of my car.

So I’ve bought a couple cloth bags and have decided to be that slightly strange guy who brings his own bags to the grocery store.

In addition to that, I’ve been thinking about the things I buy, my addiction to gadgets, my storage shed full of junk. So this morning I ran across this video on Susan’s website and once again I’m going to steal and repost (I don’t think she’ll mind). It’s called the Story of Stuff and it outlines the consumer process in an interesting, funny, challenging way and gives a condensed overview of this monster we’ve created. It takes 20 minutes to watch but I promise you it will change the way you think.

The Story of Stuff

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Barack Obama on Talking About Truth

And perhaps it was out of this intimate knowledge of hardship — the grounding of faith in struggle — that the church offered me a second insight, one that I think is important to emphasize today.Faith doesn’t mean that you don’t have doubts.You need to come to church in the first place precisely because you are first of this world, not apart from it. You need to embrace Christ precisely because you have sins to wash away – because you are human and need an ally in this difficult journey.

It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street in the Southside of Chicago one day and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn’t fall out in church. The questions I had didn’t magically disappear. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt that I heard God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth.

That’s a path that has been shared by millions upon millions of Americans – evangelicals, Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims alike; some since birth, others at certain turning points in their lives. It is not something they set apart from the rest of their beliefs and values. In fact, it is often what drives their beliefs and their values.

And that is why that, if we truly hope to speak to people where they’re at – to communicate our hopes and values in a way that’s relevant to their own – then as progressives, we cannot abandon the field of religious discourse.

Because when we ignore the debate about what it means to be a good Christian or Muslim or Jew; when we discuss religion only in the negative sense of where or how it should not be practiced, rather than in the positive sense of what it tells us about our obligations towards one another; when we shy away from religious venues and religious broadcasts because we assume that we will be unwelcome – others will fill the vacuum, those with the most insular views of faith, or those who cynically use religion to justify partisan ends.

In other words, if we don’t reach out to evangelical Christians and other religious Americans and tell them what we stand for, then the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons and Alan Keyeses will continue to hold sway.

More fundamentally, the discomfort of some progressives with any hint of religion has often prevented us from effectively addressing issues in moral terms. Some of the problem here is rhetorical – if we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice.

Imagine Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address without reference to “the judgments of the Lord.” Or King’s I Have a Dream speech without references to “all of God’s children.” Their summoning of a higher truth helped inspire what had seemed impossible, and move the nation to embrace a common destiny.

– from his website, Call to Renewal Keynote Address, June 2006

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Andrew Peterson on a Sudden Joyous Turn

I kept watching Aedan and Asher’s faces during certain parts of the movie, like when Shelob poisons Frodo and Sam feels that all is lost. The boys were looking upset, so I paused the DVD and talked to them about eucatastrophe. It’s a word Tolkien coined in his essay “On Fairy Stories” which means, basically, the opposite of catastrophe. He calls eucatastrophe the “sudden joyous turn”. It’s that moment when all seems lost, when evil seems to have finally overcome every good thing, when the hero can go no further. Then light prevails against the darkness. The good guys win.

When you’re writing a story, like I am now, you realize that there’s not much story if there’s nothing at stake. If there’s no evil, no enemy, no point at which the hero is at the end of his rope, then the thing falls flat for some reason. But if we want the good guys to win (and almost universally we do), why do we put our heroes through so much? Because we grow into what we are meant to be by walking through the fire.

I told the boys about how the story of Jesus’ resurrection is the ultimate eucatastrophe. When Jesus, the perfect man, God made flesh, cries out and exhales his dying breath, the sky is black and roiling, the ground shakes, the dead emerge from their tombs and haunt Jerusalem, and the sheep scatter. But Sunday morning, more than just the sun rises. Everything changes. It’s not just a story, it’s the story. A sudden joyous turn, indeed.

– from The Rabbit Room blog

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Elmo Studd on the New Year

“2007 is gone.

We think 2008 it.”

– sign in front of Elmo Studd’s Building Supplies

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I’m Considering This…

In 1900, The British Medical Journal reported that peasants of the Pskov region in northwestern Russia “adopt the economical expedient” of spending one-half of the year in sleep: “At the first fall of snow the whole family gathers round the stove, lies down, ceases to wrestle with the problems of human existence, and quietly goes to sleep. Once a day every one wakes up to eat a piece of hard bread. … The members of the family take it in turn to watch and keep the fire alight. After six months of this reposeful existence the family wakes up, shakes itself” and “goes out to see if the grass is growing.”- New York Times, The Big Sleep via More Than 95 Theses

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On The Value Of Things, Apart From Me

“The world exists, not for what it means but for what it is. The purpose of mushrooms is to be mushrooms; wine is in order to be wine.  Things are precious before they are contributory … Creation is God’s living room, the place where He sits down and relishes the exquisite state of His decoration … God made the world out of joy; He didn’t need it; He just thought it was a good thing.”- Robert Farrar Capon, quoted in Everything Must Change by Brian McClaren 

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Link: History of Religion in 90 Seconds

How has the geography of religion evolved over the centuries, and where has it sparked wars? Our map gives us a brief history of the world’s most well-known religions: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism.

Link via Boing Boing

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Bilbo Baggins on Courage

I don’t pretend to understand what you are talking about, or your reference to burglars, but think I am right in believing…that you think I am no good. I will show you. I have no signs on my door–it was painted a week ago–, and I am quite sure you have come to the wrong house. As soon as I saw your funny faces on the doorstep, I had my doubts. But treat it as the right one. Tell me what you want done, and I will try it, if I have to walk from here to the East of East and fight the wild Were-worms in the Last Desert.

– Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit

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Currently reading: Typography

Narrow row houses flush with the street are found not only in urban slums but in the loveliest of the old Italian hill towns and Mediterranean villages. A page full of letters presents the same possibilities. It can lapse into a typographic slum, or grow into a model of architectural grace, skilled engineering and simple economy. Broad suburban lawns and wide typographical front yards can also be uninspiringly empty or welcoming and graceful. They can display real treasure, including the treasure of empty space, or they can be filled with souvenirs of wishful thinking. Neoclassical birdbaths and effigies of liveried slaves, stable boys and faded pink flamingoes all have counterparts in the typographic world.

– Robert Bringhurst in The Elements of Typographic Style

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Defense

Nevertheless, I would advise you against defensiveness on principle. It precludes the best eventualities along with the worst. At the most basic level, it expresses a lack of faith. As I have said, the worst eventualities can have great value as experience. And often enough, when we think we are protecting ourselves, we are struggling against our rescuer.

– Reverend John Ames in Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

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