28 October 2006

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

I've been lucky enough to live in a number of places in the world, and I've seen many beautiful sites. As many places as I've been, Tennessee is the place to be in the fall. My home state is home to one of the largest stands of decidious forests in North America, and the leaves on these trees are just vivid this fall.

Last weekend, we went up to Crossville (about 600 feet higher in elevation) to meet Jenny's brothers, Johnathan and Toby, among others. We met at a place called Cumberland Mountain State Park. The park has a two-mile trail that meanders around a mountain lake. The still waters reflected and amplified the brilliant colors on the trees.

I'll let the pictures speak for themselves.

Jesus and Drama

Last week I got a "help" e-mail from a friend who is on a church school board. Plans for the school Christmas program were being stalled because parents of three of the twelve kids in the school would not let their kids participate in drama (presumably for religious reasons).

Having weathered a few of these ridiculous and wasteful controversies, I used the question as an excuse to expound on some of the research I've conducted on drama in the Gospels. I'll include it below for your enlightenment.

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The drama issue was one of the significant things that finally pried me and my family loose from the Pit of Prejudice that I used to attend at Highland, so be careful. You're not really dealing with anything or anyone rational here, which means that there isn't anything in the Bible or Ellen G. White that will change these people's minds.

The definition of a dysfunctional church is one where decisions are based on prejudice, while a productive church makes decisions based upon the leading of the Holy Spirit.

At the time my church was cannibalizing itself, I prepared a number of salient points based solely on the Bible. Again, this doesn't change people's minds in the least, but I'll share them with you anyway.

Pardon the pun, but Jesus was well versed in drama as in other forms of literature common at the time like parable and allegory. Consider Acts 26.14, where Paul recounts his conversion before the court of King Agrippa. "Jesus told Paul, 'Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.'"

What is kicking against the goads and what does it have to do with drama? It is actually a famous line from a play by the famous Greek playwright, Eurippides, called "The Bacchae." At this time, Eurippides was considered on the same level as Shakespeare might be seen today. His plays were commonly produced, and taught in schools of philosophy and rhetoric. For someone to refer to "kicking against the goads" would be like someone today saying, "To be or not to be," or "Life's but a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more." Now of course it is possible to know these famous lines without having seen "Hamlet" or "Macbeth," but they are significant nonetheless.

It is also interesting to read "The Bacchae" that is referenced by this quote. It is given to the King Pentheus of Thebes by the god, Bacchus. The back story goes that Bacchus's mother had conceived him with the help of the god Jupiter/Zeus. He had successfully proselytized in Anatolia and had built a religious following there, but when he returned to his hometown, he was dishonored: his followers were persecuted, and he was thrown into jail. In a confrontation where Pentheus accuses him of sacriledge and threatens to destroy him, Bacchus asks him, "Why do you kick against the goads?" i.e. Why do you challenge something that will only hurt you? Pentheus ignores him and marches out to imprison the followers of Bacchus (who include Pentheus's own mother). It ends tragically. Pentheus' mother goes crazy (Bacchus was the god of wine after all) and murders Pentheus, chops him up and eats him before she can come to her senses.

This is the drama called to mind with the words the risen Jesus used there on the road to Damascus. (Not surprisingly, early pagan sceptics accused the disciples of basing false stories of Jesus on plays like "The Bacchae.") It is the same way that saying phrases like, "Party On, Dude" or "Isn't That Special" awaken in our generation specific memories of our teenhood.

Personally, I can't explain fully why Jesus used the quote. It seems obvious that anyone growing up in the culture of his day would have been exposed to Eurippides--as were all of the people listening to his sermons in Galilee and Judea. (Ellen White misquotes weren't around at the time to lead people astray, apparently.) He was probably trying to make a culture-related point to Paul--and Paul's subsequent gentile audiences--much like pastors make today.

A couple more parallels.

At the time Jesus was growing up, there were massive building projects in Sepphoris. Now the Bible NEVER mentions this town, even though it was a thriving, cosmopolitan city just four miles away from Nazareth. (It's the equivalent of having the most famous book in the world describe life in Lumberton, Mississippi, without ever mentioning Hattiesburg!) Sepphoris had been leveled in AD 10 by the Romans after the rebellion of Judas the Galilean, and Herod invested tons of money into the city. Among the public buildings he created was a state-of-the-art theater. Would a young, Nazarene carpenter/handyman like Jesus have found work in a place like Sepphoris in the years prior to his ministry? Of course. Could he have worked on the theater--it was the largest building project of its kind, it is highly likely.

The most convincing demonstration of Jesus' familiarity with the theater was the way he used theatrical terms in his teaching. The most interesting of these came in a term he used for his pharisaical opponents. He used a theater term, hypocisys, from which we get the word hypocrites. At the time, actors in the theater wore masks before their faces: hypocisys means "masked men" or "actors." By calling the Pharisees "hypocrites," Jesus was pointing out the fact that they were merely putting on an act for the world to see, even though their hearts were hollow and they could care less for people, among which were "the least of these," the children they were asked to minister to.

Here's an idea:

Encourage the "hypocrites" on your church board to humble themselves and remove their masks of prejudicial Religiousness. Tell them about the children in your church and the wonderful ways that drama enlivens their ministry (kids can't preach sermons, but drama is an early introduction to ministry). Read to them Matthew 18.10, "See that you do not look down on one of these little ones."

Then let prejudice run its course. You're doomed. I hate to say it, but it's true.

23 October 2006

I Had THE Talk with Ellie Today

Every dad has to have THE talk with his little girl. We don't look forward to it. It just sneaks up on us, and the next thing we know we're asking questions like:
"Do you really know what your getting into here?"
"What are you going to do if anyone asks you about what you're wearing?"
"I'm worried about you going there by yourself."

These questions and more came to mind when I realized that Ellie was accessing her first chat room. Groovygirl.com is apparently the rage among Ellie's friends, letting little girls create their own characters, dress them up any way they want, and even add highlights and jewelry!

They can go camping or shopping--they can even go to a dance, and all around them are other avatars of kids from Maine to California.


Today I spent some time looking over Ellie's shoulder to figure the whole thing out. She had her friend, Kaitlyn, on the phone, and they were talking about where to meet online. "I'm going to Fashionista Fashion Show #2," Ellie said at one time, before she decided to move on to Campground #4 for a meet-up with Kaitlyn.

This went on more than 90 minutes before I beckoned Ellie back to reality and got her off the phone. From what I could tell, the chat was carefully regulated. The kids couldn't really type their own messages. They merely chose from among a number of provided questions and answers.

With that said, it's still bizarre to see the virtual worlds that Ellie has access to. When I was a kid, long distance charges were 18 cents a minute. When I moved away from my friends, there was NO way to communicate or keep in touch. Since Ellie's best friend, Darby, moved away 14 months ago, they have kept in daily contact via e-mail and phone (here we pay a flat rate per month for unlimited long distance).

I guess that's life in the 21st Century for a dad like me. As far as THAT OTHER talk, well, I guess I have a few more years to prepare for that one.

20 October 2006

Words on the Wind

Such is the heterodoxy of my religious life: our family attends an Adventist service on Friday nights in Portland and Methodist services on Sunday mornings in Bethpage (25 minutes' drive away).

Tonight at Oasis (the name of the Adventist church-plant group), my friend Melissa tapped me on the back about five minutes before the program ended. "Can you give the closing prayer?" she asked.

Immediately, God put a poem in my mind. I wrote it down and recited it as the prayer. We've been studying the Book of Acts and meditating on the Pentecost. Here it goes:

Outside, the wind blows
It is cold
We shiver
We know the year is
waning--it is almost at an end.

A Holy Wind blows within us
It is warm
We shake
We know that our lives begin again with you.


18 October 2006

JD Recommends

I don't have a lot of time to post, but I wanted to let you know about a new streaming radio station that I found. It's "Acoustic Praise Cafe" through Word of Truth Radio.

I enjoy it because it features some of my favorite Christian artists, Derek Webb, Andrew Peterson, and Jill Phillips. I like listening early in the morning, when I'm grading my homework papers.

Check it out!

07 October 2006

The Big Game

I haven't been able to post anything about the Cincinnati Reds game I attended two weeks ago. I'm happy to say that my friend, Eric, e-mailed me the digital pictures from the game today, and I am posting them within minutes of seeing them for the first time myself.

Our day began in Newport, KY, just across the river from Cincinnati. We met Eric and his girlfriend, Julie, at a shopping mall there, and then we walked across the river to Great American Ballpark, home of the Reds. Our first stop at the ballpark was the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame and Museum, just outside the park. They had a cool kids' place in the museum which had a slide and a clubhouse for the kids. Jonah had his Reds' hat on (Owen and Ellie were at a school field day).

Next to the slide was a locker room. We dressed Jonah up in a red-sripted jersey and gave him a bat and a glove. You can't tell, but the jersey had the number of Barry Larkin, an all-star shortstop from the 90s. While Jonah was posing, Eric and I took some practice pitches in a pitching cage. It's cool, you throw pitches, and a radar gun will give you your speed and tell whether it was a strike or a ball. People can also stand behind home plate and look through plexiglass to see how fast the pitches are coming. I topped out at 62 mph.

There were a number of fascinating things at the museum. The coolest thing for me was the display of 4,256 baseballs, which equals the American record for hits by Pete Rose, the player who was my favorite growing up. I had two posters of him in my room, and I modeled my game after him in every way. Well, the hits exhibit is impressive. The balls are lined up in rows about 20 feet wide, and they ascend 3 1/2 stories! It really puts into perspective what an incredible record Rose holds. (For those who aren't baseball fans, Pete Rose is a legend--the street in front of the stadium is called "Pete Rose Way"--but he is not allowed to work for the Reds or take an official part in any major league baseball game because he bet on baseball games as a manager in 1988 and 1989.)

One exhibit that Jonah recognized was the room that featured Cincinnati's 1919 World Series victory over the heavily favored Chicago White Sox. Ten months after the Reds won, word leaked out that several White Sox players had accepted payments from gamblers to "throw" games. One of the White Sox players implicated in the gambling inquiry was "Shoeless" Joe Jackson--his average for the series was .375, so it is hard to make a case that he actually played poorly. All eight players who took money from gamblers were banned from baseball for life--sort of like Pete Rose is currently banned. Jonah's nickname over the summer was "Shoeless Jo," because he refused to wear shoes of any kind!

They have a big exhibit on the Big Red Machine, teams that went to the World Series four times during the 1970s. In the middle of the exhibit are statues of eight Reds players celebrating the 1975 championship: Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, Cesar Geronimo, Ken Griffey, Sr., George Foster, Dave Concepcion, Tony Perez, and Pete Rose. Jonah immediately tried to climb on the statues. As it turned out, the player whose leg he chose to climb was his daddy's favorite, Pete Rose!

The game gave Eric and me a chance to catch up on the last 12 years of our lives. Eric sells sports tickets and sports memorabilia on E-bay and makes a nice living for himself. His girlfriend, Julie, is pregnant with their first child, a girl due in January. We started the game with neat seats, front row in the left field bleachers. We made it through the first five innings there, after which we got up to look around the ballpark. There were plenty of porches from which to watch the game. The Chicago Cubs jumped out to a 2-1 lead, which held until the 9th inning.

By this time, we had found our way to seats on the 1st-base line. The Reds came up in the bottom of the 9th inning to fact Ryan Dempster. I was excited, because Dempster used to pitch for the Reds and he used to lose game after game for them in the late innings.

Sure enough, the Reds loaded the bases, and a wild pitch by Dempster allowed the tying run to score. With the bases loaded and one out, Royce Clayton came up to bat. (The picture at right shows the final at-bat. You can see the bases loaded. If you look at the scoreboard along the left-field wall, you can see where we were sitting at the beginning of the game.)

I was going crazy. I went to one Reds game a summer from the ages of 11 and 18. It seemed like they always lost. Yet here I was, eleven again, jumping and shouting and screaming. Unfortunately, Jonah had fallen asleep on my shoulder. Somehow he slept through all the clapping and chants of "Charge!" and "Let's Go Reds!"

Clayton came up with the score tied. He hit a sharp single to left, just beyond the reach of the diving third baseman. The Reds had won the game in exciting fashion.

It was beyond the best game I had ever attended; it was beyond an excellent chance to reconnect with my best friend; it was beyond the bizarre aspect of time travel that let me re-live being an eleven-year-old kid while supervizing my own three-year-old son. I just can't describe all the memories and emotions that I went through that day.

After the game, Eric gave me a special gift: four packs of unopened Fleer baseball cards from 1981, the year he and I had begun collecting baseball cards together. He had bought them at a card convention, and he had saved a few packs to give me for memory's sake. "They still have gum!" he exclaimed, referring to the pink sticks of gum that used to come with the cards. I gave one pack to Jonah, Ellie and Owen, and I opened one for myself. (I would not let any of the kids eat the gum, just for the record, which was 25 years old!)

The first thing I noticed was the smell: gum, cardboard, and the wax paper. Next came the feeling of the cards in my fingers. My thumb went into action, thumbing through the cards, looking for memorable players. It's like my thumb had a memory, because it just took off through those cards, just as it had done thousands of times with tens of thousands of cards when I was a kid.

It proved to be a long day. Jonah and I left at 5:15 that morning and returned around 9 that night. It was worth every minute, because it reconnected me with parts of my life I had nearly forgotten.

One baseball game. One pack of cards. One lifelong friend. My lifetime. That's what one afternoon in Cincinnati did for me.

Safety at School

I didn't have a chance to post immediately after the most recent and most horrific of the recend epidemic of school shootings here. Maybe it has just taken me this long to really come to terms with it.

On Tuesday, the day after a one-room church school was invaded in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, my high school staged an intruder alert. My class was in the library at the time (a terrible place, considering that was the place where most of the kids died at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in 1999. The objective during an intruder alert is to get students out of sight of the door, in hope that an intruder will take a look and move on. We went into the storeroom and waited for the all clear.

I wasn't teaching when the Columbine Massacre happened, I was in Albania. When I returned to teaching six months later, I couldn't believe how much had changed! Every classroom door was locked and closed. At the first school where I taught, students and teachers had to display ID badges. Only one entrance to the school was left open. I felt like I was teaching in an armed fort!

At the school I teach in now, there aren't quite so many security plans in place, although I feel pretty safe. There is an armed sheriff's deputy on the campus of each middle and high school. Occasionally, after a fight or something serious, he will be seen leading a student away in handcuffs. Last year, we had a lockdown while drug-sniffing dogs went through the hallways and parking lots. There are security cameras on every hallway and every entrance. It's pretty secure, I guess.

I think it's safe to say that I probably have one of the most secure workplaces in the county--yet it remains one of the most vulnerable.

Even with all those plans in place, there is very little to stop an armed madman determined to gain entry (and molest female students, as the two recent shootings have involved). Apparently, the increase in security at public schools may have had something to do with the madman in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, choosing an isolated, unsecure church school as a target.

What are we to do, then?

1. One legislator in Wisconsin believes that we should give firearms to teachers. This is a dumb idea, although it might have given me an extreme way to cut down on problem students in my 4th-block class (see Atypical below).
2. We could try the old method of using a five-day waiting period before the purchase of a gun. This worked throughout the Nineties, but the law has lapsed under the current national leadership.

I don't know. When a questionnaire went around Tuesday about possible security measures, I recommended that all adults on campus--if not all students--have ID. I also thought it would be a good idea to put one-way glass on the doors, along with signs declaring that an armed sheriff's officer was on the campus. I thought that might give intruders pause before entering.

05 October 2006

MIA or My Country the Crack Whore

There is an amazing story in the latest issue of Esquire magazine about the only American soldier missing in action (MIA) in Iraq.

The writer, Brian Mockenhaupt, brings out the full picture of what it means to be an American in Iraq. It is a place that is exhilerating yet terrifying, a place where patriots become mass murderers (and vice versa), a place where the only thing uglier than death is life itself.

The article recreates the April 2004 ambush during which Matt Maupin disappeared from the convoy which he was guarding. A few weeks later he showed up on Al Jazeera, surrounded by some insurgent group calling itself the Sharp Sword Against the Enemies of God and his Prophet. There has been no sign of him since.

His mother surrounds herself with angel figurines and yellow ribbons. She won't shake the belief that Matt will come home again. His dad has promised not to shave his beard until Matt returns.

Last spring, he met President Bush when Bush threw out the first pitch at a Cincinnati Reds game. "When are you gonna cut that thing?" Bush asked him.

Matt's dad answered, "When you bring home my boy."

In the hope and frustration I felt after reading the article, it occurred to me that this is how addictive war can be. War has to be the most addictive substance in the world. Compared to drugs, sex, or gambling, it is far more destructive, far more costly, far more pernicious.

Think about the new round of justifications for the Iraq War: somehow leaving would mean that the deaths of Americans there would have been in vain--so we sacrifice more of our men and women so that their deaths can someday be justified by more deaths; or there is the shrill talk of "victory" by the President and the mission "yet to be accomplished. My favorite one is the "untold" number of lives saved from terrorist attacks in the American homeland by the destruction of tens of thousands of lives in Iraq.

Compare this with addictions. I've worked with addicts in prisons and halfway houses, so I'm pretty experienced with this crowd. "I'm working on it," they will say before disappearing for another hit. Addicts can also paint wonderful pictures of what progress they will make "on the wagon" away from the gutter, and they like to pretend that they could be a lot worse off--even if it doesn't make sense to the observer.

Even now, as two wars go wrong, we hear whispers from the addicts in Washington calling for "one more war [against Iran]." All it will take is one more--that's all, then we can quit, we know we can.

Except war breeds only more war. One of the orphans created by Americans in Iraq over the last 2 1/2 years is destined to someday make orphans out of innocent American children. One of the methods used in winning the Cold War against the Soviets was the arming of mujahadin by the United States. We know how that turned out.

I think that people in other countries recognize how addictive war can be. Tell a German or Japanese about a "good war," and they will just roll their eyes. I think people in other countries now look at the United States with the same combination of fear and pity that use to view whinos and druggies.

Americans still see themselves as Lady Liberty, but to the rest of the world, our country looks like a Meth Addict, plastering its face with lipstick and stumbling around in high heels, fishnet stockings and miniskirt askew (as in the picture, right, of a meth addict).

It isn't a matter of if but when our country must recover from this addiction. I don't want to have to learn the hard way: the way the peoples of France, Germany, and Japan had to learn. I would like to do what I can to help my country kick the habit: no more blood, no more war, no more "addict answers" to problems that require cooperation and not violence.