So Much For Doctrinal Integrity And Faithfulness To The Discipline

Faced with no good alternatives, the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference recently negotiated a wayfor its fastest-growing church to leave the denomination but keep the church property.

Theologically conservative Wesley United Methodist Church of Quarryville, Pennsylvania, is now simply Wesley Church, having in June paid the conference $100,000 for the church buildings and land, along with an additional $58,000 in other conference obligations. . . .

Bishop Peggy Johnson, who leads the Eastern Pennsylvania and Peninsula-Delaware conferences, said she tried and failed to get Wesley United Methodist Church to reconsider leaving.

After that, she said, negotiating made sense because of the specifics of the situation, including a nearly $4 million mortgage on the property. – Sam Hodges and Heather Hahn, “Fast Growing Church Leaves With Property”, United Methodist News Service, July 28, 2015

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Dear Wesley UMC, please don't let the door hit your collective ass on the way out.

Dear Wesley UMC, please don’t let the door hit your collective ass on the way out.

Well, it had to happen sooner or later. A combination of bad theology, a refusal to abide by the covenant of faith and Discipline of the United Methodist Church, ignorance and rejection of its doctrine, and a cult of personality around a pastor who has served far too long in a single charge have all led a congregation to leave the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, after a negotiation over property and other issues. To say that I’m not surprised but am angry about this turn of events would be correct. All the talk about faithfulness to The Book of Discipline, about the importance of doctrine, especially upholding our Doctrinal Standards is shown to be nothing but smoke and mirrors, a bunch of nonsense I have always maintained it to be. Rather than submit to the discipline of the Church, to act according to the vows the pastor made at ordination and the legal obligations of the Discipline, the Rev. Blake Deibler has encouraged teachings antithetical to the spirit and letter of the historic doctrine of the United Methodist Church; rather than accept that, while differences with the denomination are to be expected, he has actually heeded voices to leave the church; rather than accept the trust clause of the Discipline, the congregation paid a fraction of the value for the building and properties in order to continue to exist at the same spot.

For how many decades have we been hearing about the necessity of heeding our Articles of Religion, our Doctrinal Standards, and upholding The Book of Discipline? How many times have we read “leaders” in the denomination insist it is those among us who support full inclusion of sexual minorities who violate all these things, repeatedly and with impunity? How many of these same leaders protest their innocence when charged with supporting schism? All of it, every bit of it, has been shown for the lie is has always been. It’s about some folks believing themselves not beholden to our communal beliefs and practices; it’s about some folks accepting faulty doctrine, bad theology, and enjoying a cult of personality rather than rooting their theology in Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, always remembering that the Head of our church is Jesus Christ, not the pastor who’s been there for 22 years. To the good people of Wesley UMC, I bid a fond adieu and hope you enjoy your life among the Reformed Church.

What angers me most about this story is a bit offered by the authors toward the end.

The Rev. David Watson, a professor and dean at United Theological Seminary, and the Rev. Bill Arnold, a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, have proposed a four-year suspension of the trust clause for churches at odds with the denomination’s Social Principle on sexuality. Under the proposal, such churches would be allowed to leave “with full ownership of their properties.”

Just last month, Watson insisted that neither he nor other “evangelicals” were in favor of schism. “The idea that evangelicals will vote the church into division at General Conference is simply unrealistic,” he wrote. Yet, this self-professed advocate for continued unity in the denomination – a Dean at one of our Seminaries! – wrote a year before that the rules of The Book of Discipline shouldn’t apply to some congregations. All through this earlier post, he insists his list of proposals are in defense of the unity of the denomination all the while they explicitly allow ease of schism, not least including suspension of the Trust clause for congregations who wish to leave. What little integrity he may have had, well . . . I don’t even know.

There are many questions still unanswered by the events in Pennsylvania, including Rev. Diebler’s status as an ordained clergy. Has he, or will he, surrender his credentials? Have his orders been recognized by the denomination into which he and his congregation have moved? And, this may sound needlessly and gratuitously vindictive, I have to ask just how trustworthy others should consider Rev. Diebler, taking a congregation that was not his to begin with out of a denomination to which he has vowed allegiance, accepting the good order and discipline of those appointed above him? What happens when he no longer has connectional resources to support him or his ministry? Is there, really, a matter of integrity involved in a person violating both his vows of ordination as well as the good order of a church that has nourished him, supported him, helped to educate him, acknowledged his call to the ministry of Jesus Christ, and offered him a place to serve for over two decades?

I have no idea if this action represents any kind of precedent, either in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, the Northeast Jurisdiction, or the denomination as a whole. I do know that all the crap we’ve been hearing for so long is just what I and others have said it is – just that, crap. It is all lies, with which the self-serving self-righteous clothe themselves to hide the sad truth they earnestly believe being church is all about them, rather than bringing the Kingdom of God.

Copying And Pasting So I Don’t Repeat Myself

You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.

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N.B.: I originally posted this three years ago. I had previously posted pretty much the same thing two years prior. The later one is far better, far more clear, so that’s the one I’m copying and pasting. Yes, I’m lazy this morning.

There are some words I avoid using because I find them vague and unhelpful. Among those most annoying is “nature”. The English word has many meanings, from a general reference to anything not artificial through a technical, philosophical understanding of what a thing is. A thing’s nature not only defines it, in so doing it sets down its end or goal as well as the means by which it will reach that end. Much of this technical understanding of “nature” is with us in our general discussions of the way the world works. Clarified by contrast, we understand some actions as “not natural”. Some people insist there is such a thing as “the supernatural”, a word I detest even more than “natural”, precisely because it assumes we know what the word “nature” means and to which it refers.

“Supernatural” is often used as an adjective describing God and Divine action. “Miracles” (yet another of those words I would toss out of the English language without looking back) are often defined as Divine interruption of natural processes – water in to wine, walking on water, that kind of thing – that display God’s freedom in the face of the laws of nature. The height of Divine supernatural activity is, obviously, the resurrection. When was the last time a person who had been dead for several days not only got up and walked around, but talked with people, and then disappeared? Stuff like that just doesn’t happen in nature. Right?

Which was why the 18th century rationalists, in particular David Hume, weren’t too keen on the whole concept. Miracles of whatever stripe were more than just oddities; they were offenses against what was thought to be the good and well-ordered running of the Universe. If God could decide, willy-nilly, to intervene whenever God wanted, multiplying loaves and fishes and making blind folks see, how was it possible to come to any understanding of the way the Universe works, which relies on an assumption of regularity, the repetition of certain processes that become so ingrained (Hume’s favorite was cause-and-effect; something that didn’t actually exist, but was assumed thanks to regularity) they seem to be like laws.

Folks like me who say, “Jesus was raised from the dead!” are more than just weird. We are threatening any attempt to understand the way the world works. Except, of course, this claim rests on the related ideas that (a) science as it has evolved over the centuries is the only sure means for figuring out how the world works; and (b) “how the world works” isn’t, itself, subject to the theological condemnation of sin, rendering our understanding limited and flawed not only in the contingent sense, but in an ontological sense as well.

The counter-claim – it isn’t original with me; I remember it most vividly in on of N. T. Wright’s books – is simple enough. The resurrection, as the inauguration of the fulfillment of Creation as God originally intended it, displays for us the way God created the world to be, before that creation was marred by sin and death. In other words, rather than some violation of the laws of nature, an event so extraordinary it can only be termed “supernatural”, it may well be the case that changing water in to wine, ending physical pain and social ostracism through touch, and rising from the dead are how the world is supposed to be. People living together, caring for one another, taking care of one another.

No longer living in fear of death and the threat of non-existence that rides in its wake.

None of this is to suggest that science isn’t a marvelous tool for discovering all sorts of things about the Universe. On the contrary, it continues to provide us with all sorts of interesting and useful information about ourselves and the world. It is, however, just a tool. It has its uses, to be sure, but it also has its limits. One of those limits is the assumption that its subject – the physical Universe, including human beings – can be and should be defined only in the terms set by scientific investigation. Those tools work well for science; they don’t work quite as well for much else, yet we continue to pretend they do when we talk about miracles and the supernatural and the strangeness of the resurrection.

Nothing could be more natural, it seems to me.

Holy Spaces

Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ – Exodus 3:3-5

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The Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, Washington, DC. My photo from a family vacation two years ago.

The Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, Washington, DC. My photo from a family vacation two years ago.

This past spring, I had the opportunity to attend a particular interfaith gathering in the western suburbs of Chicago. A meeting of the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church and the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, we shared a meal, listened to talks both from Christian and Muslim clergy, and then had a chance to sit together and talk, both about what unites us and what separates us. It was a blessed time.

The event was held on a Friday, the Muslim holy day, and the time for evening prayers arrived. The men rose as one and left the room for the narthex to pray. Later in the evening, when one of the Imam’s spoke, he noted that this United Methodist Church, a Christian space dedicated to our particular worship of our Triune God, would, on the Day of Judgment, be remembered by Allah as holy ground, because it was a place where the people gathered to pray to Allah. I was so moved by that declaration. This rather bland, typical white suburban mainline Protestant church building had become, through the expedient of opening its space to use to persons of other faiths, something more than what it had been before. Certainly holy ground for us Christians, it had become a space Muslims would accept as Holy because Allah had welcomed the prayers of the people from within its walls. While recognizing the holiness of one another’s spaces, this was now a place declared holy by more than one faith. Not every such space has such an honor.

A pastor in our conference preaches in bare feet, out of reverence for the chancel being Holy Ground. When I heard this, my already enormous respect grew even greater. In a time when the notion of “holiness” has become a surd, an empty vessel rarely filled with much of anything, it is refreshing to know there are still some who recognize something portentous exists within the time and space of Christian worship .

Earlier this summer, a FB friend of mine went on vacation across Italy. Among the many beautiful photos posted were those of the grand cathedrals. I confessed that I could live in a cathedral, something I said two years ago while visiting the National Cathedral in Washington. My FB friend agreed with the sentiment. I suspect our reasons for taking up residence in such a structure might be different. For me, such a space removes us from the world around us. Not completely, of course, because we are always in the world while also active participants and residents of the Kingdom. The space enclosed by a cathedral, however, speaks to the body and Spirit of an existence that is available now, yet also to be more fully when the New Creation is fully consummated. The acoustics, the light filtered through stained glass, the images and many altars available for prayers, many of those spaces set aside for distinct petitions, the grand altar toward which we face, offering our prayers, and from which we receive the gift of the Eucharist is a physical representation of that space the prophet Isaiah saw as a throne room, and the prophet St. John the Divine saw as the point from which flow the rivers of life, with thrones both for God and the Lamb.

Even other spaces within a cathedral can speak, through their design and appearance, of that True Holy Ground toward which all others point.

042

In one of the towers of the National Cathedral is an observation space from which most of the city is visible (the Cathedral is built upon a hill that is, I believe, the highest point within the District). Walking around the escarpment, as seen in this photo, one has a sense of a passageway with a goal; this space is not just mundane walking areas. It is, in fact a way to move through particular spaces always remembering that we are in a ground hallowed by the presence of God. That at the end of these walkways is always a window, always light, emphasizes that we are moving through a place where the Light of the World has come to rest, has claimed, and from which we carry that light.

I think that sense of holiness about cathedrals is learned. I’m quite sure people no longer wedded to Christianity, or of other faiths recognize the beauty and grandeur of cathedrals without getting caught up in the spiritual message such spaces contain. There’s certainly nothing wrong with reveling in the aesthetic joy of something so powerful. That cathedrals have this other dimension, an acknowledgement of and dedication to the specific immanence and transcendence of Christian faith is a declaration of faith.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the magnificence of a cathedral we can forget our local churches, too, are as holy, as dedicated to that same immanent/transcendent declaration of the Kingdom of God. Whether some small country church an older central city church or perhaps something that looks more like a gymnasium or concert hall, our church buildings are no less grand than Notre Dame, Hagia Sophia, or the Dome of the Rock. We are on holy ground, a space and place where God is, and to which we are called to gather to worship. From here, we are sent forth to the world to take some of that holiness outside the walls, to make just a bit more of our world holy ground, places blessed by the Divine presence.

The Kingdom of God is so much more than justice, righteousness, peace, and holy hospitality. It is also spaces and places, ground and building, where our God is. Just as Allah will remember on the Day of Judgment that humble space in suburbia as holy, so, too, will our God never again leave a space blessed by the Divine Presence through the work and worship of Christians. The Kingdom comes not just within the lives of Christians dedicated to the service to the world; it also comes across land and water, in window and across threshold where the Spirit has moved and made holy.

The “T” Word: A Response To John Meunier

In the end — and let me apologize for the rambling nature of this post — I find myself wondering why we have Social Principles at all. If they really are just a list of carefully thought out opinions about various social issues, then what purpose is there in putting them in our Book of Discipline? Opinions — in either the classic or contemporary sense — are no basis for unity or uniformity. They are things over which we expect difference.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to found our unity and our discipline on truth? – John Meunier, “Do We Have More Than ‘My Truth’?”, United Methodist Insight, July 17, 2015

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Personally, I agree with Richard Rorty that questions of truth are not so much wrong-headed as uninteresting. Because “reality” is opaque to language – because many of our arguments over the truth-value of science are, in essence, arguments over wor’ds about reality, not reality itself – and because there is no meta-lingusitic judge to which all can appeal for the correctness of one’s view, we end up arguing over definitions. More interesting are the ways we figure out, through language, story, and our readings of various texts, how to live in the world. There is nothing special about “truth”, nothing talismanic, nothing final, nothing ultimate to the view that, if we grasp the truth, we have a hold of something that definitively addresses all sorts of matters. – Me, “On Truth”, March 17, 2007

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Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ – John 14:6

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In a world filled with questions, few are more annoying than those who insist they have the answers.

In a world filled with questions, few are more annoying than those who insist they have the answers.

I had made a resolution to myself that I wasn’t going to “go after” other writer’s expressed views. My goal was and is to be positive, to present a particular set of options that promote discussion, or at the very least thought. Reading John Meunier’s article at United Methodist Insight, however, seemed to offer me an opportunity to say – what turns out to be again – something that is central to how I live. My eight-year-old post, linked above, says much and it would probably be easiest to copy and paste it here. To be fair to Rev. Meunier, however, I need to deal with the specifics of what he wrote in order to make the points I wish to make. Furthermore, I’m not “going after” John at all. I am, rather, offering a different perspective, one I believe offers something fruitful for the Church in its struggles. And I will apologize here and now because some of what follows will be a bunch of philosophical and theological mumbo-jumbo. I do hope I can present what I want to say clearly and intelligibly. If I don’t, it isn’t because the concepts are difficult; it’s because I’m a lousy writer.

Meunier’s musings on the difference between truth and opinion cover familiar ground: Plato gets a shout-out, of course, as well as the United Methodist Articles of Religion. In the midst of his discussion, however, are assumptions that are both rarely spoken aloud as well as, lets be honest, pretty parochial. We in the West have multiple traditions regarding matters regarding “truth”, and while Plato certainly offered one answer, he was hardly the first and definitely not the last. In the mid-20th century, German philosopher Martin Heidegger taught a course in which he offered the view that, in fact, much of the western tradition of metaphysics is rooted in the distinct opinions of two men who taught centuries before Plato: Heraclitus and Parmenides. Heraclitus is remembered among philosophers for his dictum, “No one steps in the same river twice.” The only constants are change, which brings conflict. Nothing is ever settled, even human identity. Parmenides, however, insisted precisely the opposite is the case: all that is exists as a single, dimensionless whole. There is no distinction between things; there is only this singularity, both infinite and infinitesimal. This, for Parmenides, is “truth”. Our human inability either to perceive or understand this is the result of “opinion”. Thus, for Heidegger, was born our western obsession with “truth”.

Much of our tradition, whether we acknowledge it or not, follows Parmenides. The kind of unity of which he spoke was rooted in the assumption that, to all questions there is now and can only ever be a single correct answer. Pushing this assumption to its logical conclusion, then, Parmenides insisted that not just truth but existence itself is undifferentiated, a single Being that is indistinguishable within itself, yet also imperceptible, leading to differences of opinion and the (false) perception of movement and change.

Recently, however, the idea that some “thing” called “truth”, a property that inheres in particular words, sentences, and texts, has not so much been attacked as it has been set aside. This isn’t a matter of “relativism” as it is too often portrayed. Rather, it is a matter of people finding far more interesting questions to ask about how it is we human beings work out living in a world we now understand to be governed by the theories of quantum physics and general relativity as well as the theory of evolution. Philosophy no longer has dominion over questions that science addresses both more clearly and more definitively. That leaves philosophers wondering less about things like being and truth and more about how best to be human and negotiate our differences in ways that are fruitful for all of us.

Richard Rorty, the most prolific and clear proponent of this view, offered the following justification for his life-long philosophical project: In the late 18th century, Immanuel Kant asked whether there was really something called “being” that humans could discern and understand. Did “being” add anything to our understanding of really existing things? Rorty asks the same question about “truth”: Does the idea that a sentence is “true” add anything to that sentence that wasn’t there before? Do human beings react differently to sentences that are “true” than to those that are not “true”? Like Kant, Rorty’s “No” didn’t so much end discussion as become fruitful for a completely different set of questions, questions about how human beings structure what Rorty called their webs of belief, adding and subtracting particular words and sentences to their stories over time. For Rorty, this offered fruitful thought and discussion about negotiating differences among stories, understanding different sentences as important to some while meaningless to others. Bridging that gap is the philosopher’s – and the poet’s, and the novelist’s – task.

For Meunier to set to one side centuries of skeptical discussion over the concept of “truth” – really from William Ockham through Hume up to the analytical philosophers and pragmatists – is misleading, to say the least. It is uncomfortable to assent to the idea that a word as important as “truth” should probably be set aside. All the same, particularly at a time in our United Methodist Church’s history when all sides in our conflicts brandish truth about like cudgels and swords, I think it would be far better for all of us if we accepted the emptiness of “truth” as a philosophical category worthy of any attention.

As for the theology of the matter, the famous quote from St. John’s gospel above is the starting point for any Christian attempt to define “Truth”. Truth is not a quality of facts or sentences. It isn’t something that inheres in things or words. It certainly isn’t something we human beings can “have”, or at least some of us can have and others can lack. Truth, for Christians, is the Person of Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity Incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. Truth isn’t a thing. It isn’t something that exists within particular words or phrases. It most definitely is not something we sinful mortals can ever claim to have. On the contrary, truth is a Person, a distinct, specific, individual Person whose ministry, passion, and resurrection are not “truths” to which we assent. Rather this Person in and through these events grasps us in our lives and define us. The Christian churches are not truth-tellers. The Christian churches are those communities who believe themselves in the hold of Truth, a Truth to be shared with the world in word and deed in the proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord.

To understand Christian truth in this way offers us a way forward through the morass of arguments and difference our Social Principles call us to recognize without allowing such differences to create barriers to community. To understand Christian truth as Jesus Christ, crucified and raised from the dead, is to understand ourselves as sinners even while we declare ourselves redeemed. As such, the Truth bridges the gap within our lives, offering us the opportunity to share the Good News without worrying overmuch about whether or not our words are true.

Theological truth as an inherent quality of the words of our proclamation disappears in a puff of air when we understand our Truth is Jesus Christ who saves us. That is the basis of our Social Principles, as well as the acknowledgement of our many differences. It is the heart of who we are as Church, as the people called Methodist. It is how we will continue to live and move and have our being once our current worries and conflicts have passed.

Judas With Strings

The darkness around [Charity and Roy] had taken on the hue of blood. As Charity stared, numb with fright, the blood resolved to a smoky, ingernal scarlet. With a deafening whoosh the room seemed to implode. The light went garish fire engine red as the far wall spranc up in a solid barrier of flame.

Charity screamed. Roy tried to.

Against the wall of fire, amid the choking stink, two nightmare images were silhouetted. One of them Charity knew in every detail from God-fearing childhood: the horns jutting from the narrow, saturnine head, the pointed beard, eyes like hot coals. The lashing tail and hooves. Her deepest fears incarnate.

“Heel, Damocles!”

The huge figure of Satan jerked at the chain wound on his wrist. Straining at its check, something scaly with large bat wings gurgled uncleanly and slavered at Charity. As she and Roy cringed on the bed, Satan stroed his bears with the back of one claw and smirk at his leashed minion.

“I call him Damocles because, like the mythical sword, he hangs over wretches like you..” An exquisite sneer. “Just waiting to fall. And you yourselves have cut the thread.” – Parke Godwin, Waiting For The Galactic Bus, p.67

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Imagine for a moment awaking from death and finding yourself precisely here. Then imagine (a) a symphonic soundtrack fitted to the ambiance; (b) the presence of well-lit exit doors with signs encouraging their use.

Imagine for a moment awaking from death and finding yourself precisely here. Then imagine (a) a symphonic soundtrack fitted to the ambiance; (b) the presence of well-lit exit doors with signs encouraging their use.

It was spring, 1990, and I wanted something to read. I found this book among so many others, just piled up. I liked the cover – a chimpanzee with something like the Divine Hand from the Sistine Chapel ceiling descending toward it – and the title was just too interesting to pass it by. So, I picked it up to see what it might be about.

I had no idea my life would change forever.

Mixing science fiction, fantasy, religion, politics, sex, violence, ethics, and human destiny is difficult for any author. To do so in 244 pages sounds impossible. Yet fantasy author Parke Godwin did just that. Filled with humor and death, with terror and two very different brothels, a cast of characters including John Wilkes Booth and Judas Iscariot, a talking dog who used to work on Wall Street and two stranded aliens mistaken for God and the devil, this book offers a simple yet profound parable on what Christian orthodoxy calls “original sin” and what might well constitute true redemption.

Godwin is both subtle and not-so-subtle. The three main character are Charity Stovall, Roy Stride, and Woody Barnes. As I pointed out to my brother at the time, Godwin’s smacking the reader across the face with these names: Charity [S]to[v]all; Roy Stride – King or Cock-Of-The-Walk; and I do so hope that “Woody Barnes” needs no explaining about reliability and solidity. This hardly detracts from the beauty and power of this novel; in fact, it sets expectations for the reader, expectations that aren’t disappointed.

The novel begins with a graduation party. Students from a distant galaxy arrive on earth several million years ago, drunk, exhausted, and filled a bit too much with themselves. Two among them aren’t graduates. Brothers Barion and Coyul, sophomoric in so many ways, are left behind in a moment of vindictive pettiness by their fellow partiers. Stuck, the two decide to indulge their species’s basic task: life and intelligence seeding. There is abundant life on earth, including Australopithecines wandering the African plains. Barion decides too give them an intellectual boost, resulting in moroseness. Coyul, angry because what his brother has done is both unethical and illegal on their home world, decides to help out this proto-human, offering yet another boost in a slightly different spot, which alters the morose primate to one who can both laugh and find joy.

Over time, however, this basic dualism in our emotional make-up creates, um, problems, particularly after life. Because energy can neither be created or destroyed, as Coyul says, they just keep going. This results in what Godwin wittily calls “post-existent energy pools”. One, called Topside, is overflowing with the self-righteous, those brimming with the joy of a salvation usually purchased on the cheap. Among the more annoying denizens is Augustine, whose insistent demands for the beatific vision pushes Barion over the edge, offers a glimpse of how it might be possible to create an ulcer in a being who has no physical existence. Coyul, on the other hand, offers a wide variety of entertainments and scenery for those who arrive Below Stairs. After reading Dante, he even offered something like Dore’s bleak hellscapes. Still, as he tells Barion, he at least has far more colorful residents.

In to all this come Roy and Charity, two nothings from nowhere, whose coupling could, according to Coyul, create something even far more horrific than the National Socialists: A child with Charity’s intelligence (an intelligence not challenged; yet) and Roy’s fear, envy, and hatred. In a country like America, knowing it is in decline and both fearful and enraged at the prospect, such a child could very well spell doom. Deciding to intervene for the first time since that fateful afternoon at an African watering hole, Barion drags Coyul along on a well-planned conspiracy to separate Charity and Roy, allowing Roy the opportunity to destroy himself while offering Charity something she never had – a challenge.

Their adventures Below Stairs, from something like Dore’s interpretation of Dante through high rise luxury apartments (offered in a chapter entitled “This Can’t Be Hell, The Plumbing Works”) to a bar/brothel with the best food in the after life near the special hell for bureaucrats , Charity experiences it all. In particular, she experiences “The Late, Late Show”:

The child was her at age ten. She remembered the picture her new parents took when they adopted her, before her hair darkened to brown. But undeniably her in the picture, screaming for help from her dead mother.

And then not screaming at all.

The child looked up at the guard, mute. The only sound came from Charity herself, a wordless whine of empathic terror as the Paladin pointed his pistol at the tiny face. Her own child face but changed forever. More than horror in those wide yes, a terrible knowledge that there was no help anywhere, no pity or escape. For those few slow-motion seconds, the child was not mad but her eyes knew madness, swallowed it whole and recognized it as the truth of existence. Knew it as her head disintegrated and spattered blood and brains over the twisted flesh bad of her mother, and – . . .

Faster and faster the loop ran: Charity at ten, screaming, then no voice left to scream, only her own eyes lifting to the gun, knowing what a child shouldn’t have to know but so many did and had and would. . . .

Until at last the film froze on the eyes and their final recognition of horror. The child, with one second, one century or an infinity to exist, would never again look on anything or anyone unshadowed by that terrible knowledge.

Obscene . . . I never used that word, always thought it meant dirty movies. But this is obscene. I could scream from now until the end of time, every dirty word I ever knew, they wouldn’t be as obscene or dirty as this. No that you kill a child, but that you could put such a knowledge into her. (pp.127-129)

This is the heart of this book: A naked look at the truth of existence, a truth we deny at the peril not only of our own sanity, but at the peril of all existence. In that moment, Charity sees in the eyes of this child – herself as a child – a truth she recognizes but had refused to acknowledge or name. In that moment, she assents to this terrible truth, knowing that the only real security we have are the tenuous ties of love, ties that are so fragile yet so necessary. Ties that defy our all too human need to draw lines around who’s in and who’s out, who’s good and who’s bad. Only when we see ourselves in the faces of the victims of our collective desire for security can we ever begin to realize how fake that security really is, and at what a terrible price it is purchased.

Now Roy has a bit of a different revelatory moment, courtesy of Barion.

Reeking of smoke and burrito, Roy Stride booted open the door to Coyul’s salon and invaded with Drumm behind him. He’d left his Luger behind, not trusting any weapon that read BANG instead of doing it. Right now his fury was a more formidable threat.

“Where is he?” Roy fumed. “Where’s the Devil?”

“Ah, Mr. Stride. Just a moment.” Coyul paused to feed a notation to his computer with two fingers, orchestration with the remaining three. “We were expecting you. Good of you to be prompt.”

Roy dismissed the ineffectual little man with one contemptuous glance. “I got no time for you, pussy. Wanta see the Honcho, you got it? The Devil.” . . .

Two men entered the salon – one dark, about Roy’s size, who looked like he didn’t have a single spot in his body without steel springs, the other big as a Redskin lineman in jeans. One of those blond college jokers he always saw in soft-drink commercials, making out with prime tail. Fucking big fag with muscles. He sat down across from Roy. . . .

“You said I ain’t dead,” Roy blurted. “I don’t get it. What’s all this about?”

“Shut up. You’ll get it. Believe me, you’re going to get it.” Barion’s tone chilled Roy to the bone. His skin began to crawl under that merciless scrutiny. The son of a bitch looked like . . . eternity. . . .

. . . “Like higher math to that monkey at the water hole. His whole cosmos is drama, magic, fable. A vision of Christ and salvation awash with melodrama, God as a white man, himself as hero. Minorities for villains. But he’s going to believe it.” . . .

Coyul ran an arpeggio into a Gershwin phrase. “I did this with a snake once. Ready or not, Mr. Stride – it’s magic time.” . . .

[Roy] was pure mind, pulsing in space, no division between sight and comprehension. He saw the solar system, then the galaxy dreaming through its eon-slow revolution. His view pulled back and back to encompass the unimaginably vast, wheeling universe, video-split with the movement of atoms within a molecule. Clear, painful intellect himself, he saw everything Coyul or Barion had ever seen – world men would not contact for thousands of years, if ever. Civilizations, concepts of God undreamable by humans. He knew horrors beyond simple brutality or destruction, complex beauties, a peace in being one with the universe, and the loneliness of being inexpressible small, apart and insignificant. . . .

Roy’s cry of horror filled the universe, more horrible for the indifferent silence that swallowed it up. He wept with double pity, for himself and a knowledge of tragedy too huge for expression; whimpered in his smallness and fear, shrieked through the soundless void –

– put his hands to his face, shattered in the chair while the Devil played Gershwin and God spoke quietly to him. (pp.206-212)

The novel winds down with Barion going back home to face punishment; Coyul stays behind, trying desperately to hold Topside together; Judas is left behind to run Below Stairs, only to have his Second-In-Command arrive, an old friend he hasn’t seen in two thousand years, with a wry smile and a chessboard in tow; Roy chooses the ignorance of death to the madness of life, all the action provided for him to keep him from breaking the furniture. Charity? Well, Charity arrives where it all started, a McDonald’s in her home town, Woody waiting for her, a chance to live a quiet life without too many expectations and certainly no fears other than the banal ones we all face.

We live in a historic moment when the Roy Strides of the world demand a hearing. Some of them are even running for President. So many reject the vision of reality both Charity and Roy come to know. Yet how can we deny it? Our politics, our churches, our world all suffer because far too many would prefer the bliss of blindness to the weight of the light. The deaths of others are the blood sacrifice they make to keep the truth from shattering their own fearful lives.

Godwin offers that most rare gift – something that both offends everyone yet can enlighten everyone if given half a chance. It’s available at Amazon. Treat yourself if you dare. I bet you won’t be disappointed.

Letters From God Dropped In The Street

Do you see O my brothers and sisters?

It is not chaos or death. . . . it is form and union and plan. . . . it is eternal life. . . . it is happiness. – Walt Whitman, Leaves Of Grass

—–

All that ever was or ever will be is right here.

All that ever was or ever will be is right here.

Some folks think “mysticism” is a bad thing. The idea that there is some connection between what is seen and what is not seen; between all things that are seems, to such people, a bunch of nonsense.

Except, alas, even science has its mystics. They’re called quantum physicists. There’s this notion of “quantum entanglement”, what Einstein dismissed as “spooky action at a distance”, even though Newton had already offered “spooky action at a distance” with gravity, a force we still aren’t sure is a wave or particle, but connects every elementary particle in the Universe. Quantum entanglement just takes it a step further: a change in state in an elementary particle, say, in my finger can directly effect change in the quantum state of an elementary particle in the Andromeda galaxy. I know that probably sounds like nonsense, but the math says it’s so (at least those who know the math say that’s what the math says). Recent experiments affirm it. That affirmation is the basis for experiments in quantum computing and practical teleportation.

Everything, indeed, is connected.

There are cells in my body made up of atoms that were forged in the heart of a star millions of light-years away. All that organic food you’re eating is nourished by death, by feces, by bacteria that relish decay as a delicacy. We are, whether we know it or not, creatures born from death; we are constructed of stuff made a very long time ago very far away. Identity is . . . well, identity is at best a fluid concept.

It shouldn’t be surprising there are a whole lot of hard-headed religious types who distrust mysticism. Even when mystics have had established roles in the Church – St Francis founded a missional order; St. Teresa was an adviser to kings and Popes (and carried on a chaste love affair with fellow Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross) – no one is quite sure what to do with them. The things they say all too often are contradictory. They also might well cut against the grain of whatever passes for the orthodoxy of the moment. Mystics prefer to couch their truths in riddles, to offer their visions in words, and refuse to be an authority even as others wish to read and hear more. Being powers without authority, few things are more threatening to the powers and principalities than the honest humility of the great.

Theological debates interest me very little anymore. Contending for “truth” does little more than create confusion and anger, and there is more than enough of that in the world. Rooted in the Bible, I often find poetry far more expressive of the deep reality we experience than anything. And no poet speaks to my experience of the ineffable in the everyday the way Whitman speaks. Living is beautiful. All that is, is beautiful because it exists. Nothing needs any justification; all that is needs celebration. There is no such thing as “ugly” because all that is, is beautiful. There is no such thing as abomination, because all that is, is blessed and holy. The dirt and grime of everyday living and working, shitting and screwing, of the sweat of the woman cleaning house and the child at play are blessed and holy. To fear death is to fear something as much a part of life and our world as to fear clouds or flowers.

When I’m not seeing the world as a thin veil, not so much obscuring as offering hints of something terrible just beyond our ability to perceive (except on occasion; that’s when the nightmares come), I tend toward this kind of mystical pantheism. I see old familiar faces and I smile, because they remind me I’ve tried to live well. I see newborn babies and I think of how soft they feel, how sweet they smell, and how much they will see and hear and do. I feel my wife in my arms and know that love and lust are not different things, just different aspects of the same desire for another that is part of existence itself. I pray and I know my words are nonsense, but beloved gibberish that God enjoys because it is born as much from thankfulness and joy as fear and sorrow. That all that is, is wound together in an entanglement made up of love seems so clear and obvious, I wonder how it is possible others cannot see it, cannot see how beautiful they are, cannot know that deep within their bodies lies an atom that just changed ever so slightly and in response, an atom in a galaxy millions of light-years away just changed ever so slightly, and that connection isn’t about energy.

It’s about love. A love so clear you can see it running between and among the bee and the flower, the spider and its prey, the smiles of a new mother and her baby. It’s the intangible yet unbreakable bond that will not allow anything ever to be lost or forgotten. There are moments all this is so clear, so plain and obvious to me, I’m surprised the whole Universe doesn’t burst out in song.

Experiencing moments like this, I remember that veil of which I wrote the other day, and I call it a lie. The falling leaf outside my window shouts its defiance at such a lie. After all, it has served its tree well and good, and now returns to feed it some more. Nothing can steal the beauty and power of that simple reality.

It Was More Fun In Hell

Graffiti In An Abandoned Mental Hospital

Graffiti In An Abandoned Mental Hospital

I once told a good friend of mine that I am someone who finds nothing uninteresting. And that’s true. Except for illegal and immoral activities, I enjoy seeing and hearing about and reading about and learning about new things all the time. We live this life just once, and there’s far too much in the world to settle for one’s immediate surroundings and personal interests.

I find madness interesting, both for personal and religious reasons. If you read the early chapters of Isaiah, there’s the prophet’s vision of the Divine throne room, with the four cherubim, etc. The book of Ezekiel is chock-full of visions, including the horrific image of a valley of dry bones. Ezekiel ate a scroll on God’s orders, and there’s so much more. Hosea took a prostitute for a wife on God’s orders. The apocalyptic books, Daniel in the Old Testament and The Revelation to St. John, have odd, coded imagery, some of it quite terrifying. In one of his novels – The Stand, perhaps? – Stephen King has a character muse that God drives mad those God chooses; sometimes, this character notes, it is possible some of those visions overloaded the circuits in the chosen ones. Which illustrates, yet again, my oft-stated insistence that while God indeed loves us, God doesn’t care that much about us.

As for personal reasons, well, I suppose you can understand, if you’ve been following along with my rather voluble confessions of living with depression. When down deep in that hole, the world just doesn’t look quite right. Colors are wrong, faded somehow, washed out. Sounds have an odd reverb quality to them, as if echoing, then suddenly dying. Brain chemistry is a funny thing. Messing it up in one spot has effects all over the place, which doesn’t help make seeking help easier. The world becomes a different place, unfriendly and uninviting. Even knowing the road one is traveling is no help; the mad-odd quality of perception endures no matter how hard you try to tell yourself it isn’t real. In the end, real is what we see, hear, taste, and touch.

Many years ago, I ordered a very special music CD.  The name of the band was Dead Soul Tribe, which probably tells you what you need to know. The CD, entitled A Murder of Crows,  is a concept album built around the idea that human souls have guides after death; sometimes, however, these guides fail, leaving our souls behind. One song in particular, “Flies”, offers the oh-so-cheery idea that our world is a thin veneer through which we can see, if we look closely, a truth more horrible than we can stand: We are already dead, in hell, with Satan a viper ready to devour us. I was listening to this particular song when my wife came up to me and asked me a question: Did I really see the world this way?

At the time, I said that in fact I did see much of the world this way. For all my protestations of faith; for all my attempts to be an easy-going man, a loving husband and father, and express hope in both our present and future; despite all this, as Devon Graves sings, “Sometimes it seems a laughing god has played its joke on me.” There is more than enough horror in the world to drive you mad if you think about it too much. As Albert Camus noted, the death of a single innocent child can break a person’s spirit if you dwell on it. To look around the world and see and hear and read things that should make you scream or cry or want to hide away could, if you’re not careful, leave you gasping for straws only to find all of them gone. What would be left?

Madness. The comfort of insanity, it seems to me in such circumstances, would be that the facade we build around our lives, from our parents loving arms through the fake security we try to provide our own families as adults can disappear. The allure of madness is just this pretense that St. Paul’s hazy mirror image will be the beatific vision is not only untrue; it’s that such a pretense is a horrible trick played upon us. To be able to scribble on a wall something like what appears in the photo above demonstrates, if not what seems both horrible and comforting, at the very least a familiarity with a way of seeing the world that creates a clever turn of phrase.

Most of the time, I remind myself that such things as the title to this post – another abandoned asylum graffito – are little more than people with a dark humor trying to unnerve the gullible and nervous trespasser. Sometimes, though, in the quiet, or perhaps when I’m wondering just what is and isn’t real, I see things like this and I wonder if I recognize a kindred spirit. Reality is far too porous to allow ourselves comfortable lies; even God can drive people mad, after all. These tiny windows in to the minds of others interest me if for no other reason than it seems there are many out there who, touched in some way – either through faulty brain chemistry or perhaps Divine intervention – what Ray Miland, in X:The Man With The X-Ray Eyesdiscovered at the end of the film. Miland rips out his own eyes, having glimpsed something terrible beyond the bounds of everyday reality, and screams, “I CAN STILL SEE!”

N.B.: I’m quite sure some are going to read this and think, “Oh my GOD, the guy is off his nut.” In fact, I’m offering nothing more than a perspective on particular things – such as graffiti in abandoned buildings – that occur to me from time to time. Is it a far-out perspective? I readily acknowledge that. Then again, my perspective on most things tends to be far out, so why should this be any different?

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