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Next Tuesday I close on a townhouse in West Des Moines. After about a year of ruminating on where to live and if I wanted to buy a place at all, I found a place I’m satisfied with. At least I think so– I haven’t lived there yet! I’m going from a decidedly mediocre 1 bedroom apartment to a 3-bed, 2.5-bath, deck, patio, central vac, 2 car garage townhouse. I feel a bit guilty for moving to the suburbs. Aside from losing whatever hipster cred I have, my annoying and meddlesome conscience reminds me of all the people in the world who don’t have a place to live. The Haitian foreman for the Builders International team I worked with lived in a one-room cinder block house with his wife and child, and he was doing well by the standards of most people there. On the other hand, I think my choice of housing would be sustainable if it could be adopted on a massive scale by everyone currently in substandard housing. Also, I think the result I reached after weighing the options is a pretty common one, even for those who want to stay in an urban neighborhood, and though being common doesn’t make it right, I can shed some light on why many people choose to move to the suburbs.
[Read more →]
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Today Apple made its most shocking announcement ever, and it wasn’t about a product: Steve Jobs, founder and CEO, died today. Though his declining health was known (and in retrospect his resignation as CEO about two months should’ve suggested the end was near) the secrecy surrounding the details fit Jobs and his company exactly. Apple used secrecy to build buzz and anticipation, and this announcement has the same amplifying effect on my negative emotions. It’s pathetic how many people are so materialistic and shallow that Apple’s products apparently inspire religious fervor in them. Yet even I feel some loss now, pushing me ever so slightly toward buying the new iPhone out of sympathy and respect. Apple and Jobs defined the industry I work in, and facing design problems I’ve often thought, “How would Jobs/Apple do this?” For this reason, his death has touched me more than any other public figure. The closest second is Pope John Paul II. (He died while I was visiting Rome and I was subsequently swept up with the funeral.) Jobs designed machines for people, not the other way around, and that’s his greatest legacy.
Here’s an interesting take on the “Jobs and Religion” theme: Death of a Human Tech God? I’m sure there will be many insightful obituaries in the coming days.
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Ahh… this is so pleasantly dumb.
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It’s always a delight to come across a piece by James Wood, whose subtle insight and lack of pretension is scarce among literary critics (a label that to me connotes the opposite). His review of The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now almost makes me want to buy the book. I’d certainly like to read it, but I hesitate to invest in a project I essentially oppose and which is clearly written for a “we” that doesn’t include me. I certainly share Wood’s view that in spite of the editor’s aim to look at what secularism affirms rather than denies, “the questions remain,” and the most fitting of secular worldviews is “fairly cold comfort in the middle of the night.” The review glances on the deep questions the subject naturally raises, and I feel compelled to offer some response. (I know the world is waiting to hear my opinion.) While I haven’t read the book, I have a little experience with living, so I’m going to discuss the meaning of life instead. Very humble of me, right? [Read more →]
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“…and we had to sit there, on the runway, for forty minutes!”
“Oh really? What happened next? Did you fly through the air, incredibly, like a bird? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight, you non-contributing zero? It’s amazing! Everybody on every plane should be constantly going OHMYGOD! WOW! You’re sitting in a chair… in the sky.“
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Crows. Those big, black, ugly birds that caw and squack, harass owls, eat roadkill, and congregate in cities in the winter, crapping all over place. They’re hard to like, but it turns out they’re the smartest kind of bird. They can even be compassionate, as in this amazing video originally from AnimalPlanet:
The New Caledonian Crow is smart enough to use three tools in succession to obtain food. They also know how to make hooks to fish grubs out of trees. No other animal, not even the chimpanzee, is more effective at using tools.
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During the first week of April 2011, I participated in a mission trip from The Gateway Church to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to help rebuild churches and schools destroyed by the January 2010 earthquake. The trip was organized through the Assemblies of God and Builders International. We had been planning to go the first week of December 2010, but election-related violence meant we had to postpone the trip. We almost didn’t get to go at all, because the final presidential election results weren’t announced until Monday, April 4, the first full day we were there. Thankfully, the popular candidate won, and we were able to do our work.
It’s been about a month since we left for Haiti, and it’s taken me this long to sort out my thoughts. Even now I don’t have a polished, unified story to tell, more a series of thoughts and observations: Pensées d’Haiti.
When Americans think of Haiti (which isn’t often) two things come to mind: poverty and voodoo. I can verify that indeed, these exist in Haiti. Of voodoo I have little to say, other than there was a temple near the church we were building, and I think its “darkness” is exaggerated. It’s just another false religion. The level of poverty is severe and certainly the worst I’ve seen (not that I’ve seen much) yet it’s not as bad as you might think. Let me try to explain. [Read more →]
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I saw Sufjan Stevens last night at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City. It was an awesome, awesome show. I think it was more enjoyable because I had only a vague idea of what to expect, as I hadn’t listened to his Age of Adz album beforehand. I’m not a big fan of electronica or synth anything, and his new work is a mishmash of 80′s-style beats (“Put on your slow-jam pants,” he told the crowd before one song) and, well, I don’t know what. He even broke out the autotune somewhere in the middle of “Impossible Soul”, during which he donned a glow-in-the-dark visor with an attached glittery mullet. One thing remains constant from his earlier work: it’s delightfully, unabashedly weird.
Sufjan channels Kanye West during Impossible Soul
Sufjan interspersed the avant-garde work with acoustic guitar songs, most of which I didn’t recognize, for “a little palate cleansing,” he explained. He opened with an electronica-infused version of “Seven Swans” which fit well with his new work, and closed with a new version of “Chicago” (of course). For an encore he played the Illinois UFO song on the piano, followed by “John Wayne Gacy,” both of which were terrific. It was a bit strange to hear the crowd singing along to lyrics like “He dressed up like a clown for them… quiet hands, quiet kiss…” Ahh, the creepiness felt new all over again!
I really appreciated his humility in explaining his creative process and struggles with the new album, which you can read in interviews if you’re interested. He was very apologetic when, in one of the acoustic intermezzos, he forgot some of the lyrics. I wasn’t bothered at all, probably because I didn’t know the song. With a lot of performers, I feel the show is entirely an act, a style they simply adopted at some point in their career because it filled the room, and they go home and are completely different. Sufjan is quite goofy, but even when he’s autotuning his voice, still seems authentic.
As much as I enjoyed the show, I doubt I’ll listen to The Age of Adz much on my own. The live visuals add so much to what is otherwise a very strange, sonic odyssey. As I listen to it now in the comfort of my living room, I feel as though I’ve brought home a Picasso and hung it on the wall. I appreciate it in an art museum, but not in my home, where it just doesn’t match the furniture. The concert is the complete experience, the album is just a reproduction. That may be a trite thing to say, but in this case it’s very true.
Some reviews of The Age of Adz
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A couple weeks ago the message at Gateway was on politics in the church, which was a great message. (You can read my pastor’s synopsis of it on his blog, or listen to the podcast.) I’ll just point you there rather than blather about politics in general, since it fits my views pretty closely. I’m actually embarrassed to admit that. I like to believe I’m an original thinker, not someone who just accepts what authority says. Anyway, it made me reflect on other places in the gospels where Jesus deals with politics, not just the famous “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
One such passage is in Luke chapter 19, where the tax collector Zacchaeus encounters Jesus.
1 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through.2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy.3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd.4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Earlier, as Jesus was approaching Jericho, he healed a blind man outside the city who heard the crowd rushing past. This is significant for what occurs later with Zacchaeus, because it shows the people had gone out to meet Jesus as a honored guest to the city. In the Middle East, important guests are welcomed outside the city walls. The more important and honorable the guest, the father out the people come to meet him. Thus when 19:1 states Jesus was passing through, it’s possible the people were miffed that he apparently wasn’t staying overnight.
Though Zacchaeus is wealthy, he has no respect or standing in the community because he is a tax collector. Ordinarily a wealthy citizen would have been able to move to the front of the crowd, but Zacchaeus is one of the worst people in the world, in the eyes of a first-century Jew. Tax collectors were parasites, thieves, oppressors, collaborators, utterly unclean and dishonest. In modern terms, he would be like a combination of IRS agent, spy for North Korea, and sex offender. It would be dangerous for him to even enter the crowd, as someone could easily kill him without fear of being caught.
Zacchaeus runs ahead and climbs a tree. Adults in the Middle East don’t run; it’s undignified. They certainly don’t climb trees. As a outcast he has no dignity anyway, so he might as well. It’s possible he also climbed the tree in order to avoid being seen by the crowd, which was now outside the city walls. Instead of inviting himself to Zacchaeus’s house, Jesus was expected to excoriate him, perhaps tell him to leave his evil occupation, make restitution and copious sin offerings in the temple. Instead of doing what the crowd wants, Jesus honors him with his offer. The people, who already thought Jesus wasn’t going to do them the honor of staying overnight, are shocked and angry: “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” This isn’t bringing honor to the community in any traditional sense. Jesus has taken the dishonor and opprobrium assigned to Zacchaeus upon himself, and in so doing brought Zacchaeus to repentance and salvation. It’s costly grace, a preview of the Cross.
Politically, Jesus has brought freedom to the oppressed (the people of Jericho) by also bringing freedom to the oppressor (Zacchaeus). The pursuit of justice in the name of Jesus, whether or not it’s labeled “social,” often seems to devolve into a class warfare mentality. We pray for God to help us defeat the oppressors, maybe even to “destroy the wicked,” as some of the Psalms say. As followers of Christ, we should remember sin oppresses us all, and it’s Christ’s deliverance from sin which ultimately saves. It’s easy to be cynical about the rich and powerful, thinking they’ll never listen, they’ll never change, but cynicism is cheap. Grace is free, but costly.
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I spent the week before Labor Day on the East coast, flying into Philadelphia with my mom, who went directly to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, while I headed for Princeton, New Jersey. My friend Luke is beginning his third year at Princeton Theological Seminary, and I wanted to see him in his element. As I suspected, he is the big man on campus. During the mid-morning break from Hebrew class I watched him throw a football around the quad with his classmates, who kept saying things like “I’m not used to tight spirals!” and “That had some heat!” I also learned that mumbling equals meditating –at least in Hebrew– which Luke demonstrated as he studied the book of Ruth in the evenings. I wandered around the lovely Princeton University campus. Designed in the spirit of Oxford and Cambridge, it made me think more of Hogwarts. You know you’re at an Ivy League school when even the gym is built from gray stone and athletic gargoyles project over the entrance. I also learned why Moses is sometimes depicted with horns, as he is on facade of the Princeton auditorium. The Vulgate was the first direct translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew to Latin; previous translations relied on the Greek Septuagint. The Hebrew words for “shining” and “horns” are very similar, and horns were a symbol of power to the Jews. The Septuagint translates it as shining, as the translator (Jerome) surely knew. Even though it seems like a mistake, it was apparently intentional. Details here if you’re interested. We also visited the grave of Jonathan Edwards in the Princeton Cemetery. I’m happy to say his vault was not one of the several unquiet-looking ones we saw. He was president of the university for about a month until he died in 1758, which is getting to be quite a while ago. The area is historically Presbyterian, and we saw the seminary’s collection of Calvinist manuscripts, including a first edition of The Institutes and a few unauthorized biographies of Calvin. There was also a Reformed catechism book. Preserved in a convent, the cover was helpfully labeled “heretique” by the nuns.
That Saturday I began a long, circuitous journey southward to Cape May, where I crossed the Delaware Bay on the ferry to Lewes. I missed my 8:55 am bus in Princeton. I crossed the campus and stopped by the first bus I saw, which turned out to be headed to New York, and by the that time the one to Trenton had left.Â Since I didn’t know when the next one would come, I sat at the bus stop for over an hour. After visiting one of the nicest parts of New Jersey, I saw some of the not-so-nice parts. The light rail system between Trenton and Camden was nice and reminded me of Europe. Regarding the buses, I have a question: who decided bus seat upholstery must have such hideous patterns? Why are they always black with neon blobs or streaks? Can’t we just have gray? The towns along the Jersey shore showed me how much I took for granted in Rehoboth Beach. Except for Cape May, they all had a seedy quality to them. Atlantic City had a plastic and cardboard feel to it– the Las Vegas of the east. The ferry ride was pleasant, “a break from the ordinary,” as the ferry company would say. There was a wedding on the boat, which seemed like a neat idea.
The last time I was in Rehoboth Beach was four years ago, after my grandfather’s burial in Arlington National Cemetery (he was a Lt. Colonel in the Air Force). At that time, the city was completing renovations to Rehoboth Avenue, the main street. After a few bad storms the boardwalk was redone for the umpteenth time, but this time they left dunes between the boardwalk and beach, with dune grass planted to prevent erosion.
AH at the beach
The last storm swept away half of the dunes anyway, and the beach was uneven. The beach wants to erode and drift northward as it has further north along Cape Henlopen. The cape is growing and pointing into the Delaware Bay with sand from the eastern shore. The old Cape Henlopen lighthouse, built in 1767, ended up far south of the tip of the cape and collapsed in 1926 after a storm eroded the last grains of sand holding it up. I visited the maritime museum in Lewes, which had bits and pieces of it. Remember the gospel warning about building on sand? Well, everything around Rehoboth is built on sand! Despite the the erosion, Rehoboth still is a pleasant town, due to thoughtful ordinances and zoning in recent times. It was founded as a Methodist seaside camp, and while it quickly became a resort town, that conservative Christian foundation influenced its development, and is probably why it’s not like the Jersey shore towns I saw. There’s some sprawl along Highway 1, but the ocean thankfully limits development options. My Aunt Helen lives in a modest beach house in the old part of town. She has window air conditioners in the bedrooms, but doesn’t use it herself. She washes her dishes by hand and dries her laundry on a clothes line. The house is decorated with family heirlooms and hand-me-downs, and the phone for the land line is even a rotary! This has always been the case, ever since they bought the place in the mid 90′s. Aunt Helen was vintage before it was hip. One of her neighbors was an old man who’d been a longtime resident of the town, and had been a lifeguard on the beach in his youth. After he died at the age of 104, a gay couple bought the place (a small Sears house) and enlarged it. The house on the other side is rented but owned by two lesbians, so we joke that Aunt Helen lives in the “gayborhood”– the upper-class yuppie liberal neighborhood, at least. It seems like most of the houses have been extensively renovated, and there’s usually a German-make car in the drive. Whatever happens to rest of the neighborhood, within Aunt Helen’s house the times are not a-changin’.
My Uncle Michael and Aunt Connie came down for an afternoon with my cousin Michael Chad, his wife Amy, and their two boys, Michael and Zachary (ages 5 and 3). We went to a playground a few blocks away, and while I was with Zachary another boy came up and began telling me about his sunglasses, which he alternately described as X-ray glasses and 2-D glasses. He could see bones like they were on paper! I guess he thought I was the playground monitor. After lunch we walked to Funland, the boardwalk amusement park. It’s hardly changed in twenty years. Most of the rides are the same, and the smell of greased metal and buttered popcorn is ubiquitous. It’s amazing to think that twenty years ago my brother and I were riding those same rides, the cars and motorcycles with the honking horns, the little airships with buzzing guns. Before long they’ll move on to the teacups (my favorite) and then the haunted house and the Spinning Barf Spaceship. My camera battery was low and I’m annoyed I didn’t take any pictures then. I later got it charged at the camera shop, but by then the boys had gone home. I did get some good night shots later. Another highlight was the Discoversea Shipwreck Museum in Fenwick Island. For a $3 donation you can see a wide variety of goods recovered from shipwrecks along the Delaware coast, and some famous Florida wrecks like Atocha, all collected by the owner, Dale Clifton Jr., and most personally collected from the ocean floor. He even has a treasure chest he found near Cape Henlopen using a map and encoded book he happened to discover in an antique bookstore in Lewes. It seems hard to believe, but it looked convincing. Apparently the map indicated several other chests, but they were described as “next to the old oak tree” or other features that don’t exist now. Definitely worth a visit.
The morning before we left, I biked down to the beach to see the sun rise. I’m usually not a big fan of sunrise-over-the-ocean photos, but the woman in the foreground made these more interesting.