Mockingbird and Valley: ‘and if you’re movin’ to the east, and if you’re the movin’ to the west coast’ -cataldo

at the corner of Mockingbird and Valley,
I saw the dogwood there coated in ice,
feigning warmth of the coming of the Kingdom
and hoped the coming of Spring could suffice

as the children in pink and blue bonnets
were busy building a sandcastle of snow,
I listened to what is really within me
and heard that which I already Know,

from the window, the cat there was watching
from the skies, I think, so were the birds,
from the way they looked down but upon me,
I was moved to a speech without words,

all is quiet in the midst of the winter,
as the House has been cleaned and prepared
what was learned in the dead of December
can now with full-force be declared –

so I walk from the corner of the Valley,
sounds of laughter – resilience – in tow,
and though the road underneath may be glassy,
where I’m tested will guide where I go.

The Red Velvet Oreo Challenge

To those who may have been following the Red Velvet Oreo Challenge (or to those who weren’t):

I said recently (on Facebook) that I was disappointed with the new Red Velvet Oreos primarily because the cookie part wasn’t soft enough. Even compared to regular Oreos, the cookie was too hard, but this is especially odd because what makes Red Velvet Cake so delicious is how moist the actual cake is in texture. So, if you were developing a Red Velvet Oreo, wouldn’t you want to reflect that in your Oreo? [I should pause to say it’s possible that the bag I had was faulty, but I have not yet – and am unlikely to – purchase another to test this with the same, uhm, scientific fervor as detailed below.]

Before beginning my test, I ate one regular Oreo and one Red Velvet Oreo. I rated the regular Oreo at a 8/10 stars and the Red Velvet at a 5.5/10 stars by comparison.

CookieI tried first, as a control group, dipping a regular Oreo into milk (thanks to Bill Walker who provided a package three weeks ago). A “dip,” I take to be slightly less than a “dunk” (which would seem to cover more surface area) and for only a brief amount of time, as opposed to a “soak.” I was not thoroughly impressed, rating it at a 7/10 stars, so I decided to up the time to ten seconds but was only able to leave the cookie in the milk for up to six seconds before it began to crumble. There was one unfortunate incident where one cookie crumbled too much and had to be… disposed of. I reintroduced a second cookie to replace it. The regular Oreo with the six-second dip proved to be quite delightful at 9/10 stars. I left room for one other star in hopes that the Hot Chocolate dip would be even better.

However, in performing the same test again, the Red Velvet Oreo proved to be an even bigger disappointment. With one brief dip into the milk, there was no noticeable change in the hardness of the cookie, and it wasn’t covered in enough milk to offer much of a milky taste to add or detract from the experience. It was only slightly cold and wet, and I rated it at 4/10 stars. The full-fledged soak (that is, the six-second dip) was even worse. While I succeeded in making the cookie soft, the milky taste combined with the Red Velvet taste was not a positive combination. We’ll say 2.5/10 stars. But don’t worry: there was good news.Cookie Two

Hot Chocolate makes everything better. I should clarify that I only tested the water-based drink and not a milk-based one. I’d had enough of milk by this point. The regular Oreo proved to be one of the best things I’d tasted in a while earning it a solid 10/10 stars, and even the Red Velvet Oreo had a huge turn around. I think this is due to two big factors: the combination of something chocolate-based and the warmth that melted the cream-filling along with the Red Velvet cake cookie for the perfect cookie experience. Though I also rate this at 10/10 stars, which is leaps-and-bounds better from the 5.5 I gave the cookie by itself, I will go as far as to say that I think the Red Velvet Oreo dipped in Hot Chocolate tastes ever so slightly better than the regular Oreo.

Finally, it had been suggested that I use bread in a zip-lock bag to soften the cookies, though this didn’t seem to have any immediate impact (though I am unclear how long I might need to leave the bread in the bag for this to be effective).

Recap:

Regular Oreo – 8/10

Regular Oreo Dip – 7/10

Regular Oreo Long Dip – 9/10

Regular Oreo Hot Chocolate Dip – 10/10

Velvet Oreo – 5.5/10

Velvet Oreo Dip – 4/10

Velvet Oreo Long Dip – 2.5/10

Velvet Oreo Hot Chocolate Dip – 10/10

Oreos in a Zip-lock with bread – No change

Death and the Internet

Death and the internet. It’s a bit of a morbid topic, I guess. But the world we’ve inherited today is a world different from the one of our grandfathers. I remember as a kid, my own grandfather would mention every once in a while a dear friend whose obituary he’d read in the newspaper – perhaps someone he hadn’t talked to in years but admired still. There was this strange distance, mostly of time, and then a mere memory of his friend’s life was summed up in a few short lines most of which went, “survived by so-and-so” or named a career or community involvement. And that was it. That person passed on and became a memory to be cherished. But that was the end of it.

In the world of social media, our entire lives haven’t just been plastered onto a virtual wall for the brief time we grace this silly planet; they’re essentially written in virtual stone for, well, as long as the internet lasts, or maybe longer. The internet enabled us to create monuments to ourselves, for better or worse. Pillars of narcissism. In that sense, perhaps, the internet has afforded us a new paradigm of self-awareness where, in the midst of watching our monuments all apart, we began to see them for the narcissism they carried. It’s almost as if the internet pulled back a veil on the entire human race – something that religion, philosophy, and psychology had hinted to us for years anytime we were warned about the sins of pride or the dangers of egocentric thinking. And something as silly as Facebook was the thing that turned a generation first into narcissists and, just as quickly, into people deeply self-aware of the dangers of this monster we’d created to, well, worship ourselves. Or am I being too optimistic to suggest we’ve realized it (and ourselves) for the monster it and we can be? In a sense, the internet has become the closest thing to immortality we could hope (or despair) to find in this world, but it’s a kind of false immortality. Before the internet, when people we loved died, we mourned their loss with appropriate grief and then moved on the way we should, but now, with the dead’s virtual life and legacy being fingertips away, there’s the real danger that we aren’t able to let go the way we need to. There’s even been talk about people “uploading” their brains at some point into an A.I. database, which of course, raises questions about whether a future artificially-intelligent version of you is really you or if it’s something other. My vote is with the latter: we, the real us, get one shot at this little life, and now how we handled that shot is going to be documented for our ancestors to see exactly where we succeeded and exactly where we failed. Or maybe they’ll be so overwhelmed by how much of both we did, the overarching message will be confused enough to sound more like rambling stream-of-consciousness, not unlike this very blog, to be of any worth to them in understanding either who we were, or, in turn, to gain insight into themselves.

Those days of the future are, what, fifty, a hundred, a thousand years off? But just worrying about today alone, there’s the bigger question of what it means that so much of our lives (and our deaths) are being cataloged by our interactions (and, eventually, our missing presence among our friends). Like my grandfather who many times read about the death of a friend in the newspaper, we will endure each other’s deaths as we watch our friend’s lists dwindle down to 0 (or as they watch ours). It’s already started. Many Facebook pages have become “memorials,” like virtual cemeteries beginning. Facebook and Google now want to know and are asking you what they should do in the event of your death. Who do they hand control over to for your account or what happens to it? Some bloggers with end-of-life illnesses have cataloged their journey with death up until the day they leave us. And some of the messages they’ve delivered were important for us to hear. Of course, all of that kind of thing can and has been cataloged in books (and even ancient manuscripts) already, but never before has there been a time where such a large gathering of people would go out and leave behind a massive swath of information about their journeys up until the day they died. Even this blog, now, the moment I submit it for publication becomes part of my virtual tombstone. And maybe there’s something comforting in that, but when we realize that our words do live on, that should make us more careful of how we use them and what we say, about how not to use them to build monuments to ourselves. That’s something I’m not sure I’ve always been good at or if it’s even possible for any of us to be great at it, though I wouldn’t go back and change what I’ve said on my virtual tombstone, because to me, I think it’s important to see the way my words and how I chose to use them changed over time. That is, I think it’s important to see us knock down our own monuments, or at least try. A fallen monument is still a monument. Ruins can be more beautiful than statues. So much of our lives is about the legacy of becoming those kinds of ruins, I think.

My hope, my suspicion, is that as we begin dying in mass numbers, we and the generations that follow us will learn the importance of living more kindly, of leaving behind a social media footprint where we found a way to be honest about ourselves and each other without vitriol or spite. That we would be careful not to build large online monuments to ourselves, or at the very least, sit among the ruins of that life thankful for acknowledging how far we came and what all we learned.

Is Atheism to Blame When an Self-Proclaimed Atheist Kills Muslims?

In discussions that surround atheism, some atheists are often quick to remark that their lack of belief is not an ideology. It’s one thing and one thing only: the lack of belief in divine beings. Atheists share no common or core values, the argument goes. There’s no “Book of Atheism” or uniting text, the claim continues (though this is arguable). There’s no regular meetings of the local atheist club (though in the 21st century with online interaction, I’d argue this isn’t always true either). Still, the point seems valid enough, doesn’t it? Unlike the religious, atheism has no clear ideological aim.

Except I’m not sure, say, Christianity has a “clear ideological aim” either. Anyone who has studied religion can tell that a Christian from one location can look radically different from a Christian in another. Hamdullah (thanks be to God). My American values deeply influence my “Christian” worldview and vice versa. Even within America, the Book of the Discipline of the United Methodist Church, as an example, is not a uniting text that creates shared values or a system of ideas despite serving as the doctrine of the whole church. If you doubt this, attend a right-leaning, rural United Methodist Church in backwoods Alabama and then attend one in the reconciling ministries network in the heart of New York City. On the outset, some things may look familiar. The liturgy might be the same and both churches may occasionally sing a Charles Wesley hymn or two. But on the level of shared values, these churches would not be able to unite. Our texts are not what introduce or guarantee our ideological leanings. Our social locations, however, are strong determining factors. A person’s ideology is more than religious or even political leanings. It’s who raised you, where you were born, what your ethnicity is, what your early life experiences were, etc. A group’s ideology is more likely to reflect the individual’s shared social locations, of which religion is just one aspect, than it is to reflect the writings of a single religious text that was composed in a different time by a different ideological group altogether. Unless your group has written new texts that reflect the ideas and values that were already a part of your social location, I have a hard time seeing how any old text could tell us much about who you are ideologically. Even in the case of old texts being updated, like the United Methodist Discipline, it does not serve as a uniting force that portrays where individuals are theologically. Most United Methodists I know have no idea what the social principles are, and if they did, they probably wouldn’t be United Methodists.

That’s, of course, not to say that texts can’t contribute to a person’s ideology. The writings of Sam Harris or the babbling of Bill Maher speak to what’s been termed “new atheism,” and I think a case can be made quite easily that those texts can contribute to an ideological leaning in the same way that, say, West Boro’s hate-speech is a kind of re-writing of certain Biblical passages that portray its own ideological leaning. And yet, when violence is committed by someone who professes to be a new atheist, we should no more rush to condemn atheism than atheists should rush to condemn Islam or Christianity or any other group when violence happens in the names of, or in spite of the names of, Christ or Allah. Those kinds of oversimplifications and generalizations of a religion or lack thereof are precisely what, too often, damages our society.

In the tragic loss of three Muslim students who were gunned down by an atheist who spoke openly about his hate for religious groups, I do not blame new atheism in this. That is not to say new atheism is without its faults. Certainly, some new atheists have spewed hatred, and when and where that’s happened, they should be held accountable for their bigotry. In the same vein, Islam and Christianity have their own ugly past and present bigots, and they need to be held accountable by fellow Muslims and Christians. But if we don’t blame Christianity or Islam for the KKK or Da’esh – and we should not – then we must also remember that atheism is not to blame either. And, at the very least, such events as this should call atheists who would blame entire religions for violence into question. It should call into question anyone who would believe the world would be better off if [insert group name here] didn’t exist. The problem that deserves the bulk of the blame is a deeply-rooted ego-centrism – the kind of ego-centrism that we’re all born with and not all of us grow out of, the kind that can hijack almost any ideology to serve its own purpose. Speak out against it. Hold your friends and family accountable. Call them, in love, toward something more world-centric; call them into the responsibility to love one another as you would love them. You don’t have to be Christian or Muslim or atheist to do that. But it needs to be done.

St. Simons and Seashells by the Seashore

On the coast of St. Simons Island in the Golden Isles of southern Georgia, you’ll find Spanish moss dangling off the branches of the old oak trees, dolphins and manatees gliding about in the waters as the sun rises, and a rich history tied to John and Charles Wesley, two brothers who both spent time on the island at nearby Fort Frederica. There they camped and worked as ministers before their involvement with the Methodism movement really took off, and that’s where I got to
spend my week last week “camping” with a national gathering of camp and retreat leaders as part of the United Methodist Church.

St. SimonsI can’t say enough for how beautiful the island is and probably always has been; the way the sunrise peaked through the Spanish moss and graced a nearby chapel was captivating indeed. And a few days were warm enough outside for a picnic or a nice stroll by the water. To waltz around on the island was a reminder to me of how much I crave knowing a place. Like my grandfather’s farm or my little house in the olive orchard of Morocco – I savor what a place is from its history to how I experience and come to love it. I fear a day where there are no longer places we can do this, sacred places apart where we can step out and still see our natural world. So, when I do get a chance to grasp hold of something removed from our fast-paced, technology-driven, world of false connections, I find that important. And there by the waters of St. Simons, a few deep breaths went a long way to rejuvenate me and make me feel, well, human again.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good grassy field or a mountain here or there, but at the end of the day, I think I’m drawn mostly to water. It’s rhythmic, eternal, powerful. One of the speakers at the conference asked us whether we wanted to be a swamp or a river: dead still or moving forward, and I spent much of my week thinking about that metaphor – about the different kinds of waters I’ve swam in or swallowed up or sat and stared at for hours. An island is a good place to be if you’re thinking at all about the power water can have to transform a place or a person. There’s a reason John the Baptist washed cleaned repentant people in the Jordan. It’s a little like that Carnival Commercial that was played during the Super Bowl where JFK speaks about the calling of water and the way we’re called to the sea; after all, we are made up of the same concentration of salt water:

But maybe what struck me the most was what can come from that mighty force with its current and creatures swimming about just feet below the choppy surface. A great sea can leave many gifts in its wake. When I was a kid, I spent nearly every summer with Mom and Dad walking the beaches of Fort Walton hunting for seashells. Then, we’d collect several of them, bring them home, wash them up, and put them in a jar like the spoils of a great treasure hunt. I was reminded of that at St. Simons this week when I saw cases of conch shells, sand dollars, and starfish – all sizes, shapes, and colors. Why is it, it seems then, that the greatest shells were found a generation or two ago? I don’t remember the last time I was able to find a sand dollar; I feel like the largest conch shells I’ve ever seen – the ones where you can hear the ocean if you hold it up to your ear – seem to be missing from the many trips I’ve taken since I was a kid. My grandmother left a whole case of them behind fragile glass as if to peer in and wonder what universe they’d come from while the shells I’ve found scouring the beaches since then were mere remnants of another time, just a few broken pieces away from being sand.

Fort Fred

I think we sometimes do the wrong thing with the little gifts that wash our way. We ooo and aaah over them and then encase them behind glass, as the world is depleted of its natural treasure. We store them away like they belong in a museum. I’m half-tempted, though, to grab a jar of shells and dump them back into the ocean where they belong. I’m not sure if that metaphor really makes sense or if I even want to explain it rather than just letting it be whatever it is, but I’ll say this much: in my own life with the many gifts I know I’ve been graced, I’m not sure I’ve always used those gifts in the right ways or in the right place. I think I’ve sometimes oooed and aahed at them or wanted to put them behind glass to admire them without actually letting them be what they were really meant for. And that leaves the beach barren, cold, full of remnants. At St. Simons this past week, I think I finally got a sense of what I might need to do with all those seashells. I think I heard my calling back to the sea. And that’s something I would hope we were all able to find.

The Vulgar Call them Christians: ‘there’s a man goin’ round takin names, and he decides who to free and who to blame’ – jcash

theirs is the American god
whom fear of
struck fear of
those not fearing quite the same,
and cloaked in pretty politik
they’ll shame those they can shame
in Christianease,
they’ll please with pleas and
so empowered, claim
that right is right and wrong is
given to some other name,
in a simpler world, in black-and-white,
is how they play the game
off serving god and Mammon
in a time of Fear that reigns,
to protect their own with gun and brawn
no precedence for brains,
as all about what’s born and bought
three cheers to Christian gains
that once again, what’s sought is salt,
of blessings, stains, or curse,
vulgus Christianos appellabat,
the name across the Earth
must die again to die again
before there’s sacred worth.

A Few Reflections on the Christian Response to Climate Change amid News of the Hottest Year on Record

It was my third year at Wabash College, and the climate change debate was just beginning to heat up. On campus, the local Republican group invited (and paid for) Ann Coulter to speak. I had no idea who Ann Coulter was, only that she was a conservative speaker, a self-avowed Christian, and that Greenpeace really hated her. So, I went to the talk – the chapel more full than I think I’d ever seen it – and I was shocked enough that I couldn’t decide if she was just trolling everybody as a secret Democrat comedian or if she was being earnest. At one point the student members of Greenpeace stood up with a sign in the middle of the audience and began shouting at her until they were either escorted out, shut up, or chose to leave (I can’t quite recall which happened now). In the audience, people either sat silently or clapped and cheered and egged her on, but as the speech continued, some people, mostly professors, got up from their seats and trickled out the door quietly.

I stuck it out for most of the speech. It was my first real encounter hearing a radical speaker spilling the kind of vitriol that’s become, well, pretty common in American discourse ten years on. I stayed until Ann Coulter began talking about the environment. I stayed until she said, “God gave you the Earth. Take it. Rape it. It’s yours.” When she said that, one of my religion professors I deeply admired stood up and walked out. And I followed him feeling a little sick to my stomach.

Truth is, I’m sorry to admit that ecological concerns have not been a real concern of mine over the years. It wasn’t that I hadn’t cared about the environment so much as I just had a lot of other priorities to care for. And I suspect that’s true of most of us. Most of us aren’t Ann Coulter or Greenpeace. We’re somewhere in between, and the things that grab our attention grab our attention so we become five-minute supporters of five-minute causes before we move on to the next cause or to no cause at all – whatever we have time for, of course. I mean, we might recycle. Sure, I recycled both at the church camp I worked for and started a temporary recycling program at the church where I was a youth director. But I wasn’t about to be “one of those” Greenpeace nuts about it, I told myself. I read recently about an activist who had erased her carbon footprint (or was trying to) by not having any trash at all, and hey, more power to her, but most of us are doing good to just acknowledge that we aren’t Ann Coulter, that climate change is real, and that we do care about our Earth. For a lot of us, just recycling is a big deal, but we can’t really compost in our house. And those little things we can do and are doing are important enough as it is, what with 2014 being the hottest year on record or with the current Congress being one that, by-and-large, shares Coulter’s views. And that gets to the heart of what I wanted to address: Christians have a responsibility to care for the planet, not to rape it.

Taking care of the earth was an important part of my religious upbringing. Caring for the environment was a huge part of being a camper in a natural setting – whether church camp or Boy Scout camp. We were “stewards” of the Earth, we called ourselves. We practiced the policies of “leave no trace” when backpacking or camping. I was never fed the kind of “dominion theology” that Ann Coulter spouted off that night in the Lilly Chapel and was shocked to learn it existed. But that kind of theology currently grips the American south. And it’s plain wrong.

Dominion theology is a theology that stems from Gen. 1:28 (cf. also, Ps. 8), which claims that God has commanded humans to “have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” Of course, it’s one thing to say, “Humans, this creation is your responsibility,” a statement widely accepted across most religions and how I read that verse of Genesis, but then quite a logical leap to jump from there to, “Well, since it belongs to you, it’s yours to destroy! Have fun raping it!” With 97% of climate scientists warning of the destructive inevitable effects of our inaction on global climate change, now is not the time to be making the kind of logical leaps where “raping” (or pillaging or destroying or trashing or polluting) the Earth is in any way deemed acceptable.

Although maybe I’m not being entirely fair: I tend to believe that most conservative folks would acknowledge Coulter’s language goes a bit too far and isn’t representative of how they really feel. I know plenty of conservatives who are churchgoing people who care deeply about the planet, many of whom instilled in me a love of nature as a kid, and I in no way wish to generalize an entire political or religious group when I make tremendous effort on my blog to preach against that regularly. But to claim you’re a Christian is to go as far as to claim a responsibility for the Earth such that, regardless of whether climate change is real or whether it’s the result of human action, we should still be advocates and stewards of our planet. I don’t personally believe that the end-times are upon us or that any warming of the Earth is because God is destroying it. After all, why would God need to destroy the Earth when we’re already doing such a good job of that ourselves? But even if you’re operating from the worldview that the apocalypse is upon us, shouldn’t that mean that now is the time we should act as our best selves? Isn’t it precisely Paul’s concern for the end-times that he encourages believers to do their best and not to endorse some kind of apocalyptic fatalism? To return to the very scripture from which dominion theology sprang, caring for the planet was right there in Genesis 1, one of the first directives God gives after creation along with “be fruitful and multiply.” It’s not hard to argue it’s one of the most important responsibilities Christians have – to be caretakers – when that responsibility is an aspect of our creation myth. And to be advocates of the planet is to take very similar action climate scientists have been recommending for decades. Alternative sources of fuel in spite of our limited resources shouldn’t be controversial for Christians. Fighting against any form of pollution should be a chief goal among Christians. The only arguments I could conceive of against these stances are purely financial ones. And that mass production, certain industries, and many jobs would take a hard hit in the effort to create clean energy cannot be a reason for letting our planet waste away, especially when there are clean jobs and clean industries paving the path to the future already. If money is to dictate our stance on caring for the Earth, then we can’t well claim to have been reading our Bibles or what they have to say about money.

Most of us, as I said before, are neither Ann Coulter nor Greenpeace if that’s the scale we’re working from. But if, indeed, caring for the planet is supposed to be a priority for Christians, a directive from God, then it might at least behoove us to be a little more like Greenpeace and a little less like Ann Coulter.