Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Brain science, youth and juvenile justice

Part of the process of aging and maturing involves the recognition how much different we are from our parents and how much we are the same. I notice any mention of this to many women I know becomes an irritant--do we really want to become our parents? What was once awe steadily becomes suspicion--which in maturity eventually becomes acceptance of identity. We are products of both nature and nurture--and I do not believe I will ever be able to distinguish either pole in the magnetics of my identity.

My parents and I rarely discuss politics in this season of our lives. Maybe we have too many raw memories of getting together in the 70's and 80's during the holidays as a family where the well-prepared meal and festivities turned into a shouting match because I had an aunt who would inject her views into any conversation. My colleagues in my current congregation might call her a "freaky Bible person." At this juncture in our lives, getting together 3-5 times a year is a time to celebrate the family and to watch our daughter do whatever it is that she is going to do. Once in awhile, any one of us my lob a discussion topic out there as an experiment in conversation. On the last trip in December-January, I lobbed a discussion about juvenile prosecution as adults. I believe this is a sick practice, one of the most disgusting symptoms of a zero tolerance culture. In my interest and study in congregational systems, I have also studied the brain. Though I do not pretend to be a neuro-scientist, I have learned enough to know that there is not enough we know about the brain. We do know that brain development is fragile and tenuous--it is neither fair or just to punish for a lifetime someone whose brain is not fully developed. Throw in all the ritalin, paxil and other chemical soups we create and give to children--and the brain reaches new levels of complexity. Punishing children as adults is nothing short of barbaric. I lobbed this discussion to my parents several weeks ago--I was visibly disgusted with a story related to this topic and my mother said "I agree." My father seemed surprised at the discussion, at least reflective. He asked, if this is true, what do we do?

What do we do?

Our anxious political culture would not allow a politician to say juvenile punishment for crime needs to change. In an anxious political climate (big time anxious), no politician interested in keeping their high status job will be interested in acknowledging the complexity of the brain and say that trying children as adults is barbaric. Even the most liberal of politicians do not want to be pegged as soft on crime.

I hope the discussion of juvenile criminal justice (oxymoron?) will once again enter public discourse. Hope springs eternal after reading an article in the Seattle Times originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. This article may not be a scientific journal article, but at least an article in a mainstream publication may bring back some helpful conversation about justice and children.

I have also been inspired to reflect upon this topic after hearing about the child of a colleague who is being punished for understandable brain activity and a system that encourages non-reflective formulaic anxious responses. Zero tolerance is a preferred value over honoring the complexity of the brain that God gave us as a gift. As a father, I see that I set up all kinds of systems that separate me from my daughter--I don't know if I have the courage to break these systems. I see that it will be harder for both schools and the juvenile justice system to break the barriers society has created when zero tolerance is the primary value.

Zero tolerance culture was created in the name of safety and security. Relationships are not safe and secure--they are difficult and take hard work. I often fail in this work and know that society often fails as well. This condition is known as sin. Relationships are the only way we learn the love of God. Since the beginning of time, we have been running away from that love in all forms.

Christ, have mercy.


Sunday, January 29, 2006

Sabbath practice and sermons

Another colleague of mine known as Theobilly and THE c.a.b. posted this comment:

Rev. Smails,

Amen. If not for Sunday nothing would ever get done in my pastoral life.

So how do you celebrate/observe the Sabbath on Friday?

I just try to stay around the house and play with the kids, I like to take a walk but not always possible. I struggle with the whole keeping sabbath deal. but i would like to.

why not post a sermon or two on the blog?

i want to see the simpsons episode with prarie home companion. it took me awhile to get the hang of the show.


Sabbath practice begins with work stoppage (Walter Brueggemann reminds me of this). The biggest temptation is to read church email--so I put the halt on that practice. Sabbath has become more difficult since the pastor with whom I sleep has been working feverishly on her Doctor of Ministry--every free moment goes into homework and thesis. Even time away from school work the work hangs like a cloud. We used to keep each other on sabbath pretty well--it was a play day, movies, walks, etc. Another sabbathesque practice takes place on Sundays--we try not to buy anything. I can fudge on that, but my womanpanion is rather strict about that.

On posting sermons...some of my colleagues cringe when I say I do not write my sermons. From one who cares about writing as I do, my sermon preparation goes against my writing avocation. I am not sure if my sermons would make any sense beyond me, and on a good day, my congregation.

I shall consult the Simpson's geeks I know and see if they know of what episode I speak.

I am off to play volleyball this afternoon--a good Sunday practice--my temptation during the afternoon is to lay around like a log.


Rev. Smails

Friday, January 27, 2006

Proud of my home state

Today a gay civil rights bill passed both houses of state government in Washington State. I know that some people believe that this is a sad day for Washington State. I am thankful that leaders in the state courageous in governing. The question is framed well by one of the senators: does a gay or lesbian person have the right to exist in society? I think the questions need to go much further--but a basic civil right has been established in the law of Washington State--for this I am proud.

I remember my week as a Washington State Senate Page in 1985, running errands for various Senators and observing state government in action. I was a freshman in high school at the time. Amazingly enough, I was curious about Republicanism in those days--I trusted my grandfather who was a supporter of Ronald Reagan--I'm guessing he was a Reagan Democrat. He was a campaign manager for Democratic State Senator Avery Garrett, who sponsored my week as a page. During that week, I had many conversations with State Senator Pete Von Reichbauer--I remember thinking that supply side economics was a compelling theory. I also held a fascination with the actions of the Soviet Union and that somehow SDI could keep the United States safe. My curiosity never led me to side with either party in the United States, only led me to ask more questions. When my grandfather was angry that I decided to study Russian, Soviet Politics and History at the University, I began to realize that questions about politics as usual in the United States are always threatening to the two party system, and my mistrust of current party politics began. The story about gay civil rights has reminded me today that developing my own observational skills of politics began with my week in the Washington State Senate.

Though I remain suspicious of two-party politics, I am thankful for what Democrats in Washington were able to achieve.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

More on the freakin' prayer service

The blog malfunctioned a bit today. I received a comment on the "prayer service" from my friend Hawk. He offers fine perspectives on liturgical matters. With the malfunction, I have to post his response:


My guess is that someone somewhere thought that this is what the Episcopalians do. Using the BCP there is a service of Ministration @ the Time of Death which typically never happens. The service is like the RC "Last Rites" although it can happen hours or even days after the death. There is also "Prayer for a Vigil" which the BCP comments, "It is appropriate that the family and friends come together for prayers [i.e. Prayer Service] prior to the funeral [i.e. night before]. Suitable Psalms, Lessons, and Collects (such as those in the burial service) may be used. The Litany at the Time of Death may be said...

Anyway, you get the picture. I think "Prayer Service" is actually the Protestant way of saying "Wake" or "Vigil" without sounding to papist. Maybe a way to get rid of the "Prayer Service" is to point to its papal roots (or does that work anymore?).


My post on the prayer service had as much to do with my mood as it did my ignorance. I hold little patience for congregations that do not know why they do things, yet continue to do them anyway. This is one of my patterns. I get pissed off about something I have to do yet choose not to deal with the confrontation about the ideals to which I hold tightly--then in the midst of my brooding, God shows up anyway. Sounds a little like Jonah. Tonight's prayer service was an example of grace. A grieving family and community had an opportunity to experience God's presence.

Still Learning,

Pastor Elihu

P.S. My sermons are completed. Miracles do not cease to exist. Our Children's Minister said I "must have taken speed" to get 95 percent of the sermon done by 830 this morning. No speed. But it's done.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Loathing completion

Life is much easier at church and at home if I manage to complete my sermon on Thursday. I get the sermonic machine rolling earlier in the week--a little Greek, some theological reading, some midrash with my colleagues, some prayer (help me, God. Please.). I begin on Sunday night (Friday is my sabbath day). Gaining closure on the questions, ideas remains elusive. Conditioning renders my adjusted homiletic calendar useless. I guess God cares not about completing the sermon at a time that it is convenient for me.

My parents used to give me the business as an adolescent because I waited until the last minute to get a project done. I think if I started the day the assignment was made it would not have made a difference. The closure of ideas and questions creates pain. I hate letting the ideas go. I suppose the work is not my own in the first place--the only way a sermon is ever completed is that Sunday comes. Every week.

Pastor Elihu

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Excuse me today for being cranky

This blog suffers from recent neglect, although I wonder if I should put off writing a few more days until I get my head straight. Do the great writers produce well when cranky? My thoughts on the following topics are developed, except the filter might be out of balance. I have much to write today.


Breaking a New Year's Resolution--responding as one of the "coast people"

I generally do not make New Year's resolutions. Change has to come from other places than a calendar. I promised myself recently that using the letters to the editor from the Argus Leader as blog fodder was past its usefulness and did not reflect the peace I have reached with the state and its people.

A mythical line has been crossed and I have to call attention to it. More than once have I heard the reference to "people from the Coast" or "Coastal people" and ascribing sweeping generalizations to people from the East or West Coasts of the United States. I make sweeping generalizations. At least I try to be careful with them. My generalizations about the Midwest and/or Northern Great Plains are often affirmed by Garrison Keillor (also known by my friend Theobilly as the "guy (who) makes fart jokes"). In my early days of watching The Simpsons--there is an episode where the family is gathered around watching "A Prairie Home Companion" on TV with the audience engulfed in laughter. The Simpsons sit there with a blank stare. Until I moved to these wonderful Northern Great Plains--I did not understand the laughter attached to Keillor's work. Now I have lived the stories that Keillor describes.

Several friends and colleagues and I have wondered if the film depicting the lives of two gay ranchers known as "Brokeback Mountain" would ever come to Sioux Falls (it has). It turns out that one of the writers spent some time in South Dakota, and one of the stories in a recent Argus interviewed the writer. I looked forward to the buzz around the article and film--which has been minimal. The generated buzz did cross the line in the form of this letter. I was really pissed off when I read this letter at first--but I have since calmed down. With this letter I am reminded of the burning questions that keep me awake at night and why I would have any desire to subject myself to the pain of becoming a doctoral student. The assumptions of this writer reflect a theology of place--that regional differences matter in how people look at God, the Church and faith. That theology of place assumes that people from the "Coast" are morally inferior. I tire easily from that assumption. This woman is disturbed by Brokeback Mountain, even though she won't have the opportunity to see the movie in Lesterville, and I doubt she will try to see the film.

As a theologian, if I can somehow provide a bridge for the church to somehow have a conversation about faith and Church recognizing regional particularities in a productive way--then "here I am, Lord."


What is a freakin' prayer service?

Rev. Darth and I were talking today about the 15% of the job that we both dislike (especially in South Dakota)...

The prayer service.

If you do not know what a "prayer service" is--please tell me. If you do know the meaning behind a prayer service, I would like to know that as well. I have consulted Cliff Clavin and Google. Google gave me this link.

When I write my book about South Dakota culture someday, I will describe what amounts to a second/first funeral. You get together the night before the funeral, gather family and friends with the body of the deceased--read Bible passages, have a reflection from the pastor and family members, maybe some music and prayers, even a little liturgy...this sounds like a funeral to me. I found it jerks the family around and it amounts to another funeral on the next day. One funeral seems like plenty to me.

Please excuse my ignorance...I have not spent my entire life in the Church, and the Church in the Pacific Northwest is a bit different than what I have experienced in the Midwest. But I never received information about a prayer service linked to a funeral in the life of the Church during my seminary training.

I am supposed to lead a prayer service Thursday night. I am tempted to start the service by offering a Trinitarian blessing (just to shock out the Presbyterians) then asking the question: "What is a freakin' prayer service?" I am certainly an advocate of prayer--but I don't believe the prayer service is for prayer. The event appears to be a visitation run amok. I think the prayer service in its current form was created by a moronic doormat co-dependent Lutheran pastor who was looking for a reason to hover over a grieving family. I know these folks exist--one of my fellow Lutheran pastors is well known for spending about 72 hours straight with a family when a death occurs.

If someone can explain to me the purpose of the prayer service-funeral tradition, I will gladly publish the writing and put my foot in my mouth. No colleague or funeral director can explain the origins of this practice, and it slips into the tradition of "well, we've always done it that way." I want to know WHY.


Pastor Elihu

Refreshing political dialogue from the Great White North

Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised that I have followed the recent Canadian parliamentary elections. I look forward to discovering if any United States residents assume that because Canadians voted for a party called "Conservative" means that Canada is moving toward a Republican-style government...ha.

What I found refreshing about the coverage from CBC Radio One on the morning after the election was the panel discussion involving fringe candidates. The panel consisted of a Communist Party candidate, a Green Party candidate, and a Christian Heritage Party Candidate (you can probably guess where this guy was coming from). They reported how their candidacies were respected in the Canadian process--they participated in debates (a novel concept), were received well by constituents (for the most part). The process was honored as opposed to nitpicking over the content of their ideas. I enjoyed the exchange of ideas--but the process that upheld a broad exchange of ideas and gave listeners the opportunity to consider that range.

For all the grief I ever gave Minnesotans about their cultural proclivities--I have always respected their political process. Make fun of Governor Jesse "The Body/Mind" Ventura all you want--Minnesotans respect a diverse political process. A Green Party candidate may actually win an election in the next 20 years--the Independence Party has offered respectable candidates, one being former Congressman Tim Penney. Minnesotans have also given leadership opportunities to respectable conservative voices, namely multiple-term governor Arne Carlson. South Dakota politics offers some of the most milquetoast political dialogue I have ever witnessed, even though the politicians themselves can be interesting on their own. Take our convicted felon four-term Republican Governor and former Congressman, Bill Janklow. George McGovern continues to live the life of an activist for positive social change. I never thought much of Tom Daschle, but I found it a novelty that people outside of South Dakota were interested in his race with John Thune (I like him even less).

I dread the upcoming elections in 2006 and 2008, mostly because I think the candidate I truly wish to be involved in the presidential election, Barack Obama, is too inexperienced to be a serious candidate for the presidency. To clarify, I think Obama a good candidate right now, but I think his lack of experience would get shredded in public discourse. If he runs, I want Obama to have the best shot possible. That time will come in 2012. Some of my older colleagues and friends say: "what about JFK?" He was only a one term Senator! I think we live in a different media era, where points about experience can be dissected to the point where too many will believe lack of experience will be a problem. About the only Democratic candidate I can get excited about is Russ Feingold. I had the privilege of voting for him in the 1998 Senate election. If the city of Madison, Wisconsin did not exist, Feingold would have lost in a landslide. Some have called Madison "The People's Republic of Dane County." Feingold is the closest thing to Paul Wellstone we have in the Senate today.

I digress into content. As is the case with my service as an interim pastor, I want to see good process. I saw a good process in Canada-even though the Conservatives won--which was not my preference--the Liberal party reaped what they had sown. A pocket lining finance scandal eroded the trust they had built over 13 years in leadership, and the Canadians wanted to build new leadership. The process worked well, and I hold high admiration to my neighbors to the north.

And to my fellow U.S. citizens I say about our process of choosing government: Sacre Bleu!


Monday, January 09, 2006

A time for balance in Appalachia

Each passing day brings the urge to write, but the ability to release my thoughts to public consumption lacks significant force. I compare this state to a chest cold and exercise. I know I should exercise--and I crave exertion, but the visualization of labored breathing and painful movement of phlegm keeps me from putting on my running shoes. So my body rests in order to achieve balance, with the hope I do not drift into inertia, or even sloth. What the holidays may lack in meetings at the church, the presence of people accelerates. I live for these gatherings with family and friends, but I lose what fills me up and brings me back to life: solitude offers me the opportunity to ponder my place in the cosmos. I give thanks for my God, my relationships and my vocation. I arrived in Hayesville, North Carolina early this morning, thankful for the several hours of travel not required to speak with anyone. A blessing came in not sitting next to anyone chatty on the airplane trips. I sit alone in a simple room after some time to sleep--balanced enough that letting words out of my head seems the appropriate thing to do. I approach some sort of balance. After writing, I will put on my running shoes and take in some Appalachian air. I need a good dose of ruach.

Connecting the past two weeks with my family leaves me with special snapshots in my mind of my wife, daughter and other family members who made the journey to Sioux Falls. With good rest and a vocational charge at the Hinton Rural Life Center in Hayesville, NC, I can greet them Friday night with a smile. I hope I have grown over the past 2-3 years. I have taken these vocational and collegial journeys and gorged upon their stimulation like a hungry person might consume food in the presence of a feast. For the past two years I came home from these trips exhausted, not worth a damn to my family for a few days because I gorged upon the conversations and connections--staying up too late, not listening to the utterance of my soul to take some alone time. I cannot miss anything...or can I? Is the engorged self really the self. Is a conversation at 3 in the morning all that important? What I have lacked in friends and colleagues is not going to be solved in one sitting. Friendships, colleagues, relationships in general require care and wisdom to grow. I pray to God for that wisdom.

I look forward to writing again. Thank you for joining me.