Thursday, March 26, 2015

Humans, Pets, & Love


I am a dog lover. Always have been. I can count the number of years of my life that the household in which I live has been without a dog (or two) on one hand. I currently have a dog. Well...a Chihuahua, but close enough. I love his affection, companionship, and the safe space that he provides for me after a long day.

The question I want to pose is: To what extent can and do pets serve as a hindrance from practicing the love of God amongst humanity (a call I believe to be central to God's will)?

Some pertinent thoughts, both for and against such a question:

The joke is told: Why is a dog better than a spouse? Well...if you lock them both in the trunk of you car overnight, which one will be happier to see you in the morning?

Loving pets is mostly very easy. If you don't love them, you don't have to have them. If you do love them, it's pretty much pure joy. Loss can be hard, but in the long run, it's easy to pass love upon a pet.

It's not always so easy to love humans. Yet that is part of our primary call in the gospel: to love humanity.

It's notable to me that in the creation story, the companionship of animals did not provide what God perceived as the antithesis of loneliness. Only another human fulfilled the solution to the problem that "It's not good for man to be alone."

Animals are part of creation. Nurturing creation is part of God's will for humanity. I am one who believes that all of creation is being and will be redeemed, including animals. I look forward to an eternity that includes the whole animal kingdom.*

Yet...how much of who we are supposed to be is transferred upon animals, particularly in USian society? The financial numbers are astounding. As much as I love my dog, I am confounded by what is presented to me when we make a visit to the vet. Some who know me may remember the saga with my previous dog (a chocolate lab) who was the victim of a horribly botched spaying which led us to the animal ER where I had to make an excruciating decision of whether to save her or not (we did...and I still wrestle with it). I'm pretty sure that I'll not make the same kind of decision with our current dog (whose neutering went perfectly fine).

Anyway, I'm open to conversation. Pastorally and ecclesiologically, I see it as a potential problem; a hindrance to our work we're called to in the Church. I see people whose lives seem to bear witness to the idea that they don't need anything else because they have their pet. While on the surface this is cute and perhaps can even be called pragmatically productive, I wonder about it in the grand plan of the Kingdom of God.

Animals can certainly serve in wonderful ways that humans cannot. I have friends with service dogs, helping out in the areas of sight loss as well as anxiety prevention and transference. I think these are wonderful companions and a great example of how God meant for humans and the rest of creation to co-exist.

It is true that the divine love within us can be inappropriately transferred to pretty much anything. Whether it's money, possessions, or even inappropriate human relationship, this is often called idolatry. It's recently become popular to conclude that the opposite of addiction is human love rather than sobriety, a conclusion with which I tend to agree. There's nothing inherently evil about animals (yes, yes...even snakes and cats). I just wonder why we don't call ourselves to task on this with pets more often.

I like to go running at one of the local dog parks in Hingham (Bare Cove - it's awesome, you should go there). I love seeing people walking their dogs. Often, dogs are the beginning of human connection, the start to a conversation that likely wouldn't otherwise occur if not for the pet. But I also see a lot of people who seemingly escape human interaction via their pet.

What do you think?

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*Tangentially related, Wesley's sermon, The General Deliverance is a great read concerning the salvation of nonhuman animals.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

The Bible Women's Project: A Reminder that the Church Needs Artists

Every day my Facebook feed is littered with the shares of all sorts of lists and theories positing what the Church must do if it's going to be successful with this generation or for the future. I read some of them. Some are helpful. Others are obvious click-bait. I find assumption of necessary prescriptions or normative non-negotiables to be rather ignorant of the beautiful diverse contexts in which the Church is at work.

So it's with great caution that I say the following:
The Church needs to enable the artists among us.

We need to listen to artists. We need to give them space to critique, to practice, and to perform. Lest anyone think I'm talking about what happens in the context of worship, please...please...If the Church needs to get over anything, it's the dominance of exhaustively defining the Church by that which happens on a Sunday morning. We might consider that one reason so few are inspired by what the Church does in the context of corporate worship is because by our actions we assume that inspiration only happens therein. (Of course, anyone who knows me knows that I believe in the uttermost importance of the gathered Body, particularly around the sacramental Table.)

Art should be no extracurricular activity of the Church. It is at the heart of what God has made in the created image, deep within humanity. It comes out in many various forms, but it is essential in helping people realize and actualize the humanity that God intended. Here, I am intentionally defining art rather broadly.

I have seen many plays on the stage in the Cove Auditorium on the campus of Eastern Nazarene College. But I have never been as inspired as I was this past Saturday afternoon when I took in The Bible Women's Project. I have also never been disappointed by any of the plays or musicals that director Tara Brooke Watkins has overseen. She really did it with this project. The college campus offers a unique setting for theater: one in which the incredible life and passion of the college student smack into the creative space of the theater. Watkins seems to have a great handle on this breeding ground, especially with this project, in which the actors wrote and shaped the words and scenes they convincingly played.

Placed in a rather simple stage setting with minimal yet poignantly-woven musical accompaniment, the project featured thirteen female actors who brought us through dozens of stories of women in the Bible. Creative license was used well in setting the stories in contemporary vignettes, whether a Jerry Springer-like talk show or theater-within-theater (perhaps my favorite part). The scenes dealt heavily with closet conversations of abuse, addiction, depression, and sexuality. While much of these require somber and reflective tones, the director and cast also knew that such a play demanded humor, and it abounded throughout. As a spectator, I alternated quickly between mourning and laughing, sometimes almost in the same breath. The repeating choreographed interlude was well-placed for self-reflection and emotional adjustment between stories.

Interpretation of the Bible is often a tough undertaking. Believe me, I know. It's kind of what I do. The Bible doesn't seem to be a popular book in the arena of the theater these days. And anytime stories from scripture are attempted, I'm most often dismayed by the cliche and lack of creativity that comes out. But not the BWP. It was an approach to scripture like I haven't seen before (on the stage, at least). At some points it was difficult for me to make some of the extrapolations that they did with stories that are either virtually nonexistent in the text or otherwise bear a lack of historicity. But that was also kind of their point: the gospel demands that we pay attention to the minor characters in any story. The BWP called us to task in this way. So regardless of whether or not you or I think Eve or Rizpah bear an historicity, the narrative of their situation calls to us.

I was very proud of the cast, even though I only know one of the actors, two others tangentially, and a few others by name. By my count, there were five Nazarene pastors' kids and one grandchild (truly, I should probably say "Nazarene elders", but many won't know exactly what that means). I mention this because it's a great encouragement to me as a Nazarene pastor. Many of us (dare I say a silent majority in my context of New England?) have the same conversations that the script handled in smaller circles of the Church. And the encouragement from those involved with this play was that this generation is ready more than ready to handle tough words and elicit tough questions from those who may disagree with us. Too often, critical eyes only see rebelliousness in even having a conversation rather than providing a safe place in which to be honest with one another. This project bursts such conversations into the spotlight, even somehow demonstrating within the script of the play how a group can have such open dialogue. Yes, while other corners of the Kingdom  settled these conversations for themselves long ago - much to the impatient dismay of many of my Nazarene brethren - I am encouraged by these ENC students, alums, and professors and their boldness.

Which brings me back to art. Somehow, art has been relegated to those things we do when we have the time to sit and enjoy something. Yes, art is often enjoyable. But art is often rather painful, shining light on those things we'd rather hide but are actually there. Art has a way of exposing and healing. Often healing requires initial pain. Art also can blaze new paths. Sometimes these paths are ones that scholars or other leaders have tried to begin. But pulpits and classrooms just don't have the power that a canvas or a stage does sometimes. The BWP didn't really open anything new for me. I'm just so glad that these artists were bold enough to give voice to so many of us who have been praying and talking in these ways for a long time.

So thank you, Bible Women's Project.