Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Faith/Works 1-22-05
By Jeff Gill

Inauguration. You don’t see this word every day, and even in national political affairs you only see it every four years or so.
We know inauguration as the event surrounding the swearing in of officials, when the oath of office is administered by a judge or comparable public official.
Inaugural events are a good example of what Robert Bellah famously called "civil religion," that complex of symbols, acts, and rituals that take public life and give the community a wider sense of meaning through otherwise commonplace events.
Under the law (as not a few Democrats have pointed out), President Bush could re-take the oath of office in, well, the Oval Office, with Laura holding the family Bible, Chief Justice Rehnquist (pray for him, by the way, as the thyroid cancer progresses) showing up after lunch, and business proceeding on, with a champagne toast out since the President doesn’t drink, anyhow.
But the decision is made to keep the pomp and circumstance, the hailing of the chief by the Marine Band, a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue and grand balls in the evening all across the district. We need these events for the common good, argue administration officials, and they shape our identity.
Without agreeing to the former, I can see the point of the latter. Did you know, for instance, that the very term "inauguration" comes from the rituals of ancient Rome around the beginning of any endeavor? "Augurs" are literally "intestines" in Latin (auger, spiral, twisting innards . . . how’s your breakfast, anyhow?), and the priests would ceremonially slaughter an animal the morning of a public event and read the markings on the entrails to see whether things "augured well" for the day, using ancient guides from the earlier Etruscans.
I’ve not heard of entrail reading on Jan. 20 before the noon swearing-in, but they are roasting a few sides of beef in Washington, so the opportunity exists, I guess. Yet we read much into these kind of superstitious signs. Think of all the sayings around a rainy wedding day, or Groundhog Day coming up shortly.
We look to public ceremony as a sign and indicator showing us how confident and eager our public officials are about the task they begin with their inauguration, and we all know that words alone can twist faster than a pigeon’s . . . well, you know what I mean. Rather than go just with what they say, we read into the music they choose (Fleetwood Mac for Clinton, Lee Greenwood for Bush) and the clothes they wear (Clinton’s sunglasses, Bush’s cowboy boots) to tell us what the future holds.
Licking County on New Year’s Eve didn’t kill any animals, but we did have a ceremony, with black robed solemn judges, the glory that is the West Courtroom in our courthouse, and family gathered near for an oath and the ritual act of . . .picture taking. With both parties present and common purpose affirmed in word and deed, it augured well for the democracy that is our community. That is civil religion at its best.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and occasional preacher around central Ohio. Contact him at disciple@voyager.net.

Faith/Works 1-29-05
By Jeff Gill

In sermons and prayers and messages and reflections, worship leaders in many places wrestled with the question of theodicy these last few weeks. But they probably didn’t call it that.
Theodicy is not a word in general use. In fact, my version of word processing keeps angrily underlining "theodicy" in red, telling me that not only does the program not have it in the dictionary, but I haven’t used it enough myself to have put it in through spell checking. (There, now I have. . .)
Theodicy is the category of theology that deals with what’s also known as "the problem of evil." How can a God who is loving and also powerful allow evil to happen? How does one "justify God," which is the literal meaning of the term, just as "theo-logos" is "words about God," or God-talk as one of my seminary professors put it.
The narrow and sharp angle of theology that is theology was honed to a razor’s edge with the Tsunami Event on last Dec. 26. So many innocent lives lost, so much unjustifiable tragedy. How does a believer in a God who cares and has power beyond our own human limits explain this? Or, what’s your "theodicy"?
There are, even within the Christian community, a number of ways to approach the problem. The only one all religious thinkers agree about is the "ignore it" approach. They agree that won’t do.
So some say God has chosen to be limited, the "Camelot" option. God could intervene, as Arthur could to save Gwen, but does not because the entire structure of law and justice would be threatened if he did. The big picture approach, much as we hear at the close of the Biblical book of Job: "where were you when I created the heavens and the earth?"
A very small, but vocal number argue that the reason God would permit such an event is sin: that of those who died. They might allow that children were innocent, but caught up in the sin of those around them. Before you write that off as the ravings of an angry few, note that the growth of Islam in, believe it or not, Sumatra (where the tsunami hit hardest) stems from such preaching that followed the eruption of Krakatoa and massive loss of life in the 19th century.
Much more common is answering this problem by pointing to sin as a general, cosmic problem. Sin is seen as having broken and fractured the world, and it is God’s grace that is about the work of healing that breach, which will not be completed until the end of time.
Theodicy may be a modern problem, at least in one sense. The term was coined by a German philosopher, Leibnitz, in 1710. In Bible times, people asked about whether God is kind and caring or stern and judging, or if a particular god is only interested in what happens between these two rivers and not on the other side, as opposed to the universality of one God in monotheism.
Modernism introduces the question: Is there a God? Theodicy is different entirely when one option is . . . this existent evil demonstrates that there isn’t.
How does your faith community justify "the ways of God to humankind"? How do you do theodicy?

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and occasional preacher around central Ohio. Write him at disciple@voyager.net
Notes From My Knapsack 1-23-05
By Jeff Gill

You Are In Training

Pretty much all of us have been in a training program of one sort or another. Workplace, volunteer, skill development, school all offer training to help us master a new technology or way of doing things.
We are all just about done with a training program that we have all been in without quite noticing it. Modern society is completing the process (will there be a certificate mailed to us at the end?) and we’ll go on using our newfound skills for the rest of our lives, I suspect.
You and I are becoming well-trained voice-mail menu operators. We’re getting good at this, aren’t we? Somewhere over the last five years, the idea of a human voice being the first, rather than the last step of a contact process with a business or institution started phasing out. Fewer and fewer places, even fairly small operations, have a "receptionist-operator" on the phone.
And now we expect to be greeted by "welcome to our voice mail network; some menu options have changed, so please listen for the option which most closely meets your needs."
Personally, I can’t be trained enough to ever like "your call is very important to us, so please stay on the line for the next available operator." What industrial psychologist did the study that told everyone who designs these things that we want to hear automated affirmation? And when the robovoice says "your call is extremely important to us," I can’t help but think, "No. If it really was extremely important, you’d sit by the phone, eyes locked to the handset, waiting for it to ring, or buzz, or chirp, or whatever. But extremely important ain’t Ms. Autophone, dude."
But there is a logic which has started to convince me about these menus. Many concerns or questions can be answered "automatically" with a touch-tone menu. Most of us have some kind of internet access, where we could be routed to get a better answer than a minimum wage part-timer would give us, no matter how politely, so thanks for the hints to go to the internet while I’m waiting on hold. And the amount of mindless work that can be punched in before I talk to a live person has got to be a savings for both me and the company in time and money.
So I’m getting myself trained, like all the rest of you. I’m getting better at navigating without hesitation or aggravation through the "press 2 for a billing question, press 3 for service options, and to register a complaint, hang up and shout at the phone."
A few tips from those of us a little further along in the training program: when you absolutely, positively, have to talk to a people-person, press 0. You may get another menu: press 0 again. Press it once or twice more, if you like (really, some places make it 4 tries at 0 to get an operator, in the theory that you’ll get frustrated enough between 2 and 3 tries to either stick with the menu or hang up), but that’s how every commercially available voice mail system routes callers to the elusive "live operator."
If any professionals with these systems are still reading, a last note. Aside from my own frustrations when holding a pencil, three forms with long numbers on them that all look alike, and a daily planner on my lap, I think of elderly relatives and friends when a system gives you about four-and-a-half seconds before either chiding you or routing your call into an unwanted queue. Guys, some of us out here in consumer land who understand you gotta have these systems and want to work with y’all: we can’t all see great, we’re a bit overwhelmed by life or events, we have shaky hands or uncertain reflexes. Can you put a "go slower" button in the menu as an option, before Aunt Tilly completely gives up on the modern world? Thanks.
And yes, I have moved recently. How did you know?

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and occasional preacher around central Ohio; if you have adventures in voice mail to share, write (don’t call!) disciple@voyager.net.