neko cat: understanding symbolic representation

In my house, with the addition of neko two weekends ago, we have been shifting our patterns of life, as people do whenever we add a new person to our families. We have been learning, and re-learning, many of the patterns of feline-human personal interaction. One of the most interesting new learnings has been neko’s particular gift for understanding symbolic representation.

When is a mouse a mouse? This question raises a particular problems in metaphysics,  ontolology, language, and taxonomy. The question depends greatly on your perspective, of course. From the mouse’s perspective the question is at least about who I am comfortable around.

Cave - Mouse Nest 2

From the animal researcher’s perspective, a mouse is a highly controlled commodity often with genes that have been manipulated in one way or another. One interesting “strain” of “mouse” in this context is the “humanized” “mouse” whose genes have a human gene knocked in.

It seems like a mouse’s mouseness is in the last example is something that humans seek to control. A mouse in the wild is not a good “mouse” in the lab. And I imagine that representations of mice in art are often thought of as linguistic in this way. We arbitrarily call the thing that looks like a mouse a mouse even though we know it is not really a mouse.

Here are two of these mice. The one on the right is a SmartyKat Jitter Critter, which has been dosed with catnip, and is “intended” as a cat toy. And I’m pleased to say that it works pretty well. The main question that I’m interested in at this point is why it works well. Does it work because it is dosed with catnip? Because it is soft and open to feline destruction? Because it looks like a mouse? My guess is that most people are fine with positive answer to the first two questions. But most people think that this mouse’s mouseness is incidental to its success as a cat toy. From the cat’s perspective, this is probably not a mouse. On the left we have a metal mouse given to us as a decoration for our house. The only resemblance that this mouse bears to the Jitter Critter is in its shape. However, Neko likes playing with it just as much.

Now this video does show her playing with the Jitter Critter … but right after she had been playing with the metal mouse which is on the floor having been knocked off of its ordinary perch. It seems that for Neko, mouseness is all about looking like a mouse.


What holds true for the soil-that you must give it more than you take away-also holds true for nations, institutions, marriage, friendship, education, in short for human culture as a whole, which comes into being and maintains itself in time only as long as it cultivators overgive of themselves      – Robert Pogue Harrison in Gardens, p. 33.

My students, but I only start with them because they are in the position, professionally, of trying to understand, often have difficultly with the concept of an economy of abundance or gift. How is it they ask that the true economy is not one of scarcity when that is all we can see. My example is always forgiveness. There is never a limit on how much we can forgive, nor on how often we can be forgiven.

But perhaps the better example is gardening. The true gardener for RPH is the person who is able to pay attention to, and to cultivate, the soil. It is in reference to the soil that he is able to say that you must give more than you take away. The true gardener delights in the soil, in the soil’s ability to grow plants; but with a focus to the soil not in anticipation for the plants. And this is perhaps how economies of abundance work. To participate we must give more than we take away. But if we do this, we will (hopefully without expecting), receive more than we could have imagined.


metaphorical crucifixion, triple AAA rated

sometimes i think that the crucifixion must be purely metaphorical. here’s what i mean. i don’t mean that it didn’t happen. i believe in the historical crucifixion. but i also recognize that it’s really difficult for that brute historical fact to have much practical meaning for me. whatever it means it doesn’t mean that I seek crucifixion for myself. i need to follow jesus, even unto death, but seeking to imitate the pattern of that death has been wrong at least since ignatius of antioch.

so i think about the world that i live in. a world that exists without crucifixions except in the most bizarre of instances. and i think about what lead jesus to the cross. and i think that at least part of what lead jesus to the cross was a dogged determination to speak truth to power. and i think about the nature of that power then and the nature of that power now. and i think that that power is represented no more clearly than in the hubris of Standard and Poor’s who this week despite a 2 trillion dollar error in calculation downgraded the USA’s credit standing. this is the same Standard and Poor’s who choose not to downgrade the credit standing of all those companies who were burdened with tons of toxic debt in 2007. i count it as pure evil when you choose to play with reputation in this way. it could make a real difference in the lives of the poor if the USA finds itself financially encumbered. the country as a whole is in a real way the last resort for the financial system. if you want to protect the poor you should prop up their last resort as much as you can. when you choose not to do this right after you have protected the wealthy (i recognize the domino effect argument and stuff. but the USA has to always be the last domino, right??) you are evil.

so what does it mean to me, in the wake of the lunacy and evil in our financial system that jesus was crucified? well, since it seems pretty clear that jesus was crucified so that i don’t have to be, it doesn’t mean that i need to seek my own financial ruin in response to the evil of the system i happen to live in. i am freed, by the blood of Christ, to seek a different path, that is simultaneously a following of Christ just as it is it’s own liberated thing.

i think that anyone who takes the time to really care, in the midst of the evil i am trying to describe here,  loses their happiness in cloud of despair. the poor die and the powerful find new ways to kill them. but i am freed from this despair, freed to what? to anesthetize myself against reality? this is a pretty good option and the prevalence of great new cable shows that have summer runs (i’m thinking in plain sight, white collar) work pretty well for this. i could play video games? this is an even better option, especially when it is, as jane mcgonigal writes, the way for me to discover a new better reality and to fix my world. more and more, though, i think that it must be the pursuit of beauty. i think that the transmutation of Christ’s suffering into the beauty of my freedom is the most heartbreaking and liberating reality that has ever existed. this is the metaphor of my salvation. it is not an easy path to follow when the ugliness of Standard and Poor’s is thrust in front of me every day. but that is the path that follows best jesus.

Witness to Love

Sermon for Chicago Community Mennonite Church

Good Morning,

It is good to be back with you this morning after an absence that is longer than I’d like. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and I guess that’s the case in the relationship between the licensed theologian and his congregation. It’s not that I’ve lacked for good church; the community in Ann Arbor that Susan and I frequent and have become involved in is a solid good group. And I’ve found that playing in the chapel band at Bluffton has given me a connection to the worship that happens in that space that is deeper than in my first six years there. If it sounds like i’m romanticizing my relationship to you a little bit, well, that’s exactly right. For, like someone who reflects on his first kiss, I have fond memories of how you have taught and continue to teach me how to love.

Soon I want to spend some time reflecting on how EB will teach us and be taught love here. But first let me share, as an aid to memory for some, and as a story for others, two stories about intense realizations of love that I have felt in this church. The stories both end the same way and I’ll give away the ending to both up front. I end up bawling, crouched in that pose of retreat that only men who never cry assume; having been wrenched out of composure by a power which leaves me without control over anything. This happens in the middle of Sunday morning worship and no one knows what to do so people just keep on worshipping. Someone holds me, probably Susan, but in that moment I wouldn’t be able to tell you. I only know that it is a member of this congregation.

The first story happens here on a morning when we are celebrating the realization that we are a good church and that the persecution that we as a group have been receiving during some unpleasant conference meetings is not something which needs to define us. We are a church who has as its job to be the church and that means much more than defending ourselves on any particular issue. We are about welcoming, providing sanctuary, and loving each other. On that day we knew that Jesus was in God, and that we were in Jesus, and that Jesus was in us. We knew that they who have Christ’s commandments and keep them are those who love Christ; and those who love Christ will be loved by God, and Christ will love them and reveal Christself to them. I can remember a palpable sense of relief and new purpose that seized us when we decided that we could be the church even in a world, or more heartbreakingly a church, which seemed sure that we weren’t. Anyways, on that morning Joanne Zimmerly and Julia Friesen, accompanied by music, danced into the sanctuary from that door to the altar with our quilt. I didn’t recognize the quilt at first as the back, which was what we could see at first, is quite plain. But then they opened it; tentatively at first, but then in its full glory.

The brightness of the quilt struck me the heart and I started crying filled by a sense that I belonged to something so precious that only God’s grace could have brought me into it. I learned that morning that love finds a purpose in communal celebration of the possibility of being the church. That while it may not seem like it sometimes, the church really is the body of Christ. That this is a body that lives and breathes and loves and dances. This is a body that woos us, offering us a love that we do not deserve but that is nonetheless vulnerably extended like the tender embrace of new lovers. The church is a tender witness to what is possible when we love God.

The second story is a story that happens at Camp Freidenswald during the church retreat. It’s about 10 years ago. Seth Andreas-Wiebe has just been born and it is time for his dedication. It is also just after Susan and I have given birth to the shape of the knowledge of our family. That’s not a phrase that you hear very often so let me explain it.

Susan and I are unable, biologically, to have children. We, at one point, underwent a variety of fertility treatments, up to and including two in vitro fertilizations, but never accomplished a pregnancy. During the time before, during and after these treatments we sought out the wisdom and support of this congregation. We received a blessing at the beginning of these treatments, slept under the quilt while the treatments were happening, and after the treatments we had not given birth to a child, but we had given birth to knowledge of the shape of our family. We were not people who had children but we would have opportunities to build relationships with others, like my students at Bluffton for instance, in ways that could be more deliberate that people with children can. So since we had given birth the church threw us a shower. We received plants which grew outside our Chicago home, our Bluffton home and are now growing in Ann Arbor. We had a cake, chocolate, which was crumbled up, put in a flower pot with gummy worms and had a bunch of mint planted in the top. It was hard to eat but it was the perfect cake for our shower.

So, a month before, or after this shower, I’m not sure which, Seth was dedicated. Pastor Phil Waite took Seth and lifted him up and I saw him shining in the light that was pouring in the big windows of the A-Frame at Freidenswald, which is incidentally the same space that Susan and I were married 17 and a half years ago.

The brightness of Seth’s skin struck me to the heart and I started crying filled both by the sadness that my child would never be held up in the same way, but also by a sense that I belonged to something so precious that only God’s grace could have brought me into it. I learned that the love a congregation shows its members can transform itself fitting each person in ways that are best suited to that person. This is a body that is made up of many different parts and at its best knows that about itself. We don’t always succeed at doing this but in moments when we can value the birth of babies and knowledge in the same way we offer people a love that is deserved but rarely found in a world that values certain types people, certain types of knowledge, and certain types of love more than others. Very different things become the same when God is the author of our love. Or perhaps put better, very different things are authored by the same God through love. The church is a bold, bright witness to what is possible when we love God.

This is at least part of what Paul is after at the Aeropagus when he connects worship of an unknown God to the God of Abraham, Esau, Rahab, and Ruth. Paul asks the Romans to rewrite their history in today’s scripture passage. The God that they have thought of as unknown he now wants to make known. Paul’s suggestion is revolutionary. The world that the Romans have known is turned upside down. Each of the stories I am telling you this morning are revolutionary in this way.

Seth’s dedication brings me to the dedication that we have just witnessed. What kind of love is EB learning this morning.

EB? What is your idea of love?

Do you know it as the unfurling of a quilt? As the shining of skin?

Probably not. And this is appropriate. The stories that I’ve told this morning are crucial stories in my understanding of what love is, but they are my stories. They are woven into my particular life and make up my particular understanding of what love is.

EB you are a month old. Love consists mostly in feeding and related events, perhaps in the gentle rotation of a black and white mobile. You do learn something about love today, at minimum, and however fleetingly, you learn today that this room is a place where your parents might give over your care to other people. (You learn this in a bodily posture that is identical to the bodily posture that I adopt when I learn about love. Bawling. We don’t have control over how we learn do we EB?)

But love won’t always mean this for you EB, love will start to mean other things. Soon you’ll have a sense that your parents love you almost or even entirely unconditionally. The things you’ll get away with! Your love with your brother might take a different tone, at least at first. You’ll learn about the love of friends, of this community and perhaps others. At some point, love will take on the new meaning as you’ll be hit in the gut by the attractiveness of a new singular person. You’ll contrive to spend time with them. And, in all likelihood, your heart will also be broken. This will also be a learning about love.

Herbert McCabe says, “A large part of of the business of growing up consists in recognising the complex forms that love may take and – this is important – being open to the possibility of new forms. ‘Love’ is thus what we might call a growing word, one whose meaning changes and develops … Knowing how to use this word is an essentially historical or autobiographical matter. I mean when you have achieved some skill in the use of the word, you cannot simply hand over your results to someone else; (that person) has to live through the whole business (them)self, starting with the simplest and crudest understanding … there are no short cuts to understanding what love is.”

Each of us needs to undergo the work of understanding what love is. Does this mean then that the meaning of love is totally random? That love will simply be the sum of my experiences with it? Partly this needs to be true. Only my sister also has Grace Bechtel for a mother; no one else is married to Susan Hunsberger; and only I have my set of unique and particular relationships. But love, this growing word, is rooted for me in experiences that other people share. Other people shared the unfurling of the quilt and Seth’s shining skin. Love is about the content – about what love is – but importantly perhaps the meaning of love is perhaps more about how it is given witness to. The meaning of love is the meaning that a community shares. So perhaps what is so significant about love is not its intensity or its way of binding people together. The significance of love is how it can take on deep meaning for a group of people and for individuals and how it can do this in revolutionary ways.

The best example of this is of course Christ’s death. Jesus come to earth to teach how to love and to love in the most perfect way possible. The inevitable consequence of offering perfect love in a sinful world is death. The remarkable and revolutionary aspect of the crucifixion is not in the shape of Christ death but in the resurrection in the revelation that a lived live in love is in tune with the deepest purposes of God’s universe.

I’ve told you two stories about my journey and how it has been turned inside out by learning about love that are peculiar. The resurrection provides the paradigm of this kind of deep meaning making. The church, in its rituals, also finds reliable ways of doing the same things again and again that attempt to elicit the deep meaning for its members. We are doing both of these things this morning. We have dedicated a child into the care of the church. This is a commitment to again and again provide opportunities for EB to make choices to follow Jesus.  The depth of the meaning of this commitment is it’s orientation towards death but the kind of death that represents perfect love. It is strange that we would dedicate a baby towards death, and if we were infant baptizers this meaning would be intensified. Perhaps one of the reasons that adult baptism stuck as a practice for us is because we recognized it’s inevitable orientation towards death more acutely than church who weren’t experiencing the same kind of persecution that we were. Perhaps not.

The other practice that reliably orients us towards the deep meaning of love is communion in which we remember Christ’s life, death and resurrection. We’ll celebrate it now and as we do we could also remember our own histories and revolutions in understanding love. I could tell you the story about the time I was responsible to bring communion bread and the only loaf I had was frozen onion bread which didn’t thaw and burnt my hands as I struggle to offer it up on Sunday Morning, but I still haven’t found the meaning of that one. Amen

How to solve the budget. (the budget doesn’t need solving, we just need new media)

All corporations and individuals, except for those making less than $20,000 a year, pay 10% tax on gross income (whether it is from salaries, wages or investments). All corporations and individuals who make more than a million dollars pay a 2% tax on gross income above a million dollars. If you get caught cheating you pay 30% for 3 years.

Defense spending is pegged to GDP and you aren’t allowed to spend more than 25% on it.


Health care costs get split into two systems: one public, one private. Creating these systems is easy. The hospitals that the government already owns (including through state universities) are the public ones. Public health care has some costs that are fixed. Everybody that works at a public hospital makes between 50 and 250 thousand dollars. Everyone who makes less than $20,000 gets free health care. Everyone else can enroll in a government sponsored high deductible plan. Government subsidies for health care can’t exceed 20% of GDP. High cost end of life care and high cost lifestyle care (treatment for your cancer if you smoked etc.) are the first things that gets rationed in the public system.

Update: disregard everything in this post and read this:

August 1

Today’s august 1st. I hate august for the way it heralds the new school year and the end of summer. I like coffee. I don’t enjoy my coffee as much during the school year as I do in the summer. I’d intended to start blogging again today because I think that I just might really be a blogger, but my computer is almost out of powe…