Fridays with Francis: February 27, 2015: Special Edition

The topic of homosexuals, gay marriage, and Catholicism weighs heavily on people’s minds. I understand how confusing and hurtful Church teaching seems on this issue, and a good friend has been gently nudging me to address this for a while now. His most recent comment to me is as follows:

 One thing, as you might imagine, that I wonder about with the Catholic position on procreation is where, exactly, it leaves same-sex couples. Obviously the Catholic Church’s position on homosexuality is no secret, so I get in terms of systematic theology. But in life, in practice, and with a Pope who has opposed same-sex marriage and adoption but has also said some pretty impressive (and I think holy, Jesus kinds of things) about embracing people regardless of sexuality…how does this all fit?

It’s been a journey, but my understanding of my faith has led me to support same-sex marriage, and a I think these kinds of conversations have to keep happening. Even in the progressive UCC, lots of churches are slow to embrace official “Open and Affirming” status for a variety of reasons, some of which are well-considered and pastoral…even while being, in practice, exactly that.

My friend deserves a good answer. Everyone who is confused or hurt by the Church does. This week, I’m going to do my best to give you one. This week I’m not going to talk about Pope Francis. Instead, I am going to try my best to talk like him. Here we go…

First, it’s not possible to separate the theology from the praxis. If you don’t practice what you preach, it’s hypocrisy. If you don’t have a rudder, you can’t steer your ship. I think everyone agrees that a consistent ethic is ideal, and that that ethic should be one of goodness. For Catholics, the most fundamental ethic is the source of our existence. God created all people in His image and likeness; this marks us as having a priceless value that commands an almost divine dignity.

I’ve often heard that the Church’s position on gay marriage denies the value and dignity of homosexuals. In all fairness, it certainly seems that way. Homosexuals are losing out on civil benefits that their straight counterparts take for granted, and on top of that they are made to feel like their love is not as good as a straight couple. From this perspective, both the moral and economic dignity of homosexuals is impugned.

That’s a heavy charge, linking personal dignity with the ability to get married. And that’s what moves us to what this debate is really about: defining the purpose of marriage. We’re asking what marriage was created for, the reason for its existence. We’re looking at settling an issue of theology, of abstract ideology, to suit our desired practices.

Marriage, civilly speaking, has serious economic considerations. From the government’s perspective, the more people get married, the better. When people argue that a ban on gay marriage hurts the economic dignity of homosexual couples, they make a valid point because marriage has been made an economic tool. This is the purpose of marriage in the civil sense. The Church doesn’t take economic dignity into consideration, however. A person’s right to civil benefits isn’t necessitated by their state in life; their very existence necessitates the right to civil benefits. When talking about marriage, economics is a secondary function for the Church.

The Church and society don’t agree that economics offers a legitimate reason why marriage exists. Both agree that marriage entails a moral component, though. It is on moral grounds, then, that the Church’s position should be understood.

Let’s go back to being made in God’s image. This simply means that we were created, as individuals, to manifest certain qualities as we moved through life on Earth. These qualities remain constant because God is constant. Circumstances may change, but the qualities can’t. I do mean can’t; insinuating that God can be something other than Himself amounts to negating His existence. The point to this is that circumstances do not substantially affect our personal dignity. Slavery doesn’t lessen a person’s created value. Being a mass murderer doesn’t lessen it, either. These only change a person’s outer appearance.

I think we can all agree that a person’s outer appearance, as described above, has some effect on our created value. If we are created to be the likeness of God, but use our life to look like everything but God, then that’s a problem. That would be like Picasso putting his personal touches on the Mona Lisa. The created value of Mona Lisa is still there, but it’s overshadowed by whatever you want to call Picasso’s work.

Marriage, in the eyes of the Church, is a praxis that guides two people’s outer appearance to reveal God’s likeness. Marriage is not an end to itself. It’s only a means to an end. All things should lead to God, and all people should reveal Him. Homosexual marriage leads neither to God nor helps homosexuals reveal their created likeness of Him. Not in theory, and not in practice.

Heterosexual marriage accomplishes this in theory. This is the argument that most people hear given by theologians, bishops, cardinals, and conservative religious pundits. But the reality is that in practice, heterosexual marriages are not guaranteed to do what they were made to do. It is a disparity between theory and practice that is rightly called out. In fact, I think it should be called out more. Broken heterosexual marriages have grossly obscured marriage’s fundamental dignity and set the stage for this entire debate. But the theory-pushers are correct on one thing: inconsistent praxis does not invalidate theory.

Entire World of Disney

Dad by Disney

They say that you get three turns of the wheel: your childhood, your kids’ childhood, and your grandkids’ childhood. On my first spin I fell into Generation X.2, which put me right in the sweet spot for both the silver screen’s Disney Renaissance and the small screen’s Disney Afternoon. Kids my age knew the theme songs for Gummi Bears, Rescue Rangers, and Talespin. By sixth grade we were all certain that Ariel was the greatest possible tribute to Alyssa Milano, right up until Guardians of the Galaxy.

But the Disney of the 1990s wasn’t all Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast. Soon came Hercules. And Atlantis. And (shudder) Home on the Range. Yeah, that happened; someone at Disney thought it would be a great idea to have a slapstick Wild West cartoon starring Roseanne Barr, Dame Judy Dench, and the Bride of Chucky as musical cows. There were some smallish diamonds in the rough, however. Lilo and Stitch touched on powerful family issues, and my college roommate and I could recite the entirety of The Emperor’s New Groove by heart. Maybe we still can. But Meet the Robinsons? Chicken Little? Man, the Disney Renaissance of my childhood was well and truly dead.

Then I had kids. And Disney met Pixar.

Peculiarly, the collaboration of these two studios seemed to keep coinciding with major events in my life. When our son was little, he loved cars and trains and tractors, and so the movie Cars, with all its overabundant merchandising, was like toddler crack to him. This was also back when he was an only child, so we had little compunction about showering him with toy vehicles. I found myself developing an oddly emotional connection with the Cars film, however, and when I stopped to examine why, I could only come up with two reasons: (1) My son adored it, and I was seeing it through his eyes; and (2) Cars is the story about a cocky, self-centered city guy who unexpectedly finds love, peace, and meaning out in the country. At first he views this transition as an agonizing exile, but soon comes to realize just how empty his old life was.

Did I mention that we were watching this shortly after I fell in love with a Minnesota girl and moved from the urban East Coast to the rural Midwest? Go figure.

Like most little boys, our son soon transitioned from machines to animals. He especially loved whales, sharks, and sea creatures in general. Well, there’s a kids’ movie for that too: Finding Nemo. It was love at first sight for him. Before long everything was Nemo this and Nemo that. Again I found myself oddly invested in my son’s favorite movie, and for similar reasons. I loved it because he loved it, and with a degree in biology this was an interest we easily shared. But Finding Nemo is also the story of a dad with a vulnerable child, who is forced to confront his own terror of losing the son he so deeply loves.

Did I mention that our son was born with a rare heart defect that required $300,000 of open heart surgery, and that it was two weeks before we could even hold him? Yeah. I still have trouble visiting the NICU. And this is why I found myself tearing up every time we watched that bloody movie together. Every dang time, right when the seagull tells the story that makes Nemo proud of his dad. Gah.

Meanwhile, the quality of non-Pixar Disney films demonstrated some improvement. Bolt wasn’t terrible. The Princess and the Frog was really pretty decent. (I automatically give any story set in New Orleans an extra star.) But Tangled was something special.

We became parents again with a pair of daughters, nearly Irish twins. And while our girls do enjoy werewolves and broadswords and crossbows, they also love their princesses and frilly dresses. Tangled was their gateway drug. The middle child especially has since branched out into the classics—Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty—but Rapunzel was our household’s first Disney princess. And if the girls like it, Daddy likes it. (This was followed by Wreck-It Ralph, a love letter to every child of the 80s, which culminates in the line, “If that little kid likes me, how bad can I be?” Should you happen to be a father of little girls, that sucker will get you right in the feels.)

Then came The Big One. Of course, we didn’t know that at the time. Brave had come out a few years after Tangled, and though it definitely improved upon later repeat viewing, I hadn’t been impressed in the theater. So when we heard about Disney’s latest, something called Frozen, I thought the best it had going for it was that it looked an awful lot like Tangled. On Thanksgiving I took my son and two nieces to the cinema to see Frozen, and as it happened we had to make a potty break right at the film’s showpiece song. Yes, we missed “Let It Go.” My initial judgment was that it was a good movie, and obviously destined for Broadway, but I still preferred Rapunzel.

The thing about Disney films, though, is that the good ones really do grow on you. We took the kids to see Frozen again about a month later, with a negative 47 degree wind chill. Weather be damned, that theater was packed. Minnesotans took an immediate shine to the story. Stave churches, rosemaling, ice, snow, Minnesota accents, friendly wild creatures, whispers of trolls, Lutheran bishops, saunas, Hans Christian Andersen references—good heavens, Disney had made a movie about us! And don’t even get me started on the religious imagery. I’ve taught classes on the spiritual symbolism hidden away in Frozen. The kids started listening to the soundtrack in the car.

That February my wife and I had planned a belated honeymoon trip to Egypt with Zahi Hawass. It was a once-in-a-lifetime sort of deal. But then Egypt came down with a bad case of civil war, and that was the end of that, deposit and all. My wife, however, was bound and determined for us to take some time off together, and so she signed us up for something we’d never done before: a short Caribbean cruise. A Disney Caribbean Cruise. I wasn’t particularly enthused about the idea—the Caribbean over Egypt?—but hot snot, once we were there, it was like paradise on earth. I can’t even describe. We spent four days, together, without kids, for the first time in seven years. It was glorious. Ends up we’re still quite fond of each other. Who knew?

In addition to live theater every night, the ship had this crazy 3-D surround-sound cinema which outdid pretty much every other 3-D surround-sound cinema I’ve ever seen outside of Captain EO. (Yes, I’m old enough to remember Captain EO.) And what were they showing? Why, Frozen, of course: the story of a beautiful Norwegian girl who introduces viewers to a magical world of ice. Rather like my wife. And that’s what did it—that was the tipping point. We now began to understand those friends and family who were obsessed with Disney not just as an entertainment provider but almost as a worldview.

So today I don’t mind that Disney has metastasized all over our home. I don’t mind that our daughters want to wear their Elsa dresses and play with their Elsa dolls and read the latest Elsa books while sitting on their Elsa bedspreads. We pretty much drank the Kool-Aid. And as it so happens, we did end up finding an appropriate replacement for that Egyptian honeymoon. When Disney announced new cruises inspired by Frozen, spanning Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and Scotland, I sold my grand prize Harley Davidson (won in an undertaker’s raffle two years earlier), giving one third of the value to charity and putting two thirds towards a Viking-themed Disney Cruise with my Viking-themed wife. I wouldn’t recommend waiting a year and a half between vacations, but this summer it’s going to be just me, her, and the lands of the Prose Edda. And I have the Queen of Arendelle to thank for that.

Well, her and a certain Mouse.

RDG Stout was born and raised amongst the Pennsylvania Deutsch but has spent the last decade as a country preacher in the windswept wilds of Niflheim, a.k.a. rural Minnesota. He lives in a mead hall with his Viking wife, three kids, and a bizarre assortment of stories. His musings may be found here and at Grimly Optimistic.

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The Inherent Prospect of Melting Ice as Climatological Warfare

This animation by National Geographic may hold the key to explaining why some people don’t want to do anything about rising sea levels.  Look what happens to India and China if all the ice melts. The US loses more area by proportion, but it doesn’t lose a city the size or strategic significance of Beijing.  Are there people willing to let this happen to the world in the larger scope of this too-cynical-for-words real politik?  Maybe? Probably?  Yikes?

Ironically, China itself is the world’s biggest polluter and biggest emitter of greenhouse gases…

nn3

Notes from Niflheim: Frost Bites

RDG Stout

I recently asked our local chief of police if he needed extra manpower to prepare for the infamously raucous Niflheim Mardi Gras. He laughed, but I warned him that chilly co-eds might flash in exchange for scarves.

The East Coast, at least up New England way, just keeps getting pounded this winter, which is doubly bizarre for rural Minnesotans because ours has been uncharacteristically gentle. Indeed, unnervingly so. Last winter was rough even on the seasoned veterans; the temperature stayed around negative 20 for three months straight, with wind chills often dipping near negative 50. The frost line plunged down seven, eight, nine feet. Water mains froze. In town folks had to keep their faucets running for the entire season.

In contrast, this winter has been suspiciously enticing. We experienced warm spells up to 40 degrees (positive!) at both Santa Lucia and Christmas Day. I was out walking the dogs in December, which proved highly surreal. The high school crowd is grouchy because we’ve had so little snow that they can’t break out the snowmobiles, and even the most ardent of the ice fishers had to wait a bit to drive out on the lakes and drag along their mobile fishing palaces.

Recently we’ve dropped back down to a more familiar negative 30 wind chill, so I can return to bemusedly smirking at Facebook friends who cry out in astonishment at five degree temperatures in New Jersey. (Native Minnesotans are far too polite to mock the rest of the country’s inability to deal with even moderately sized frost giants. As a transplant, however, I have no such qualms.)

I remember when I first flew out to Fargo to meet up with my wife, whose move had preceded mine by a few months. As soon as I stepped out of the airport, I took a deep breath—and doubled over hacking. It was a balmy negative 40, and my lungs were as yet Pennsylvanian in constitution.

“We don’t gulp the air here,” my wife admonished gently. “We sip it.” What sort of people voluntarily dwell where the very air one breathes burns from the inside out? I tried to sputter. All I got out was, “Ack! H-guh! *cough*” There’s nothing quite like the first time that you feel all the hairs inside your sinuses freeze at once.

I later recalled my Giants in the Earth, and realized that people used to wait out these winters in sod huts. Sod huts! Truly these were gods amongst men. Or at least part bear.

After several months of acclimation, however, I remember chipping my car out of an ice bank one fine day for my morning commute—it often snows here from Halloween to May Day, and we had but a single car garage while my wife was pregnant, so you know she wasn’t going to be chipping out her car—and thinking, “Oh, it’s not so bad today.” So I removed the earmuffs and gloves and scarf, and made do with the long coat.

Then on the drive in I noticed the temperature on the bank sign: negative 20. Negative 20! And I could breathe! And expose bare skin! By thunder, I’d done it! I’d acclimated! It’s like learning that you can breathe underwater, or walk unsuited on the moon.

So buck up, Jersey. You’ll survive. Around here at negative 20 kids still frolic in the backyard with dogs, and school is never, ever canceled. Take some inspiration from the Vikings. Visit Fargo. Read Giants in the Earth. And know that this too shall pass. Why, it probably won’t even last much past May Day.

RDG Stout was born and raised amongst the Pennsylvania Deutsch but has spent the last decade as a country preacher in the windswept wilds of Niflheim, a.k.a. rural Minnesota. He lives in a mead hall with his Viking wife, three kids, and a bizarre assortment of stories.  His musings may be found here and at Grimly Optimistic.

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[B]rad Infinitum: Cannon Beach, Oregon, at Sunset

For this post, I would like to talk about how I created a photo from Cannon Beach, Oregon, last year.

Before I left on this trip, I read about a new technique that can create interesting patterns in the sky when you stack a series of photos taken about 5-10 seconds apart with fast moving clouds. (The technique is described on PetaPixel, among other places, and it tend to resurface as a ‘new’ idea every few years)

I wanted to try it. But the clouds were not moving very quickly and the sun was setting very quickly.

So I thought, since I was on a beach, why not try the same concept, but with waves. Either way, it was too late to move to a new spot, so my choices were to work with what I had or give up and ensure I walked away with nothing.

I set up my camera and took a series several series of photos. One particular group of about 20 photos is what I would like to discuss in this post. Of this group of 20 photos, this was the first:

First Photo!

First Photo!

Ok, not too bad. There’s a lot I really like about this photo, especially in the color of the sky and the sea stacks in shadow.

I opened up the series of photos in Photoshop and stacked them on top of each other with Darken as the blend mode. Darken, like Lighten, are really nice for working with this kind of scene. In the earlier part of this post I linked to an article which talked about using ‘Lighten’ as your blend mode for clouds. I have found that Lighten works best for lighter objects, and Darken works best for darker objects. This is all subjective and mostly about what you like best or what just works best for you.

However, 20 photos was a bit too many. So I turned layers on and off until only about 6 remained. These 6 felt right, so I performed a merge visible on all but the bottom layer and set this new layer to ‘darken’.

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Oops, I left a little too much of the transparency on. That just won’t work right. (See the Sun for what I mean)

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Ahh better. I’ve masked out the area where the sun sits in the image. This means that the bottom layer’s sun is now showing through.

What is left do do on this photo? 2 major things. In Photoshop, I want to create a mask for the Oranges. I feel like this color is just not where I want it to be. So I’ll create a quick mask and adjust the Hue to make it a little more orange, and also underexpose the area a little to bring the brightness down.

Next, I’ll do the opposite for the waves. I feel like they need to be made brighter, as well as have their colors saturated a bit more.

Finish it all up with a sharpening layer and we have:

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After this image had been published, I noticed that the orange in the waves that I so liked was actually due to me forgetting to turn off the transparency of the layer. Once that was turned down, we get:

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Now we are nearly at our completed image. I am really liking where this image is going.

There is still an issue with this image that I would like to correct. Do you see the area between the sea and the sky? There is a small color halo. This is an easy fix. We create a new Darken layer and using the paintbrush tool, we sample a nearby color and paint our way across the image. The result is a subtle change, but, it eliminates the annoying halo.

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And there it is, the finished image. By stacking images, we can make a relatively calm ocean look like a much more active ocean.

-Brad

Melissa Maleski-2

Fridays with Francis: February 13, 2015: Beautiful Romance and Broken Ego

Melissa Maleski

A beautiful romance begins with a broken ego. That is the only way I can think to summarize Pope Francis’ message leading up to Valentine’s Day.

There was some fairly hard language to come from the Chair of Peter this week. Technically it began at the end of last week when Pope Francis called the abuse-of-minors scandal a scourge, but he kept the ball rolling this week. He called on world governments to stop ignoring the  shameful wound of human trafficking, which boasts a consistent tally of victims in the neighborhood of 2.5 million. In some parts of the world the word shame carries some weight, but us Westerners have some well-padded egos. If Pope Francis wants Western governments to listen when he speaks, I’m afraid he’ll need to use much stronger language. But let me come back to this in a minute.

The Holy Father saved his strongest statement for couples who choose not to have children. Not bothering to mince words, he called this choice selfishA society with a greedy generation, that doesn’t want to surround itself with children, that considers them above all worrisome, a weight, a risk, is a depressed society,” the pope said. “The choice to not have children is selfish. Life rejuvenates and acquires energy when it multiplies: It is enriched, not impoverished. I’m assuming that the lack of reaction in the mass media to this statement is due to Dropped-Jaw Syndrome.

There is a rapidly-growing debate around the inter-web about who is more selfish: parents or childless-by-choice couples. For your edification check out this editorial in Time.  Or this passionate opinion. Or this actual side-by-side debate. Each position defends their claim primarily on the grounds of economics and psychology. The Catholic position, which Pope Francis succinctly stated, rests primarily on moral principles. Economics and psychology are incorporated to support the moral principles, but are not supposed to precede moral considerations.

I don’t want to make this a windy apologetics piece, so I will try to explain briefly why childless-by-choice is selfish by Catholic standards. Male and Female were created as a gift, one to the other. When one male and one female come together, they are supposed to give all of themselves to the other. This is called the total gift of self. It’s a process that is similar to how stars are born. Clouds of gas and dust (the individual persons) begin to collapse and die. As the parts collapse, the center of the clouds get hotter and more solid (Sacrament of Marriage). When the center reaches peak heat and density, a star is born. It starts to grow, and eventually it’s light bursts forth for universes to see. This last part correlates, in people terms, to two things. One, biological conception and birth of children. Two, charitable contributions to society through volunteering, donations, and being generally happy and well-adjusted people. Both components are necessary aspects of man’s existential reality. Holding back, or not totally giving one’s self to another, blunts the humbling impressiveness of this gift. Feel free to argue the logic of it in the comments, but this is Theology of the Body in a mustard seed.

Let me turn back to Pope Francis and Western governments. His statement to Western leaders is not as forceful as the one aimed at childless-by-choice couples, and that intrigues me. Maybe it’s just that the latest consistory of cardinals began this week, but I get the feeling that Pope Francis has a different approach in mind for dealing with those who are on the top of the food chain of power and influence. Rather than engage in compelling dialogue (as, say, Jesus did with the Pharisees and regular folk), I think we may see the Holy Father increasingly limit the attention he gives anyone attached to established power. Like the Sadducees in the New Testament, those who have gotten comfortable being in charge will be nudged to the margins of relevance. What better way to break an over-inflated ego than to deny it room to breath?