Monday, December 21, 2009

Saving Grace...

Let's talk about salvation...

I've been listening to podcasts from Jesuit Media Initiatives in the UK for the last few weeks. I mentioned this in a post a few days ago. These podcasts serve as a good meditation or "Lectio Divina" exercise for me as I drive to work in the morning. Late this past week I heard one that, among other things, made the point that we are incapable of saving ourselves.

That simple assertion gave me the opportunity to think about what we are saved from, and what we're being saved for. Let me share what my meditation produced.

In the first place, I think we're saved from ourselves. What I mean by this is that the "me" that yields to easy temptation, that relies on impulse or urge to determine his behavior, is the "me" that I'm being saved from. If left to my own devices, I would not be worthy of communion with God. As I indicated in my previous post, I firmly believe in my own incapacity to join in communion with God, and that communion is something I desire more than anything in life.

Communion with God is the way I describe what I desire. Eternal life, going to heaven, these are terms that are used to describe the same thing. By whatever name, I view this state of being as the ultimate goal of my life.

As I said, I am not worthy of that communion on my own. I believe that I can not bootstrap myself into a state of righteousness that meets the "entry requirements" that God mandates. It is this "me" that "I" am being saved from, this insufficient person that can't make the grade.

So, there's what I'm being saved from. But what's the point of this liberation, if that's where it ends?

Consequently, there has to be something that we're being saved for. I've come to the conclusion that we're being saved, or reserved or set aside, for the new us. I'm being saved for the "me" that God is creating even as I'm putting distance between "me" at this time in my life, and the "me" that existed when God crashed into my life.

I see myself as a work in progress. I made a decision over thirteen years ago that set into motion a whole new set of events in my life. In the intervening time, I can honestly say that I have never regretted making that decision. I'm far from being the perfect pupil of the lessons I have been given to learn. I'm far from having perfect attendance at the feet of the Master. But I have never regretted accepting the scholarship that gained me admission to the Master's school. My salvation is my term in that school.

One day I shall be ready for graduation. I'm even now being prepared for that. And it's that graduation that has been reserved for me. The "me" who receives the diploma is going to be different than the "me" who is typing these words. I can't say what lessons yet wait to be learned. I can say, with confidence, that I will have the best Teacher guiding and leading me.

So there's the product of that one assertion made a few days ago during a time of meditation. I am challenged, confronted, and convicted as I listen to these exercises and others that I have opened myself up to. I find myself being stretched to think about things that at one and the same time have both personal and universal implications.

What stretches you? What do you open yourself to that challenges comfortable notions and knee-jerk beliefs? What discomfits you? And when you find these things, what good comes from them? May we all have those things in our lives that do this and grow us in the process.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

My Manifesto...

In this Advent season, I thought it might be worthwhile to make a statement of what I believe as a Christian. Interestingly enough, I came across something I had written to a good friend just over four years ago. I've tweaked the wording just a mite, but this is essentially what I wrote to Ken back in December of 2005...

Since you're always willing to engage in intellectual questions about Christian belief, I thought it would be fair to give you some insight into my own beliefs. Consider this a manifesto if you like.

I believe that God created the world in a certain order, sequentially, and over a span of time. I don't believe that this was a literal six days. I don't know if the biblical account is for the creation of the entire universe, or just for our solar system. I believe that the theory of evolution as proposed by Charles Darwin is the best scientific explanation we have at the moment of the process by which God has covered this planet with life in all its diversity.

I believe that God is in charge of the entire universe. I believe that He has created each of us, and everything about us, in a single act of creation that includes the time over which we exist in this physical world. I believe that our concern for predestination vs. free will is an oversimplification of the universe from God's perspective. Since we can't see that perspective, I believe that the sensible way to respond is to act as though we have free will. I believe that to do otherwise is to fail to deal with the universe as it's presented to us.

I believe that Jesus the Anointed One is the only way that I may achieve a communion with God. I don't know if this means the acceptance of the reality of Jesus' personal sacrifice on the cross, or the fact that that sacrifice was made at one time and in one place for all. I believe it's wrong to tell God how He must go about bringing those He has chosen into communion with Him--read the book of Jonah for His viewpoint on that arrogance.

I believe that I need to intentionally work on my way to the communion with God that I desire above all else. I believe that I will fail to achieve God's required holiness on my own--that is what His grace is for. I believe that I need to be constantly aware of that grace, and my need for it. I believe that any thought I may have of my own worthiness of communion with Him is pride, and the gravest of affronts to Him.

I believe that His love is unconditional (extended to all) but that there is more to the world than that. I believe His judgment is also a reality--I may yet be permanently separated from my desired communion with Him. I believe I must earnestly seek to live my life as He has told me to live--to love justice, to be faithful, and to be humble before Him. I believe that He has my best interest in mind when He tells me how to live; I believe that I am loved.

I believe that I may yet see an eternity of communion with God. I believe that I will experience loss in this life, just as I've experienced joy and blessing. I do not believe that the only way that I may grow closer to God is through adversity. I believe that He will sustain me in those times when He seems far away, but I also believe that I need to continue to seek His face when the times are good, that He is the source of that good and I need to keep that in mind. I believe that the bad that comes is part of the fabric of His creation, that the path to communion is narrow and that it must be traversed with His help.

Finally--I believe that I can't begin to understand the richness of the blessing that God confers on each of us each day. I believe that, on my own, I am blind and deaf to His love extended through time and space, as His creation moves along its appointed path. I love this awesome God, this God Who will not be confined to my small mind or my limited imagination.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Currency Conversion...

Sometimes I don't think we really understand the depth of change that being a disciple of Jesus mandates on us.

I've started listening to a series of short prayer sessions, called "Pray As You Go," from, a website maintained by Jesuit Media Initiatives of the UK. The sessions are downloadable as MP3 files, among other formats, and can be used to help focus one's meditation at the start of each day. There are other resources available on the site, and I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to enhance their practice of contemplation and prayer.

As I was driving to work this morning, I listened to the session for this third week of Advent, based on a passage from the Gospel of Luke. The passage, Luke 14:28-35, contained, among other things, the following message:

"In the same way therefore not one of you can be my disciple if he does not renounce all his own possessions."

I found that bit very troubling, because just minutes before, even as I was getting ready to listen to the session, I had been thinking about the economic house-cleaning that Jesus' new order seems to mandate. It was as if my thoughts were being prepared to hear something straight from the gospel, and once I was receptive, the message was delivered.

Let me try to unpack what I was thinking as I heard that passage, and as I thought about it afterward.

Prior to hearing the passage from Luke, I was reflecting on how our economic life is oriented toward the accumulation of wealth, the prudent use of that wealth, and the maintenance of that wealth. We have elaborate accounting systems for our wealth; we have currency exchanges for converting from one monetary system to another, for instance, just as we have complex markets that trade in the very currency itself, as well as in the things that it represents.

Our money manages us, in some ways, just as we manage our money. Our expectations of what we can acquire are controlled by what we can earn, save, borrow, and afford to spend. We do mental gymnastics over which high-def TV we really want, debating the value of various features, what size screen we really need, and so forth. Our goals direct us. Our desire for just the right "stuff" guides and focuses our efforts.

The availability of ready credit determines if work gets done, or doesn't. And how wrong can this be? How mistaken is this, in the real world? Look--the poor are poor, whether there is money for aid projects or not. The hungry are still hungry, the sick are still suffering illness, the oppressed are still being ground into the dirt by the oppressors. These realities exist regardless of whether or not someone can marshal the resources to address them. And what are the resources I'm talking about? I'm not referring to manpower, to equipment, to fuel for planes and vehicles, or for computer and communications gear. I'm talking about money. The money to address these needs is either there or it's not.

Is this rational? Is this acceptable to God? Is it conscionable to him that his creatures defer from aiding in a famine, or righting wrong, or healing the sick or comforting the dying, because they can't get funding?

I know it's not that simple. I know that the valuation placed on things is a way of managing scarce resources, so that needs and wants can be met with finite means. But I also am convinced that needs and wants are not the same thing, and that our finite means are a lot more abundant than we imagine.

Does anyone really doubt that every person in this world could be fed, if the production of the world's arable ground could be distributed more wisely?

Does anyone really imagine that all the children of this world would not be educated if the resources available world-wide could be placed where the people are?

Does anyone really think that human suffering wouldn't be affected and reduced if drinking water could be purified, or if sources of disease could be quarantined, or if shelter could be provided?

Does anyone truly think that people wouldn't live better lives if selfish dictators weren't stripped of power?

We have more important things to do with our money, of course. We've got to build up our armies. We've got to put up new sports stadiums. We have to put in more lanes on the freeways so we can support the increased traffic to and from the suburbs and the urban core.

"...not one of you can be my disciple if he does not renounce all his own possessions."

I can't get over the notion that most of us are pretty far from being true disciples of Jesus, as he himself defined it. Being converted is one of the hardest things in the world. What do we truly need to live purposeful, meaning-filled lives?

Even as we get ready to celebrate the birth of Jesus with gifts and presents, I can't help but wonder just how close I am to the one I call my Lord.

No Matter Where You Go...

"No matter where you go, there you are."
    --Buckaroo Banzai

That simple, even simplistic, phrase has been a favorite of mine for the twenty-five years since Buckaroo Banzai first hit the movie screen. While there was only the one movie about Buckaroo and his Hong Kong Cavaliers made, this bit of philosophy has stuck with me.

It's so simple, as I said, and yet so profound.

No matter where you go, there you are. What does that say about "you"? To me, the "you" that's at the heart of the sentence is that node of consciousness that co-exists in the same space as your physical presence. If you move a light bulb, you move the source of light that comes from it. The same here--your body moves from the kitchen to the bedroom, and your experience of the reality around you changes to reflect that move.

To speak of one's consciousness and one's body, as though they're two independent and separate things, may be getting things wrong. What if our consciousness is another dimension or aspect of our humanity, just as the particular shape of our body is? We name ourselves as human beings. We have a consciousness aspect, and a body-shape aspect. One human being, with consciousness and body simultaneous and inseparable.

What I'm looking at here is the difference between a dualism that separates our minds from our bodies, as though that were possible, and a view of humanity that sees the human being as a single entity, with aspects that manifest themselves in different ways. This is in some ways like my light bulb--if it has power, it will emit light, but the source of that emission will move as the bulb is moved.

Let's turn this phrase on its head, shall we?

Let's re-write it like this:  "No matter where I go, there you are."

What we have now is a statement that could reflect the traditional view of followers of Jesus to the presence of God. It's said in various ways several times in the Bible, after all; in the Psalms certainly, in various prophetic books, in epistles. Probably the most direct version of this occurs in Psalm 139, where David calls out to God:

"Where can I go to escape your spirit? Where can I flee to escape your presence?"

So what does this mean? Is God's consciousness everywhere, in the same sense that our consciousness is located co-existent with our bodies? Is God dispersed throughout all Creation, present at every point in all space-time? Or is it something a little different? Maybe it's like this--if the spirit of God lives in us, we're aware--made conscious of ourselves--God's presence in every place where we find ourselves to be. It might be sort of like a radio receiver that is tuned to the God-channel, and can pick it up everywhere it's placed. The entirety of Creation is filled with God's broadcast, as it were, emanating from the very being of God, waiting to be received by a properly tuned spirit.

I don't know what the truth is, in this instance. I can speculate about this sort of thing all day. All I know is that if I'm not looking for God, I'm less likely to see him about me. That doesn't mean I can't be surprised by his presence, but it's more rare. I do know, with great conviction, that since I was surprised by God and his interest in me those thirteen years ago, I've been constantly on the lookout for his presence about me. No matter where I go, there he is.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Three Questions

I have three questions that I've been turning over in my mind lately.

Three interlocking questions.

First, why do we think that we've got the proper and true understanding of the Holy Bible nailed down?

Think about this for a moment. Throughout the Bible, we repeatedly encounter people who had well-developed expectations about what God was going to do for them. These folks were more often than not the people of God, the Israelites. This was true in the Old Testament, and it's true in the New Testament.

Abraham went where God instructed him to go, but he didn't get to see the Promised Land as an inhabitant, but only as a traveler.

Isaac and Jacob followed in this pattern. They were nomadic, and Jacob (Israel) only settled down when he followed his sons to Egypt. They still did not take the Promised Land as their own.

Hundreds of years later, the children of Israel lived in slavery to the Pharoah of Egypt, crying out for a deliverer. Moses was sent by God to be that liberator. Even so, shortly after being freed from the yoke of Egypt, the Israelites demanded that Moses' own brother make them a golden calf that they could worship. What were their expectations?

This fickle people was forced to wander in the Sinai wilderness for forty years until the whole generation had died, because they failed to take God at his word. Instead, they waited for what they thought they'd receive. Their expectations were wrong.

This whole pattern is repeated almost endlessly by generation after generation of the Jewish people. God persists in coming to their rescue, even as they turn their backs on him again and again. Their expectations keep them from actually seeing what he's doing, and what he expects of them.

Even in the New Testament, those closest to Jesus once again have erroneous expectations of what he's about. The Zealots think he's going to declare himself King, and restore the Davidic throne. Even his own disciples expect him to do something that they can imagine. And he frustrates them again and again, first by dying on the cross at the hands of the Romans, and then by rising on the third day, after the disciples had just about given up.

So, here's the point. If those closest to Jesus had erroneous expectations of what he was about, why do we, in the twenty-first century, think we're immune from the same error? What gives us the seeming arrogance to think this?

Here's the second question. If we can admit that we might have ideas about what Jesus requires of us as Christians that are not what Jesus intended, what does that imply for our own expectations and behavior?

For instance, some Christians believe that we're on the eve of the Last Days. In their minds, events are rapidly converging on the Final Judgment and the Second Coming.

Of course, Christians have believed they were in the End Times for the last two thousand years. Read the letters of Peter and Paul. Do you get the feeling that these apostles had doubts about the immediacy of Jesus' return, that maybe the time between his resurrection and his return might be longer than they had originally thought? Do you think they were the only ones to think that sort of thing? Really?

If we as Christians can consider that perhaps we're not going to see the Second Coming in our lifetimes, then what does this do for our attitudes and behavior regarding things like care for the environment, for example?

I can remember being on the sky deck of the Sears Tower in Chicago one night years ago and hearing a friend, looking out over the city lights stretched out to the horizon, say, quietly, "It's all gonna burn." I suspect he was having an apocalyptic vision, straight out of the "Left Behind" books. I wonder if he still feels that way today. All I can say is that I haven't heard anything so frightening in years, for a variety of reasons. There was almost a glee in that quiet voice, looking forward to a cleansing fire. The feeling of glee, of course, only applies if you're on the winning side.

And here's the point of that second question. If we admit that we might be wrong on some things about Bible interpretation, if we can be a little less certain about our ideas of God and what he's going to do, how does that affect our long-term view of life on this planet?

My final question is this, and it should be obvious by now. If we give up certainty about everything we believe, what does this say about our faith? Is our faith in our own infallibility to discern God's will, or in God himself, to guide us and correct us when we believe or behave wrongly?

I can't believe that I've got God and all his world figured out. I can't believe that anyone else, anyone who is human and finite in this life, anyway, does either. The arrogance of that attitude stinks of pride to me. And pride, as I've said before, and as I affirm again, was the first sin, and remains so to this day.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Story Time...

Let's channel our inner five-year-old.

The book of Genesis mentions how God walked with Adam and Eve in the garden in the cool of the evening. Adam and Eve were naked, but didn't know shame.

Was God naked?

I've posed this question to almost a dozen people in the last couple of days. Answers have ranged from "some things should remain a mystery" to "why do you assume God was physical?" The general consensus seems to be, though, that he probably was. It took my own son, however, to put a new spin on it. He agreed that God was probably naked, but then he went on. He mentioned that naked often is shorthand for "open, vulnerable, accessible." In other words, God was fully available to man and woman; there were no barriers at that time. So, the lack of barrier was not only physical, but it was also metaphorical and spiritual.

There was a lot more to the discussions that followed the question and immediate answer than I can go into here. Some folks wondered who this "physical" presence of God was? An angel? A "pre-incarnate" Jesus? It was all interesting, and probably says as much about the partners in the conversation as it does about the subject at hand.

At root, though, what the question produced was a sort of abbreviated story, or at least a scene from a story. If you follow up on that scene in Genesis 3, then you find that barriers were erected between God and man--by man's own doing--and there was an unforeseen change of scene for Adam and Eve. A new relationship came about because of their disobedience, one that was much less favorable to them. And that scene really set in motion a long story that we're still living in today.

And that's really what I want to look at in this post.

It has occurred to me that the reason that God created us was to have a different set of eyes.

God created the world--the universe!--and saw that it was good. What kind of being can do this--create out of nothing the entirety of the cosmos just by speaking it into existence? Genesis begins with "In the beginning God created." This is a definitive statement that God was already on the scene, and he established the beginning. He was outside of time, independent of the passage of hours, days, and all the other units that we're accustomed to. He began time.

Moses looked at the bush, with the voice of God speaking directly to him from it as it burned without being consumed. He wasn't quite convinced by what he was seeing and hearing. "Who shall I tell them sent me?"

"I AM THAT I AM. Tell them that I AM has sent you."

"I AM" is not a verb that indicates past or future, in the sense that we normally consider them. Names in the Old Testament were powerful things, indicative of the character of the person named. In some sense, they were identical to the person. God said that his name was I AM. God in essence didn't have a past and he didn't have a future. He surmounted time, encompassing it, being unconstrained by it. His very existence was an eternal present, without beginning or end.

I'm trying to indicate how God apprehends his creation. Humbly I suggest that he doesn't experience time as we do, because he's beyond it. He engages his creation joyously, with all of it immediate. He sees it, all of it, at once and forever.

In other words, God can't experience time in the same way we do.

So what does that have to do with us being here?

I think God created us to tell the story of his creation, because we're embedded in it. We understand the passage of time, beginning, middle, and end. That's the most essential element to a story--the passage of time. A snapshot isn't a story. It can be the beginning of a story, or wrap up the end, but it's not the story itself.

I think God wants to experience his creation in all the ways that he can.

So, he puts us in the midst of it, and equips us to tell its story.

Telling stories is one thing that we're good at. We will build a story even when there's little to no material to start with. We're inherently storytellers--we can't help ourselves.

Of course, a story needs more than merely the passage of time. It needs characters.

And what a rich vein of material we human storytellers have to work from. There are now over six billion of us on this one planet, and every one of us has a story to tell. We have a beginning--we were born. We have a middle--we have lived for some number of years. And we have an end--we will die. So each of us has our own story to tell, and we make that story even better by introducing other characters. We incorporate the actions of others into our narratives.

The interaction between us and the others sets up the next element that a story needs. Tension comes into play, because we have desires and needs and wants, and so do the other characters in these intertwined stories. We have conflict, we have drama, we have struggle. Cain and Abel. David and Goliath. The Israelites and the Egyptians. Jesus and the Pharisees. Peter and Paul. We have the passage of time, we have characters, and we have conflict and struggle. Good story material abounds.

But wait! Is that all that it takes to make a good story?

Not quite. No, we need something more. We need to have an encapsuling, an imaginative re-casting of the events. The storyteller has to process the material he's working with, and invest it with his creative contribution. In other words, we aren't dealing with only a reporter, but with a creator, an interpreter.

And that re-casting can change over time, unlike God, who is changeless, but not in any sort of static, dead-statue sort of way. Like I said earlier, it's all NOW to God.

A little side note here--if God is truly as I'm describing, then the whole debate over free will versus predestination becomes rather pointless. Even as we exist--past, present, and future--in God's eternal moment, we create in our own milieu what forever exists. Yes, there are some things that must remain a mystery--mainly because we can't wrap our time-limited minds around them. At least not yet.

The re-casting can change over time. Here's what I mean.

At the risk of over-simplifying tens of thousands of years of human existence, let's talk about the forest.

The forest primeval was dark and frightening, a place where the unknown was a tangible presence. Disaster awaited the unwary who wandered into its shadows.

One plucky soul ventured in, and survived. He found that there was material in there that could be used to build a shelter. He could live in the forest, or perhaps at the edge of it, and survive. The canopy of trees helped moderate the climate. The animals in there could provide food and clothing. He found that he was in possession of a resource that he could use to live a good life.

Other people discovered this, and sooner or later, the forests were being consumed to make housing and cleared for cultivated land and used for fuel and all sorts of other things that people needed.

Then one person realized that the forests that he saw now were nothing like the forests that he had seen as a boy. Land that had been shrouded in the mists of the forests of his boyhood was now filled with rows of corn. Something occurred to him--was the forest going to continue to get smaller and smaller as mankind filled the land with more houses and more fields and more people?

He began to worry that maybe fifty years or a hundred years in the future, there would be no more forest. He could imagine a time when there would be no more logs to build with, or shaded groves to go to in the heat of the day. He could see a time when wood for fires would be hard to come by, or maybe not be there at all.

He began to think that maybe there needed to be some care taken to preserve the forest for future generations even as it's used to meet needs today. He began to think of being a steward of the forest, so that it would continue to be in its own right even as it continued to benefit people.

People first were frightened, then saw themselves as possessors, and at the end found themselves to be stewards and managers.

So there's a story about mankind and its realization that we are on a finite planet, a home that we need to care for if we're going to continue to be able to live on it.

This is really a modern story. Creation care is a new idea to many evangelicals in the Christian community. I'm not sure why it should be. God told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply, and to subdue the earth and rule over it. He did not say to rape the environment or to desecrate his creation. Strip-mining Eden wasn't the command.

There's one more element to being the storytellers of God's creation that we do. We sometimes weave a story from incomplete or partial facts. As often as not, this is to make a point. If we included every little fact about what we're narrating, the story would falter and the point wouldn't get made.

That's what's at the root of the "inner-five-year-old" question posed at the beginning of this post.

Genesis doesn't really say that God walked with Adam and Eve in the garden in the cool of the evening. That idea is there by implication, but it's not explicitly stated. God was "walking in the cool of the day" when he discovered the great sin that Adam and Eve had committed.

Yes, they were naked. Until that moment when they ate the fruit, they didn't realize that was any big deal. At that point, they realized they needed to put up barriers, because they had betrayed God by not obeying him. Suddenly they had something to hide.

A gracious creator allowed them to hide that way, even as he knew everything that they hid. He fashioned coverings for them from skins. He also escorted them out of the garden, because it wasn't a place where they could live any more. Before there had been no barriers, and now that was no longer true.

And that's where we find ourselves today, telling the story of God's creation, each in our own unique way. We observe the passage of the time in which we live, we tell about ourselves and the other people in our lives, we go on about the struggles we endure, and we re-cast all this into a tale that only we can tell.

Was God naked?

I think God is still naked, meaning that he's still open to us, still accessible to a full communion. The only barriers are of our own construction. God has certainly shown that he made himself vulnerable. He had his own son come to us, and we killed him.

God had the last laugh, though. You already know how that story ended, or at least that last chapter.

What story are you telling for your creator? And how naked are you prepared to be before him?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Pax Obama

This is a short post to celebrate the award of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize to our American President, Barack Obama.

The award of the prize to him seems to have taken everyone by surprise, even the White House itself. The President says he was humbled by the committee's vote. Responses to this announcement from around the world have been largely positive.

Negative comments have come from the predictable places. The Taliban, through a spokesman, said that President Obama had done nothing to bring peace to Afghanistan. Considering that they're at war with NATO troops and Afghan army and police forces in various parts of that country, that's not too surprising. The only way that they would say that peace had been brought to that country would be by the Allied forces laying down their arms and surrendering. I don't see that happening. Sorry, mullahs.

Yes, negative comments came from the predictable places. That includes many members of the Republican Party. What they had to say sounded more like sour grapes than anything, since the words of the Nobel Committee announcement sounded like a pretty direct slap at the last American President in the White House. The most responsible thing that I heard any member of the GOP say was from Mike Huckabee, who said that conservative politicians need to moderate their criticism of the decision, because it will sound like "right-wing whining."

All in all, this honor is as much for the attitude change that the Obama administration has brought about in our relationship to the rest of the world as it is about the agenda that the President has set out. We here in the United States seem to be oblivious to how much of the world sees us. We need to realize that too often we view the world through a set of very provincial lenses, lenses that don't serve us well to see the world as it really is in all its complexity and variety.

Congratulations, Mr. President. You've done us proud!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs...

America, America...

There's a billboard on a stretch of Interstate 70 near Blue Springs, Missouri, that exemplifies what I think is wrong in this country today.

It's composed of a red background, with a large hammer and sickle on the right side, and the following message in yellow:

They are coming for you! The Taxpayer.
1st & 2nd Amendments are in jeopardy.

Nobody seems to know who's behind the sign. It was reported on a local TV station October 1, and picked up by various national blogs just days later. The tag line isn't new; there are plenty of places where you can get coffee mugs and other merchandise that parrots the same sentiment.

So what's wrong with this expression of free speech anyway? Can't people still freely express themselves in writing?

You betcha! And there isn't even an obligation to get your facts straight. Never let it be said that people expressing themselves need to be limited by the world as it really is!

And that is what I'm talking about. What's wrong in this country today is that we're living in a fantasy land.

Look at these things, and see if you agree.

In the current recession I've heard that over five trillion dollars of wealth was lost in the fall of the stocks and bonds markets. Is that real wealth? Really? If it were something tangible, what would be required to utterly destroy five trillion dollars worth of it? That's not wealth--it's a phantasm, an illusion of wealth. If I were viewing it from a pathology standpoint, I'd say it was a delusion, at best.

Barack Obama and the Democrats carried the 2008 national election. They won by substantial margins in most cases. People like the sponsor of that billboard are in denial about this fact. They don't believe that the electorate of the United States actually said what they did--that the last eight years had gone badly, and that it was time for a change in leadership. They will not accept the decision of the majority of voters. Sorry, but that's the way that a democracy works--you know, the will of the people and all that.

The sponsors of the billboard moreover are living in a wonderland of their own, by imagining that the President is a communist. Or a socialist. Or a member of some group they don't like. That last part may well be true. Obama's opponents do not like him or the groups of which he's part. Those groups may be Democrats, liberals, educated people, people of mixed race, or whatever. Whatever the name of the group in question, these folks don't like it.

I need to ask very pointedly if these opponents of the current administration really know what a communist is. Or a socialist, for that matter. There has been a government presence, to one degree or another, in our national economy and our national society for decades now. It is not going to end because the opponents call it "socialist" or "communist" or any other disparaging name.

More to the point, what these folks oppose is that very government presence. I thought we had settled all that shortly after the ratification of the Constitution. I guess I was wrong. Every generation we have to learn anew that the tree of liberty is best planted in the soil of a nation, not in the desert of libertarian anarchy.

Do I sound too hostile to the ideals of libertarianism? I probably do, if you're a libertarian. Frankly, I've examined libertarian philosophy, and I find it laughable that people think you could build a viable society on its principles. Human beings are social beings--that means that we live best and most comfortably in groups. Groups need organizing principles and some degree of regulation to function best. There is always a tension between the rights of the individuals and the rights and requirements of the group. That tension has not been eliminated in the twenty-first century, and I doubt if it ever will be, as long as we humans are human.

But, to return to the issue at hand, we in the United States are too often living in a fantasy land of our own construction. For instance, it might be good to remember that the economic stimulus bill was passed under the aegis of a Republican administration, to address circumstances that were exceptional to say the least. And to some extent, those exceptional circumstances were the direct result of other delusions that we had allowed to come into common acceptance, delusions like thinking you could have what you want, when you want it, and not have to worry about paying for it. Delusions like thinking that at one and the same time you could criticize the government for being too governmental and depend upon that same institution to fight terrorism and protect you and this nation. Government in this delusion is seen as both the great problem and the only solution. That's more than delusion, actually; that's insanity.

We sing the National Anthem, about the "land of the free, and the home of the brave." Are we really all those things? We're hardly free--we're slaves to our illusions about the world, to the debt that we incurred on our own heads, to our hatred for any other person, even another American, who is different from us. Are we really brave, or are we cringing in fear at the possibility of having to change the way we live? We have the terrorist threat level; that's a great measure of the bravery we all feel. We're driven to a frenzy by fear mongers on the left and the right. Shame on them! We deserve better than this.

This country has had periods in its past when we had to look unflinchingly at the world as it was, and take dramatic steps to address the crises that we faced. We went through the Civil War to keep our Union together. We survived the Great Depression by united and concerted action. We instituted the Marshall Plan after World War II to keep Europe from descending into another death spiral that would ferment and bring about World War III. We have acted on principle in the past--are we still a people who can do that now? Well, are we?

Even in those times of crisis, there were those among us who were timid or worse, who refused to meet the challenge bravely, but instead preferred to snipe and badger and try to derail the efforts underway. Some of these people earned the name "traitor." Whatever they were called, though, the result was the same--they were on the wrong side, and they lost.

I view the world through the lens that my Christian faith provides. I don't believe that there is anyone in the world today, or at any time in the past, who was perfect or the answer to all problems, with one important exception. And we humans nailed him to a tree and watched him die. We're a messy bunch, and always have been. Sometimes, though, we have moments when things click and we get important things done. We're facing opportunities like that now. Are we really up to the challenge?

What do you think? Post a comment, and share your thoughts.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

More to the Point...

I figured there would be more to say about the language usage of Christians.

In my last post, I wondered about the tendency of many Christians to sanitize their language, sometimes to the point of becoming a reincarnation of Caspar Milquetoast (here's the Wikipedia article about this cartoon character).

I think we need to dig deeper into this, because often what happens is that the Jesus-follower is a model of decorum and circumspect language when among his Christian friends, but a profanity-spewing four-letter-word machine when among his non-Christian friends. In other words, he's a hypocrite.

On the other hand, Jesus is the very model of an integrated person. What he told you could be depended upon to mean exactly what he intended. His "tough" sayings are mostly meant to be tough, to force the listener to think and perhaps confront his preconceptions and prejudices and ultimately, his sin. Some of the tough ones, though, are hard to follow because we're not living in first-century Palestine, and frankly, don't have the cultural context in which Jesus' words were said.

When Jesus went after a person or a group, assaulting them with the force of his words, he was quite offensive. How would you like to invite someone to your house and be told that you and your friends were a "nest of serpents," "hypocrites!" and so forth? Jesus pulled no punches. There was none of the Caspar Milquetoast role for him.

Why did he go after the Pharisees and other officials in the Jewish religious establishment? Was he merely being mean, or was there something deeper at work? In various commentaries, it's explained that he was attacking the religious leaders for their hypocrisy. They were strict keepers of Torah, but failed to live up to the spirit of that law. They gamed the system so that they could be very punctilious, but always turned it to their own advantage. They were status seekers, corrupt in following what God had directed man to do. This corrupt nature wasn't universal among the Jewish leaders, though; there were some who had real interest in hearing what this new rabbi had to say, and could respond with a yielding heart. Most, however, were in love with the place where they found themselves, with all the power and prestige it commanded.

So does Jesus attack us if we're hypocrites, by our use of language and the way we live lives that are compartmentalized into religious and secular pigeonholes? Do we really believe that we're going to get a pat on the head and be told that it's okay, that he understands? It's just my own opinion, but I completely doubt that's the way his Gospel works.

I believe there's a place for forthright language among Christians. I'm saying that we should be aware of the power of profanity, of cursing, and of how we use words of that sort.

For instance, I hope I never have the urge to say something like, "Well, he was caught sleeping with her." For one thing, I doubt if sleeping was really on his or her mind. For another, it disguises what was going on. Call it what it was--he was screwing her repeatedly. Be honest.

Or maybe, don't say anything. We're told in various parts of Scripture that gossip is one of those things we should not do. Repeating tales about someone's moral failings, in titillating detail, probably qualifies as gossip. So am I wrong if I determine that I can gain nothing by repeating something damaging about someone else?

And let's be clear on the difference between cursing and profanity. Cursing, to me, sounds akin to pronouncing a curse on someone, an act of verbal aggression against another person. What do we experience when we shout, "Fuck you, you moron!" at another human being? We're hurling hatred, murderous intent, at another man or woman, and that makes us guilty of murder itself in Jesus' view.

Profanity, on the other hand, is "words that people don't want to hear," as I told my son when he was growing up. I refused then, and I refuse now, to call these "bad words." They're not bad words, they're words that make some people uncomfortable. Use them judiciously, if you're going to use them at all. Don't diminish their impact by peppering every sentence you utter with frequent repetitions of them. Sometimes they're appropriate, sometimes not. Good judgment on when the time is right will develop over the years as one grows older.

I suppose I should let the apostle Paul, the great writer of letters to churches all over the Mediterranean, have the last word. I've heard it said that Jesus founded the church, and Paul (and Peter and some others) worked out the details of how to actually implement it. In 1 Corinthians 10 we read this:

10:23 “Everything is lawful,” but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is lawful,” but not everything builds others up. 10:24 Do not seek your own good, but the good of the other person. 10:25 Eat anything that is sold in the marketplace without questions of conscience, 10:26 for the earth and its abundance are the Lord’s. 10:27 If an unbeliever invites you to dinner and you want to go, eat whatever is served without asking questions of conscience. 10:28 But if someone says to you, “This is from a sacrifice,” do not eat, because of the one who told you and because of conscience – 10:29 I do not mean yours but the other person’s. For why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience? 10:30 If I partake with thankfulness, why am I blamed for the food that I give thanks for? 10:31 So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. 10:32 Do not give offense to Jews or Greeks or to the church of God, 10:33 just as I also try to please everyone in all things. I do not seek my own benefit, but the benefit of many, so that they may be saved. 11:1 Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.

So, everything is lawful (in the new Kingdom reality that Jesus ushered in, and Paul spent his life proclaiming), but not everything is beneficial. Do we feel that way about our language? Are we choosing our words carefully, or are we just operating by shooting from the lip? Like just about every other part of the Christian life, how we express ourselves requires thought and careful intention. I don't believe that precludes using forceful or even "dirty" words, but we need to know what we expect to accomplish when we do so. Is that goal part of our life of honoring God, or is it self-indulgence? I believe we'll one day have to give an account of what we did during our lives. How will we explain this sort of thing?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

In Other Words

Where do I begin...

Several things have occurred in the last few days that all have come together to inspire this post. I'm going to try to put them in some context, using the perspective of the Bible--as it is today in the minds of believers, and what it was like in the time it was being written.

First, there's the "Save the Boobs" public service announcement. There was a story on today about the video that has gotten a lot of attention lately. Just to see what I'm talking about, here it is on YouTube:

There were several comments on, mostly supportive of the idea of breast cancer awareness, which was really what the PSA was about. Several commenters, as of this evening, have taken exception to the ad--it was too sexy, it was exploitative, it didn't really address the tragedy of the disease, etc. In my own mind, the ad makes perfect sense. Yes, it is sexy, and yes, it does focus attention on something other than the tragedy of the disease. But that's the point--the ad does this to shock us out of our complacency and realize that breast cancer is a killer of young women, not just of older women. In that, I think it's a rousing success.

One sentiment appeared in several of the comments. People complaining about the ad were viewed as being too uptight, too hung up on the body of the model. One commenter said, "Relax people!"

This leads right up to the next thing I wanted to post about, which is that I'm currently reading "Lamb," a novel by Christopher Moore. It's subtitled "The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal." Now that seems like an appropriate thing to tick some people off. It purports to be the previously untold account of the first thirty years of Joshua's life. For those not aware, Joshua is closer to the actual name of the son of God than Jesus. Jesus is a transliteration of the Greek version of his name. So, it's the story of Josh and his childhood bud Biff.

Josh and Biff have a lot of adventures, and I won't go on at length to recount them. I'll only recommend that anyone curious find this book and sit down to a good read. It's by turns frat-boy hilarious and poignant. One thing that several commenters have pointed out in various forums is that there is some "dirty language" in the book. There are words that refer to the act of sexual intercourse. There's a word that is used to refer to human feces. There is mention--heaven help us!--of breasts, and of various things that can be done with them.

In other words, this novel is written in a modern day idiom, although it takes place in the first years of the first century. Does anyone seriously believe that people of that time spoke in King James English? Or at least, the Greek or Aramaic equivalent?

And that brings me to something that has been puzzling me for a long, long time.

Why are we as Christians expected to abstain from the use of "earthy" terms to refer to certain things? We'll say "oh, crap!" when we really mean "oh, shit!" We'll dance around various subjects because they're so indelicate. We'll get uptight because there are bare breasts in a picture, or somebody has their butt exposed.

And this wussiness is characteristic of the larger American society as well, even as parts of that society are fixated on really healthy things like beauty contests and smirking glances at "up-skirt" pictures on web sites. Britney Spears and Paris Hilton tapped into a national vein of twelve-year-old-boyism with their no-underwear paparazzi photos. Thank God for the digital patches that protect us from those flagrant body parts. And I'm so glad that not only do those dirty words get bleeped, but that we obscure the mouths (and hands--wouldn't want to see any offensive finger gestures!) of people who are just too free with their words.

This is really nothing new, of course. In some ways we've been a nation of hypocrites for a very long time. There have been plenty of books and articles written about our "cover that up!" but "let me see it!" mental disconnect over the years. I'm not going to delve into that, except to point out that the good Christian disdain for earthy language is just part of a larger phenomenon.

No, as I mentioned above, I wanted to view these two things through the lens of the Bible, as it is now and as it was when it was written.

As it is now, the Bible gets sanitized, euphemized, and frankly, in my opinion, de-fanged. There are plenty of places in both the Old and the New Testaments where earthy language is used, but we never really wrap our arms around those spots. Instead, we stick (more often than not) to the easier parts, the parts that don't slap us upside the head with a gutsy harshness that could take our breath away.

The Bible as it was written, though, now that's an entirely different item. Consider for a moment the times in which the Bible was written, two thousand and more years ago. In the Roman Empire, for example, it was routine to crucify someone very publicly, and leave their rotting corpse hanging on the cross until birds had picked the bones clean. Public executions by crucifixion were common--nothing got Roman magistrates or soldiers angry as fast as someone endangering the Pax Romana. There was nothing like the relatively easy sentences of today, when so many nations have eliminated the death penalty altogether. Even the mistreatment of inmates at Abu Ghraib pales in comparison to what was done in the Roman Empire.

The times during which the Bible was written, roughly two to three thousand years ago, were times that would have made many Christians of delicate mind faint. Slavery was rampant, the very basis of most societies. Life expectancy probably ranged from 25 to 35 years. Child mortality was wide-spread, and many children were left out in the open, to die of exposure, for a variety of reasons. Wars seemed to erupt at frequent intervals, often over the most minor of causes. Disease was rampant. Leisure was rare, and certainly not found by many beneath the nobility. In short, it was a harsher time that we have very little familiarity with.

It was in these harsh times that our Bible was written, in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. There are plenty of places in Scripture where earthy language--shockingly direct language--is used to make a point. For instance, in Ezekiel 23, we read this:

23:20 She lusted after their genitals – as large as those of donkeys, and their seminal emission was as strong as that of stallions. 23:21 This is how you assessed the obscene conduct of your youth, when the Egyptians fondled your nipples and squeezed your young breasts. [all citations from the NET Bible]

In Isaiah, there's this passage:

57:8 Behind the door and doorpost you put your symbols. Indeed, you depart from me and go up and invite them into bed with you. You purchase favors from them, you love their bed, and gaze longingly on their genitals.

Of course, there's the Song of Songs:

4:5 Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of the gazelle grazing among the lilies.

7:1 (7:2) How beautiful are your sandaled feet, O nobleman’s daughter! The curves of your thighs are like jewels, the work of the hands of a master craftsman. 7:2 Your navel is a round mixing bowl – may it never lack mixed wine! Your belly is a mound of wheat, encircled by lilies. 7:3 Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle.

Interestingly enough, the note for the word translated as "navel" ponders whether it means "navel" or "vulva." It seems like someone is always getting their "horn exalted." David (the future king) had to bring back one hundred Philistine men's foreskins as a gift to King Saul to marry his daughter Michal. David, the perpetual over-achiever, brought back two hundred foreskins instead.

In the New Testament as well, we get hit in the face with the reality of life in a time perhaps more dangerous, or at least less sanitized, than our own. For instance, Paul writes in Philippians 3:

3:8 More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things – indeed, I regard them as dung! – that I may gain Christ, 3:9 and be found in him, not because I have my own righteousness derived from the law, but because I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness – a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness.

What is translated as "dung" here could probably be put in a stronger vernacular as "shit." The translators' notes say that the word--ancient Greek "skubala"--refers to "a vulgar term for fecal matter." That sounds like shit to me.

Paul, the great letter writer of the New Testament, mentions all sorts of things people do that can get them crossways with God. Things like prostitution, incest, homosexual behavior, and on and on. There are child sacrifices in the Old Testament, temple prostitutes, hypocrisy, vanity, gluttony, swords stabbing so deep that the contents of the bowels come oozing out, people getting tent stakes driven through their heads when they think they're safe, genocide, death, murder, infidelity, and so much more.

And yet this is the book of God's word. This is the story that promises that God loves us and wants us to be reconnected with him. This book, with all the brutality of its imagery, all the bluntness of its language, is the holy Scripture that we say we follow.

All I can say about all this is that we need to do some major soul-searching about our attitudes about language, words, and what's important and not important. The God of the Bible is a god who uses direct, in your face language to get his point across. And more than language--look at what his Son had to do!

Christianity at its heart is not a faith for those of delicate sensibilities. PETA members may think that blood sacrifices were an anomaly, but Jesus' death on the cross shows that to be the delusion it is. Christians know this truth about our faith, if they're honest, but we just don't communicate it very well to those outside the walls of the church.

Enough of this musing. I don't believe for a minute that by the strength of my words I'm going to make any real change in the attitudes of people who would rather euphemize so much of the reality out of life. If I've planted any seed of subversion, though, an attitude of new interest in the Bible, then I'll consider this effort successful. There are some parts of the Bible that could be viewed as "dirty." This is the word of God, however. It got one man killed two thousand years ago because his words so offended the elite of his time. There's no way it can keep from being offensive.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Red, White, and Blue

This is hilarious!

I was in Gmail, reading the latest messages, and at the top of the Inbox was the "Sponsored Link" to "Stop Robin Carnahan!" Clicking on the link took me to the webpage, where I read the following plaintive plea:

Stand with the NRSC by signing up.
Help us end the Democrats' one-party rule in Washington and bring some desparately-needed checks and balances.


By the way, this was all targeted at "Electing a Republican majority Senate."

I find this effort hugely ironic. Just a few years ago, Tom DeLay, Karl Rove, and so many other Republican luminaries were trying to create a "permanent Republican majority." There's a book on Amazon called "Painting the Map Red," by Hugh Hewitt, subtitled "The Fight to Create a Permanent Republican Majority." It was printed in March, 2006, when it looked like there might be a chance for that to happen.

The ad on Gmail was what I would expect from a party that got its clock as thoroughly cleaned as the Republicans did in 2008.

Now, philosophically, I think that the ideal situation is when there is more or less parity in party membership in the House and the Senate. This state of affairs requires that the Administration, the leadership of the two houses, and others involved in legislating develop a way of working together that will deliberate and create good legislation that achieves consensus. This is the ideal.

In today's polarized, hyper-partisan political climate, though, that ideal is about as likely to happen as the sun rising in the west. The party that tried to create a permanent majority in the first decade of this century now wants to try that whole operation again. Does anyone look back with fondness on the last eight years? Maybe there are some Republican operatives who do, but when I look back I see eight years filled with hubris, overweaning arrogance, incompetence, and no sense that "truth" was anything more than something else to bend and warp to serve the need to remain in power at all costs. Aside from a few bright spots like increased aid for HIV care in Africa, the last eight years were a disaster visited upon these United States of America.

In case you reading this think I'm some sort of uncritical Democratic Party fanboy, recalibrate your expectations. I expect the same intelligence, competence, and efforts to work across party lines, and for the good of the country overall, from the Democrats as I would from the Republicans. Since the Republican party seems at present unwilling to reach for a standard of competence and intelligence demanded by the problems and opportunities facing this country, that leaves only the Democrats stepping up to the plate.

The obstacles and obstructionism that the current GOP has been exhibiting are making it less and less likely that I will ever vote Republican again. Unless they come to their senses, and somehow moderate the more extreme members of their increasingly shrill party, they will continue  to relegate themselves to being a minority party with a regional power base. And well-deserved it would be.

The courthouse in the town square of Harrisonville, Missouri, county seat of Cass County, has engraved above its doorway the motto, "A public office is a public trust." We've seen entirely too many instances in the past that show how easily this notion is discarded by our public officials and elected leaders. These desecrations of the ideal of public service have come equally from Republicans and Democrats. Our national troubles are too serious and put our nation at too much risk for business as usual to be the order of the day.


I can't believe I'm the only person in this country who feels this way.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Sticks and Stones

...may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.

How many times have we said that as children? If some bully was calling us names, we might repeat this phrase, sure in the knowledge that so long as the bully didn't hit us, we would be all right.

Words are funny things. By themselves, they seem ephemeral, immaterial. Fleeting things that once said, can never be recaptured. Of course, why would you want to recapture something that can never hurt you?

Real things, on the other hand--now those can hurt you deeply. You can be injured by something falling on to you from a height. You can be hurt by an assault. You can be damaged by stormy weather, by an automobile accident, by the bite of an infectious mosquito.

Real things--these can be actual objects, or they can be events that impinge on your life. You can be hurt by the closing of the factory where you work. You can pay a price for the dissolution of a marriage. You can be thrown into turmoil by the loss of a parent.

Thoughts are kind of like words, except they're even more immaterial than words. Thoughts are secret, private, hidden away in the fortress of our skulls. That is, they are until they force their way out of that stronghold--as words. Then those private, hidden thoughts can be out in the wild.

But wait a minute! Are words really so immaterial? What about words that can hurt? Are there really such things? How about words like, "I Hate You!" Or, "You're Fired!" Or, "I Hope You Die!" How about all those hateful epithets that we use so often without even thinking? And where's the thought in that?

So, maybe, that childhood rhyme isn't really true after all. Maybe sticks and stones aren't the only things that can hurt us. Maybe words can hurt us every bit as deeply as anything that's physical.

The ancient Greeks knew a thing or two about words. They had the word "logos." That's the same word that appears in the Gospel of John, chapter 1, verse 1, where we read "In the beginning was the Word." The "Word" is Jesus, the "Word" in Greek is "logos." The logos was with God, and the logos was God. Suddenly a word becomes infinitely powerful--the very word is God. This word is something beyond our everyday experience. This word creates, maintains, judges, and can destroy.

Suddenly, you can utter "My word!" and mean "My God!"

When we talk about matters of the spirit, we use words. We have thoughts, ideas, and we express them in words. And they seem pretty safe. But give some thought to this--words are powerful. They move in ways that we may not realize at first. What's the phrase used in so many confessions in the church--"we have sinned against you in thought, word and deed." Ah--there's that progression. thought becomes word, and word engenders deed.

Word moves through that membrane and becomes deed. It shapes what we do. It takes on life of its own and moves about amongst men, and does its work. What thought formed in that mind to be expressed in that word, which became flesh in that deed?

There's a mystery. That just as we can think and speak and act, God thought, and spoke, and his Word became flesh among us.

The world is a lot more than literalists would have us believe. We live in a space that has not only physical and temporal dimension, but also conceptual and intellectual and spiritual dimension. Emotions live there. Demons can be found anywhere, waiting to attach themselves to minds that aren't aware of what lies in wait in the darker corners. Actions in the physical and temporal realm intersect and mediate in the intellectual and spiritual realm just as strongly. Words have a long train; they are attached to more than we might think at first.

We inhabit realms that we can't see with our eyes, but where there is a reality that can affect us just as much as anything we encounter in 3D. We set ourselves up for damage and hurt if we fail to be aware of this fact.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Of Two Minds

I've had some correspondence lately with friends that has inspired me to examine the clash of attitudes that is currently afflicting our nation. I'm speaking, of course, about the toxic climate that characterizes our debates on politics, health care reform, race relations, and so much else.

I try, I really try, but I can’t avoid seeing the news, and the kind of hate that spews forth from the mouths of people like Rush Limbaugh, or the absolute terror sometimes visible in the weepy eyes of Glenn Beck. No, I can’t avoid this nauseating mess--it’s displayed, repeatedly, for all to see by Left-leaning people who are making a point about all the bile from the Screaming Right. The Left is saying it’s all racist hatred. I think it’s actually more than that, although the race of our President undoubtedly plays into this.

What I think we’re seeing is exactly the kind of reaction one should expect from people who don’t want to change. Even if the change will make things better for them, when change is being forced upon them, they'll resist it for all they're worth. President Obama’s campaign slogan was “Change we can believe in.” These people don’t want to change--it’s inevitable that they’d be hostile to anything this President does or stands for, and that’s not limited just to his politics, but also to him personally.

It interesting to me that there are people in this country who, at one and the same time, welcome the newest technological gadgets and services, and yet cling to old notions of what America really is. Somewhere in the middle of a spectrum of attitudes, these people are in a conflicted state that will find no peace of mind. At the one extreme, there are those who welcome change of all kinds, people who wrap their arms around novelty and new realities and find something thrilling about living with one foot in the future. At the other extreme are those who don't welcome any change, who can't abide that "internet thing," who find any change frightening and a threat to be fought. I'm probably a little closer to the "future huggers," while some of my friends are probably closer to the other end of that range.

I keep hearing the phrase “Obama’s America,” as if that were somehow different from the America that the rest of us live in. “Obama’s America,” as though the President is trying to separate and align us along racial lines. This is in spite of the fact that the White House has been trying to get bi-partisan movement going on a number of different fronts, despite the fact that in this whole “He Lies!” business, the President hasn’t responded in the way that partisans on the Left want him to respond, by playing the victim.

As a believer in Jesus the Anointed One, I find neither side in this struggle worth following. I know one thing, though--Jesus would never have condoned the kind of hate I see in such attitudes, and one day, there will be an accounting. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will  be called children of God.” The people on the Right and the Left who fan the flames of our strife are far from being a blessing to anyone at this time of national division. No, they’re in a hell of their own making, and only they have the key to finding their way out. It's just a sad fact that they're dragging the rest of us down with them. May God help us all!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Two Towers Falling...

This is the eighth anniversary of a tragic day for this country.

Volumes have been, and will continue to be, written about that day and what it meant at the time and what it means for the future. There are memoirs, commission reports, scholarly papers, diatribes, historical essays, and so much more. Much is being said about this event today.

I'd like to make some personal observations on my own feelings about 9/11.

I will never forget the disbelief that our office staff felt as we absorbed the television coverage of what was happening on September 11, 2001. I'll forever remember the contrails looped across the bright sky as all aircraft in the United States were grounded that day. I'll never forget the feeling of national unity that rose out of the ashes of Ground Zero and the Pentagon and that field in Pennsylvania in the days immediately following the attacks.

Whatever else may be said about Glenn Beck, I think he's on to something with his 9-12 Project. After long years of rancorous political campaigns and caustic political "debates," I would love to see us return to a sense of national unity. It certainly beats what we have now. How far have we come...

One thing that died that day was our sense of where we were in the world. We learned first-hand that there were men out there who wanted us to die. We saw evil in an absolute disregard for the lives of thousands of Americans. We discovered that we were assailable.

We entered a new, darker world that sunny September day.

We're now involved in two wars thousands of miles from our shores. We're learning all over again the lesson of Vietnam--that American power and military might does not make for a quick victory against a determined foe. That we weary as a people of commitments that may last for decades, and at the cost of thousands of American lives.

But there are lessons that Vietnam never taught, lessons that we've learned too well, in my estimation.

We've learned that we can be fearful. It's hard to think that we're the same "land of the free and home of the brave," when fear of someone of a different political position can cause you to attack that person as bitterly as we've seen in the recent healthcare reform townhalls. That's not bravery; that's fear so strong you can smell it, and it stinks.

We've learned that it truly is a global society and economy. Even as our own sub-prime mortgage meltdown and its consequences began devouring our own economy, we saw other countries sink into recession themselves. Even as we begin to see returning financial activity, tentative and unevenly spread, we understand that it may be years before we see a return to levels of employment that existed before the Great Recession.

We've learned that the future may not be as rosy as we had always thought it was. We've lost trillions of dollars of paper wealth in the stock market meltdown; some boomers approaching retirement age have watched their entire nest eggs disappear. Homes have been lost to foreclosure, millions of them. Jobs have been lost, millions of them. Possibilities are being truncated, downsized, and completely eliminated for many people.

Reality is a brutal taskmaster. For all the dislocation and disruption that has occurred, though, isn't it better to face the world as it is, rather than as you wish it could be? 9/11 and its aftermath have helped to clear our eyes.

As dark as this world can be, there remains hope. As a Christian I don't have the option of being a pessimist. By swearing allegiance to the risen Jesus, I've publicly announced that I believe there is a bright future ahead. Even in my darker moments, I can't turn away from that deep abiding faith in the triumph of God over all that separates us from our true home.

I cringe when I hear about suicide bombers in Afghanistan. My heart blossoms when I see my grand-daughter.

I feel sadness for those Americans who have lost their jobs or their homes. I feel hope when I see that the church is helping them to make it to another day, and when the community of faith and its individual members are looking out for their neighbors.

I believe that this dark time will not endure. I believe in the future, regardless of how hard our present is. I pray that we will have the strength and humility and faith to see that future arrive.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

This Really Sucks--Part Two

You knew there was going to be a "Part 2" to this, didn't you?

When I posted my entry "This Really Sucks!" yesterday, I concluded that I couldn't hate the liars, idiots, fools, tools, gasbags, purveyors of lies, cynical opportunists, right-wing nutjobs, left-wing nutjobs, progressive shills, or anyone else who's embedded into the national debate on healthcare reform. I had to be a living embodiment of Jesus instead, and love, forgive, and pray for, all of us flawed human beings.

But that's so unsatisfactory. The ones who yell the loudest win, and they don't deserve to win. Right? Shouldn't truth win out?

Sure it should. And how do you go about working toward that end?

It's very simple, but not necessarily easy. The simple part is, you tell the truth. The not-easy part is, you don't de-humanize those who are not telling the truth.

Tell the truth. Tell it at every opportunity. Tell it with all the passion you can, but make sure it's truthful. Know what you're talking about. Check your facts. Lies and half-truths have no place in a debate of ideas. Spin should be a dirty word here.

I said that there was no sure-fire guarantee that the debate would be won by truth-tellers. God's promises don't always work that way. We're a long way yet from the fully-realized Kingdom of Heaven; it's still a work in progress.

But, again, tell the truth. Confront those spreading distortions and lies. We're told in Scripture that the truth will make us free (check out John 8:32 for background on what Jesus said about this). Don't demonize those you are trying to correct in the process. In other words, once again referencing Scripture, don't be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (from Romans 12:21).

Once again, tell the truth. Lies destroy. Lies distort. Lies keep people in bondage to false ideas, foment hatred, keep people apart. Lies are the first and foremost tool of the evil in men's hearts. The battle between truth and lies is one that must be joined.

Every man or woman who enters politics finds that there are compromises they have to make in the course of their public careers. They find that they have to break promises they made in the campaigns. This is inevitable. We don't know everything we'll encounter when we embark on a career in politics; we will always be surprised at some point. The noblest man or woman will find that their ideals didn't prepare them for everything. Things will be said that will be heard as lies by some supporters. But they will still try to tell the truth. And so must we. We will fail, but we must try again. And again.

I don't know what the outcome of this raucous "debate" is going to be. I do know, however, that we need to work to get facts out there, and combat the lies and craziness that seems to have taken hold for too many people. Too much of our national discourse lately has been at this level. We as Americans deserve better. Only we can provide it for ourselves.

Monday, September 7, 2009

This Really Sucks!

This really sucks!

I've been doing the same thing as many other Americans lately. I've watched the network and website coverage of the healthcare reform "debate" that's been raging across our country. I've watched "birthers" and "death-panel" foes and gun-toting "Tree of Liberty" zealots spout their particular slogan of the day. I've watched as partisan spokesmen like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh and just about anyone from Fox News spread lies, half-truths, and flat-out fantasies about healthcare and everything else that gets them riled up.

Just about anything gets these people riled up, it seems. They don't like liberals, progressives, President Obama and his administration, Democrats, or people who happen to agree with any of those groups. A few of them, like Governor Rick Perry of Texas, seem to want to take their ball and go home--the game has just become too hard for them, and it's time to secede from this Union.

I've found myself appalled and disgusted by the distortions and lying of this side of the political debate. And then along comes somebody from the other side, and does the same damned thing. Somebody calls Glenn Beck an idiot. Somebody makes disparaging remarks about Michael Steele, the chairman of the RNC. Keith Olbermann goes off on a rant against "The worst person in the world."

It really sucks that I can't hate all these people. It would be so much easier if I could just go after them and deny their humanity and demonize them like they do to each other.

I can't do that, though. And it's intensely frustrating.

I can't do it, you see, because I'm a Christian. I follow the teachings and life of a guy from a couple thousand years ago named Jesus. He was known by the title of "The Christ." That means "the anointed one," the "special one" selected by God to change the way we react to each other and with our creator. I happen to believe that Jesus was on a real mission, and that he was fully God and fully human. And I can't explain that any better than to say it's so.

Jesus doesn't give me a way to hate these people, those on the right or the left. He's pretty specific about it. He's quoted, for instance, in a book that was written about his life and sayings, the gospel of Matthew. Check out Matthew 5:44. "Pray for those who persecute you." "Love your enemies." There's not much wiggle room in those words. Dance around them all you want, if you truly believe that's what he said, then you have to follow through.

He doesn't give me an easy way to "beat" them, or to "triumph over" them.

I can't be guaranteed to come out the "winner" in any kind of debate, at least by the standards of the political arena.

Given the tone of our national discussion lately, you could certainly say that Jesus is being un-American. I don't think he wore an American flag lapel pin.

So what do I do about all these liars, cynical opportunists, partisan gasbags, and delusional demagogues?

I have to stop thinking of them in those terms.

I have to start seeing them as damaged persons, just as messed up as I am, just as willing to go for blood as my initial impulse is.

I have to forgive them their frailty.

I have to admit my own frailty.

I have to love them. Wish the best for them. Pray for them.

It's frustrating. It sucks. But I don't have a choice in the matter. Not if I'm going to be a friend of Jesus.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

In Memoriam...

I've been working on a post that was inspired by an article I read recently. The subject of the article is only indirectly related to the subject of my post, which is the fractured way that our (global) society deals with certain words in different contexts. That post, however, can wait for another day.

Right now, I'd like to express something that I hope is being felt by others.

Senator Edward Kennedy died a couple of days ago. Since then, I've heard nothing but fond remembrances of him, from both political allies and political opponents. One theme that seems almost universal is how great he was at finding consensus, being able to work across the aisle, in bringing together opposing interests in efforts to craft legislation in the Senate.

I wonder if now is a teachable moment. By that I mean that if even staunch political opponents can say good things about a man who was able to work across party lines, why can't we as a nation see benefit in being able to do the same? Why are we so polarized right now, so partisan, when we're in one of the most trying periods we've ever faced as a nation?

I can see how passionate debate can deteriorate into shouting matches, but why must it? I had Civics when I was in high school; I know what our system of government is supposed to be able to do. We seem unable to follow through on that premise now. What we have seems more like fear-mongering at its worst, virtually a call for mob violence to get "the other guy," whoever that "other guy" is. Compromise seems out of the question, and consensus is a trip no one is willing to make.

All or nothing is not the way to govern a country as diverse as ours. Politics has been called the art of compromise. This definition may be old, but I don't think it's out of date. I'd like to see more attention paid to this ideal now that we're remembering one of its greatest practitioners.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

More on Expectations...

It's been a couple of days since I posted anything, and I wanted to add a little bit to the last post. I came down pretty hard on the "Health and Wealth" theology that's found in so many places. I still feel that way, even more so now that I've seen a couple of recent infomercials from people preaching this doctrine.

Early yesterday morning I saw a bit of a segment on a cable channel with some preacher talking about how poverty was against God's will for us. He was dissecting the biblical story about the feeding of the five thousand, from John 6, and was using it to explain how if you cast what you have before the Lord, he'll return it to you multiplied many times. I don't know where this guy got his understanding of this passage, but he read a different Bible than I do. Here's what the actual passage says, from the NET Bible:

The Feeding of the Five Thousand

6:1 After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee (also called the Sea of Tiberias). 6:2 A large crowd was following him because they were observing the miraculous signs he was performing on the sick. 6:3 So Jesus went on up the mountainside and sat down there with his disciples. 6:4 (Now the Jewish feast of the Passover was near.) 6:5 Then Jesus, when he looked up and saw that a large crowd was coming to him, said to Philip, “Where can we buy bread so that these people may eat?” 6:6 (Now Jesus said this to test him, for he knew what he was going to do.) 6:7 Philip replied, “Two hundred silver coins worth of bread would not be enough for them, for each one to get a little.” 6:8 One of Jesus’ disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 6:9 “Here is a boy who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what good are these for so many people?”

6:10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” (Now there was a lot of grass in that place.) So the men sat down, about five thousand in number. 6:11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed the bread to those who were seated. He then did the same with the fish, as much as they wanted. 6:12 When they were all satisfied, Jesus said to his disciples, “Gather up the broken pieces that are left over, so that nothing is wasted.” 6:13 So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with broken pieces from the five barley loaves left over by the people who had eaten.

Nowhere in that whole passage can I see anything about how the boy reaped a harvest of riches from having given his bread and dried fish to Jesus. He may have eaten some of what Jesus provided, but the point of the story (I think) is to show that when you give something to Kingdom work, your efforts can be multiplied and have far more impact than just what you provide. There's no hint that it's going to come back and benefit you alone; if anything, the benefit radiates outward from you. The benefit that you get is knowing that you're part of this work. Notice that Jesus didn't create all the food for the multitude out of thin air--there was a seed, provided by the boy. We're involved, if this story is any indication, in the work of creating the kind of world that we're called to make, but we can rely upon more power than we ourselves can muster.

Anyway, let's just say that the anti-poverty preacher was doing a bit of really adventurous exegesis, and leave it at that. The next thing I saw was this morning, on the same channel, when I caught another infomercial for "miracle prosperity handkerchiefs" available FREE from the preacher who was hawking them. I didn't catch his name, but he was on TV, so that must mean that it's for real. Right? If it's on TV, then it must be true. This is the modern-day equivalent of what I've heard from less than sophisticated folks, that if something's in print, it must be true. I don't really think things work that way, but let's just move along.

Later this morning, same channel once again, there was some guy selling a program of "Financial Breakthroughs" that involves worship and "strategies and techniques" that you could use to tap into God's plan for your financial prosperity.

In something just over 24 hours, without any intention on my part, I came across three instances of some preacher hawking the notion of "Health and Wealth." Why did I find these? Is it because I was meant to? I doubt if that's the reason, frankly. I think I found them because this distortion of the gospel message is something that people want to hear, and there are plenty of people who want to sell it to a willing audience. People respond to anyone telling them that if they just do this or that, they can reap the harvest many times over. This is a popular message. That's true not only in this country, but in countries around the world. I've heard that it's a popular theme for preaching in Africa, for instance. Rich country or poor, this message gets attention and response from people eager for a fast track to riches. This urge to get a quick-rich-fix is probably associated with the popularity of gambling, playing the lottery, all those sorts of things. Heck, I've played PowerBall before--why not? Maybe my number would come up...

The message, whether wrapped in gospel allusions or more secular terms, is still that you can get rich by doing something other than working hard and saving and being thrifty. If you can just master that inside track, that secret knowledge, or put that offering in the envelope to Preacher Bob, you're going to get rich. And be healthy. And probably get better looking in the bargain. Even as people debunk the preaching, explain why the Bible doesn't say what these guys say it does, explain the odds of coming out ahead at the boats, even as we try to be rational about all this, the message still resonates with people hungry for something they feel they don't have. I doubt if that will change anytime soon. ...sigh...

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Christian expectations, part two

It's time for another installment of "Christian Expectations." Last time I examined expectations about how Christian believers fare in the educational system, particularly high school and especially college. This time, I'd like to look at expectations about our life situation. In particular, I want to examine expectations about our lives being blessed with riches, good health, healthy relationships, and so forth.

This notion that confessing, believing Christians will have a good, long life here on Earth is generally lumped under the term "Prosperity Theology." Believers in this strain of Christianity may call it "Word-Faith," "Health and Wealth," or "Name It and Claim It," but it's all pretty much the same thing. Preachers who espouse this doctrine include Kenneth Copeland, Robert Tilton, Benny Hinn, Creflow Dollar, Joel Osteen, and many others. Prosperity theology is generally found in charismatic or pentacostal churches, although it's not limited to these communities.

The basic idea is that by living pious, righteous lives, Christians will be blessed with material success in this life, and salvation in the next. There are plenty of passages in the Bible that can be cited to support this view. [I'm drawing these passages from the NET Bible, available here.] For instance, in 2 Chronicles 6:41, King Solomon is praying, "Now ascend, O Lord God, to your resting place, you and the ark of your strength! May your priests, O Lord God, experience your deliverance! May your loyal followers rejoice in the prosperity you give!" In Deuteronomy 30:15-16, Moses warns the Israelites, "Look! I have set before you today life and prosperity on the one hand, and death and disaster on the other. What I am commanding you today is to love the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, and to obey his commandments, his statutes, and his ordinances. Then you will live and become numerous and the Lord your God will bless you in the land which you are about to possess." In Proverbs 13:21, we see this: "Calamity pursues sinners, but prosperity rewards the righteous." Finally, if we've gone astray but later turn to God, we see in Psalm 68:6, "God settles those who have been deserted in their own homes; he frees prisoners and grants them prosperity. But sinful rebels live in the desert."

There are plenty of other passages in Scripture that would seem to support this belief. What's wrong with these passages? They seem clear enough. Is it really wrong to believe that God will reward us on this world if we follow his commandments?

The main point I want to make here is that it is wrong to believe that health and wealth automatically follow from living according to God's rules. There are a couple of very strong reasons for doubting that prosperity theology is valid.

The first reason is that there are passages in Scripture that debunk the notion. Just as there are proof texts to support it, there are texts that go the other way. Here are a few. For instance, Psalm 73:1-9 (it's actually longer than this, but here's the section that makes my point):
73:1 Certainly God is good to Israel,
and to those whose motives are pure!
73:2 But as for me, my feet almost slipped;
my feet almost slid out from under me.
73:3 For I envied those who are proud,
as I observed the prosperity of the wicked.
73:4 For they suffer no pain;
their bodies are strong and well-fed.
73:5 They are immune to the trouble common to men;
they do not suffer as other men do.
73:6 Arrogance is their necklace,
and violence their clothing.
73:7 Their prosperity causes them to do wrong;
their thoughts are sinful.
73:8 They mock and say evil things;
they proudly threaten violence.
73:9 They speak as if they rule in heaven,
and lay claim to the earth.

Psalm 17:14 says this:
17:14 Lord, use your power to deliver me from these murderers,
from the murderers of this world!
They enjoy prosperity;
you overwhelm them with the riches they desire.
They have many children,
and leave their wealth to their offspring.

Ecclesiastes 6:1-7 reads this way:
6:1 Here is another misfortune that I have seen on earth,
and it weighs heavily on people:
6:2 God gives a man riches, property, and wealth
so that he lacks nothing that his heart desires,
yet God does not enable him to enjoy the fruit of his labor –
instead, someone else enjoys it!
This is fruitless and a grave misfortune.
6:3 Even if a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years –
even if he lives a long, long time,
but cannot enjoy his prosperity –
even if he were to live forever –
I would say, “A stillborn child is better off than he is!”
6:4 Though the stillborn child came into the world for no reason
and departed into darkness,
though its name is shrouded in darkness,
6:5 though it never saw the light of day nor knew anything,
yet it has more rest than that man –
6:6 if he should live a thousand years twice,
yet does not enjoy his prosperity.
For both of them die!
6:7 All of man’s labor is for nothing more than to fill his stomach -
yet his appetite is never satisfied!

And finally, from the mouth of Jesus himself, this (from the Sermon on the Plain) in Luke 6:20-31: "Then he looked up at his disciples and said: 'Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God belongs to you. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you and insult you and reject you as evil on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and jump for joy, because your reward is great in heaven. For their ancestors did the same things to the prophets.
'But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your comfort already. Woe to you who are well satisfied with food now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all people speak well of you, for their ancestors did the same things to the false prophets.
'But I say to you who are listening: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. To the person who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other as well, and from the person who takes away your coat, do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who asks you, and do not ask for your possessions back from the person who takes them away. Treat others in the same way that you would want them to treat you.'"

The other reason is evident in that last passage cited. Jesus is pretty definitive in saying that the wealthy may have an easy time of it here on the earthly plane, but that such is not their due after death. He talks elsewhere about it being harder than a camel threading the eye of a needle for a wealthy person to get into the Kingdom of God (Matthew 19). In other words, instead of wealth being a reward, Jesus pronounces it almost a curse. Why do we have this seeming contradiction between what one set of passages promises, and what another set says?

I think the contradiction is one that we actually manufacture ourselves, to a degree. In the Old Testament, when wealth is promised as the reward for following God's commandments, we need to remember that this was a promise to a particular people at a particular time in a specific place. I think we generalize this promise to include ourselves in the twenty-first century at our peril; I don't think it works that way. I come to this conclusion mainly because of what Jesus says in the New Testament. Remember, the New Testament is the record of the new order that God has established. The old is no more, and the new is upon us. Jesus has come into the world, he's re-envisioned the Passover with the Last Supper, and he's shown what a true messiah can do, that even death can not triumph over him. Even the people of his own age wondered how he could speak with such authority.

Moreover, wealth by itself, in this new order, is here for a purpose, not merely for our enjoyment. Here's what Jesus in Luke 12:48 says: "From everyone who has been given much, much will be required, and from the one who has been entrusted with much, even more will be asked." It's evident from reading Scripture that the means to do God's work are not evenly distributed; we have a job to do, with whatever resources we have been given.

So what conclusion can we come to after looking at all this evidence? First, I would say that health and wealth may come to us, or they may not. Much is beyond our control. Second, if we are the recipients of wealth--financial, in health, in our relationships--then we have a charter to use it to further the goals of God's kingdom in this world, in this time. Finally, if we are not blessed with bags of money, we are still expected to take part in the work of creating and spreading that kingdom; it's not an optional pursuit.

There's a niggle in all this, though. I've heard friends of mine, even pastors, say that they put their lives totally in God's hands, that they trusted in him to help them meet their needs. They prayed about it, and things happened. I've tried praying for things like that, and largely the prayers have gone unanswered, or so I've felt. I prayed for healing for my father over ten years ago, and he nonetheless died of complications from Alzheimer's. But in the process of coming to grips with that, I learned sympathy for a man I had once intensely disliked, Ronald Reagan, and his family, even as he lingered year after year in the drive-by reality of Alzheimer's. I have prayed for success for a business my wife set up a few years ago. Even as we were beginning to become profitable, she had health issues that developed that required her to give up the business. But out of that, she's developed into a wonderful writer and a person with an iron will that will not admit to defeat. Even as we've gotten used to living on one paycheck, we've been able to meet our financial obligations and even give away a good portion to causes in the church and out. So, even as my prayers have not been answered in the way I wanted them to be, I've received blessing after blessing in ways that were totally unexpected. God has provided, but he chose what he would bless me with, and didn't just play the role of vending machine.

Ultimately, I think that "health and wealth" theology is too restricted, too selfish, to be real. I think God's agenda is much larger than anything that we short-sighted creatures can imagine. And I think that to try to put the Creator of us and the rest of the universe in that sort of box is frankly a very risky move that limits what he can do in our lives, if we're just ready to live a little more dangerously.

What is my expectation? I believe that there will be a tomorrow. I believe that it will be surprising. I hope that I'm up to being receptive to it.