Monday, November 30, 2009

God is Sorry. Wait. No He's Not.

From BeAttitude

Does God ever feel shame and repent for his mistakes? Or is he a perfect God?

God apologizes, feels shame, feels regret, repents for his mistakes and openly admits that sometimes his perfect plan isn’t so perfect.

The LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky; for I am sorry that I have made them.
Genesis 6:7

And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.
Exodus 32:14

And Samuel came no more to see Saul until the day of his death: nevertheless Samuel mourned for Saul: and the LORD repented that he had made Saul king over Israel.
1 Samuel 15:35

The LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?

Then the LORD said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous.”

Then Abraham said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?” He answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”

When the LORD had finished speaking with Abraham, he left, and Abraham returned home.
Genesis 18:17, 20, 32-33

God is perfect. His ways and his word are without flaw.

As for God, his way is perfect; the word of the LORD is flawless.
2 Samuel 22:31, Psalm 18:30

He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he.
Deuteronomy 32:4

Wisdom ethics part 4: The approach and the matrix

Wisdom ethics part 4: The approach and the matrix

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Saturday, November 28, 2009

To Write Love On Her Arms

Rolling Stone Magazine taught me something interesting about ministry today. This article is about Jamie Tworkowski and his ministry, "To Write Love On Her Arms". It profiles him as a surfer dude and hip apparel salesman who decided his life's calling was to reach out to depressed teenagers. Combining t-shirts and hoodies with compassion, hugs and simple words of hope he is making quite a splash.

It makes me think about something that has been on my mind every now and then - the place of 'cool' in the church. It's easy to be too simplistic about this and either say "the church has no business chasing after fads" or "we'll be irrelevant if we don't appeal to the next generation". I have sympathies with both sides. I definitely see ministries that seem to be so busy being 'hip' that they are shallow and off-putting to someone like me. I also see ministries that are so determined to resist even the appearance of interest in pop-culture that it is no wonder no one can relate to them.

Ultimately there is room for all types out there. I like knowing that monks on Mt. Athos are living much as they did 1500 years ago. I like having words and songs in my worship that were written by John Chrysostom. I also like being able to talk to my people and having something in common with them. It's good when we can share a laugh about the Daily Show, or my teens can introduce me to new music and I genuinely enjoy it - not just feign interest. I've never personally been a very cool person, and the thing about 'cool' is that it can't be feigned. You just look like an insecure dork when you do.

What do you think? How much 'cool' would you want in your church? In your ministry? Do you make any effort to stay current with pop-culture - or is that a huge waste of time, or worse - a path to sin and debauchery? If a given minister is 'cool' does that make his ministry more or less effective? What about the gospel itself - is it cool?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Wisdom ethics part 3: Applied to abortion

Wisdom ethics part 3: Applied to abortion

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Follow Up On GOP Doctrinal "Resolution"

(1) We support smaller government, smaller national debt, lower deficits and lower taxes by opposing bills like Obama's "stimulus" bill;

This is hypocritical and false. Ronald Reagan and GW Bush both increased the national deficit by an order of magnitude, and between them was Clinton with his balanced budget. The only difference between the parties is that Republicans want a bloated Republican government and Democrats want a bloated Democratic government.

(2) We support market-based health care reform and oppose Obama-style government run healthcare;

This is false. It is very clear that the Republican Party does not support any kind of meaningful health care reform. They also regularly engage in willful misrepresentation of plans put forward, making hypocritical claims about "death panels" and so on that would theoretically come from aspects of the plans which GW Bush himself also put forward - no "death panel" comments then of course.

Republicans were in power without real opposition in any branch of government for 6 arduous years, and no "market-based" or any other kind of reform was forthcoming. Just a steady swelling of health care costs and a steady shrinking of pockets.

(3) We support market-based energy reforms by opposing cap and trade legislation;

Cap and trade is market-based. This one just doesn't make any sense. Unless by "market-based energy reforms" the GOP means "never denying an energy lobbyist anything s/he asks for and thanking them for massive campaign contributions" - because that is what the GOP actually does. Or we could ask politely that companies willingly reduce their bottom line so that we can have a cleaner environment. Let me know how well that works, and don't forget the fairy-dust.

(4) We support workers' right to secret ballot by opposing card check;

Ok, why not? I honestly don't know what "card check" is and have never heard this term before, but maybe I just wans't paying attention. I've mostly worked in places where we're not allowed to unionize and are fired if we attempt to do so.

Generally speaking, however, the GOP is certainly anti-union. Again, I think that their fairy-dust would be sufficient to protect workers' rights, and the Industrial Revolution taught us nothing if not how trustworthy factory owners are when they don't have to answer to an organized workforce.

(5) We support legal immigration and assimilation into American society by opposing amnesty for illegal immigrants;

Eh. I personally disagree with the characterization here, but this is at least consistent. The GOP would rather send people to prison for giving water to human beings in the desert.

(6) We support victory in Iraq and Afghanistan by supporting military-recommended troop surges;

This is hypocritical. Victory was already declared years ago, and to this day, victory has never been defined. As far as I can tell, victory is when Iraq becomes Texas. What the GOP in reality supports is a constant state of low-level warfare in other countries paired with ceaseless reminders of the threat of terrorism so that everyone will vote out of fear and xenophobia rather than wisdom and a clear assessment of who will solve our problems. Every GOP campaign is fear-based, whether it is fear of Commies or Hippies or gays or terrorists or Nazi-Commie-Muslims like Obama.

(7) We support containment of Iran and North Korea, particularly effective action to eliminate their nuclear weapons threat;

What I think the GOP actually wants is at least two or three enemies "on deck" - see number 6. We've also seen how "effective" containment of Iran and North Korea were under the Bush administration.

(8) We support retention of the Defense of Marriage Act;

This one is obvious, and is consistent with their strong stances against equal rights for homosexuals. One might draw parallels with past social movements meeting conservative resistance.

(9) We support protecting the lives of vulnerable persons by opposing health care rationing and denial of health care and government funding of abortion; and

This one drives me crazy, because I don't know what fantasy world the GOP lives in that it is not understood that health care is already rationed. The only difference is whether HMOs will ration it, in a situation where we have little or no choice who our health care provider actually is (I've never had one as an adult for example) or whether the government will ration it, and at least we can vote them out if we don't like it. Health care has to be rationed somehow because we don't have infinite medical resources. The difference is that the GOP thinks that for-profit companies will ration health care better than not-for-profit government programs. Of course, don't ask anyone on Medicare or Medicaid or MediCal or any other public assistance program, because they might not have health care at all if not for government intervention.

On the other hand, the stance against government funding of abortion makes sense. The GOP is right, people shouldn't have to have their tax dollars go to things they disagree with on moral grounds. I don't want my tax dollars to go to war, so I want the GOP to put forward a bill preventing government funding of the military. Oh no, wait, this one is hypocritical too. The GOP wants to serve it's "pro-life" base, but doesn't actually believe in any of that freedom of conscience stuff for anyone who disagrees with them on anything else.

(10) We support the right to keep and bear arms by opposing government restrictions on gun ownership;

We've certainly seen this, with people bringing automatic weapons to political rallies, and then wondering why the rest of us think they're nut-jobs. What's next, packing heat at the PTA meeting? Bringing your shotgun to church?

The Second Amendment existed before we had a standing, professional army, so that we would have armed militias to fight off the British or the Spanish. It also existed so that the federal government would never be able to militarily repress us. If Great Britain invades us, I'll happily eat my words. If the government turns on us violently, you and your Glock won't make a difference.

Meanwhile, handguns in your home are hundreds of times more likely to result in your childrens' death than in the death of an intruder or attacker. We also have one of the most murderous societies on earth, per capita, and US citizens own more than one fourth of all the firearms on Earth. I think gun control makes at least as much sense as water quality or worker safety regulations - which are also things that conservatives fight against.


Anyway, just throwing my hat in. I don't think these resolutions meaningfully represent what Republicans actually do, and I disagree with most of them personally, but it isn't like the GOP is losing a vote there in most cases. Also, to be clear for those who don't know, I'm not a Democrat either. They're just hard to criticize as strongly because they are so utterly spineless and so rarely undertake to do anything, much less stand up for their supposed core values. At least the Republicans can name a few, even though I disagree with how they come up with many and how they are applied.

I also just like to vent the old spleen now and then.

Commence telling me why I'm wrong!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Reagan's Unity Principle and The Five Fundamentals

There is currently a draft resolution circulating that would make the Republican National Committee adopt a list of 10 "conservative" principles and require any candidate seeking financial support to agree to at least 8 out of 10. This idea immediately brought to mind that sad event in Presbyterian history known as the Five Fundamentals. Here are the similarities as I see them:
  1. In both instances it is a group of conservatives within a larger body seeking to make the entire body conform to their own understanding of core beliefs.
  2. The "10 Principles" and "5 Fundamentals" are both lists designed to function as litmus tests for membership. The choice is subscription or exclusion.
  3. Both of these lists are historically myopic - they are not actually representative of the tradition they claim to be expressing. The "10 Principles" would be unrecognizable to a conservative from 50 years ago, and the "5 Fundamentals" include oddities like the virgin birth, inerrancy, and substitutionary atonement, instead of the trinity, or the Golden Rule, or the communion of saints, or grace, or resurrection, or ... I don't know something actually important.
  4. Neither of these lists represent accurate distillations of their tradition because they are occasioned, inspired, and utterly determined by opposition to specific contemporary issues rather than genuine timeless concerns. The "10 Principles" are a reaction to the defeat of the Republican party in the 2008 general election. The "5 Fundamentals" are a reaction to modernist thought becoming dominant in the church.
  5. Both of these lists are the expression of a fearful minority, whose anxiety is sparked by a perceived loss of control. These lists are hubristic attempts to regain power and authority, but in actuality they will accomplish only the further alienation and isolation of that minority until it falls away from the main body entirely and sinks into irrelevance.
These similarities make me wonder what it is about the conservative psyche that clings to this mode of expression: "lists," "fundamentals," "core principles," whatever you want to call them. When conservatives feel threatened they buckle down and attempt to enforce group cohesion by ideological subscription. Why is that?

And what is the progressive equivalent? What do we do when our power is taken away from us and we see ourselves as an embattled minority? Doubtless our responses are just as fearful and futile, but I'm having a hard time thinking of what that looks like.

Craig Ferguson

This is basically what I am trying for all the time when I open my mouth, for better or worse. If I can learn to preach like Craig Ferguson does this monologue, I'll be done.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Take Note, Obama

This is what someone who deserves the Nobel Peace Prize looks like, fighting against our country's policy of training torturers and war criminals to go work in Latin America.

For immediate release
Sunday, November 22, 2009

Father Roy Bourgeois and SOA Watch Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize

Father Roy Bourgeois, MM, and School of the Americas Watch (SOA Watch) have been nominated for one of the most prestigious awards in the world - the Nobel Peace Prize - for their sustained faithful nonviolent witness against the disappearances, torture, and murder of hundreds of thousands of civilians (peasants, community and union organizers, clerics, missionaries, educators, and health workers) by foreign military personnel trained by the U.S. military at U.S. taxpayer expense at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia.

The candidacy of Father Roy and SOA Watch for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize has been officially submitted to the Nobel Committee in Oslo, Norway by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. The official announcement was made by AFSC representative John Meyer on Sunday, November 22 at 9am at the gates of Fort Benning (home of the School of the Americas) during the annual November vigil to close the SOA.

"We are deeply honored, and deeply humbled, to be nominated for this prize for peace," commented Bourgeois, a Vietnam veteran, Purple Heart recipient and a Catholic priest, who helped found SOA Watch. "This nomination is a recognition of the work of the thousands struggling against militarism across the Americas."

SOA Watch is a nonviolent grassroots movement that works through creative protest and resistance, legislative and grassroots media work to stand in solidarity with the people of Latin America, to close the School of the Americas (renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) and to change oppressive U.S. foreign policy that institutions like the SOA/ WHINSEC represent.

This weekend, SOA Watch is gathering by the thousands at the gates of Ft. Benning to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the killings of 14-year-old Celia Ramos, her mother Elba Ramos, and the six Jesuit priests she worked with at the Central American University in San Salvador in November 1989. Human rights defenders from Colombia and Bertha Oliva, founder of human rights organization COFADEH, Committee of Family Members of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras, which has been actively resisting the SOA graduate-led coup as part of the resistance front.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Presbyterians & The Manhattan Declaration

In other news, a bunch of people signed a piece of paper this morning called the Manhattan Declaration. It is a conservative Christian manifesto saying in essence that the signers won't cooperate with any laws supportive of gay marriage or abortion. Read Halden's piece I posted earlier for something I agree with. Read the Layman if you want to know why this declaration is good and pure and holy.

At least three Presbyterians were among the signers: Carmen Fowler (editor of the Layman), Dr. John H. Huffman Jr. (of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in California), and Rev. Tim Keller (of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York). I don't know any of these individuals personally and so I will assume them to be people of impeccable character and virtue. This is not a comment about them as individuals.

I am curious, however, about how their theology interacts with their ideology. Most Presbyterians I have known who wade in conservative waters have been absolutely insistent about the primacy of a particular method of reading scripture in making moral judgments or constructing sound theology. They would find statements like the following to be highly problematic:
"We set forth this declaration in light of the truth that is grounded in Holy Scripture, in natural human reason (which is itself, in our view, the gift of a beneficent God), and in the very nature of the human person."
Setting scripture alongside reason and nature as means of knowing the truth about God's will seems to be a primary objection of Presbyterian conservatives I know to almost anything a progressive says or does. Read this article about Achtemeier on the Layman to see what I mean. Using feelings, experience, reason or observations from nature to arrive at the truth is inherently suspect from their perspective. So I wonder if the Presbyterians who signed the declaration, or those currently applauding it around my denomination, have considered the theology of this document closely.

I really do wonder, because the more I read it (I've been through the whole text 5 times now), the more convinced I am that there is almost no theology to be had here. Certainly not a sound Biblical grounding.

In their discussion of "Life" where is the biblical notion that to be gained it must be given away? Where is their commentary on war, militarism, poverty, prisons, or injustice? Can one even read the Bible in reference to "Life" and not touch on these matters?

In their discussion of "Marriage" why don't they even so much as mention the volumes that Jesus and Paul had to say on the subject? They once again commit the mistake of making marriage the foundational institution and thus subverting the place of the church.

And what on Earth does "Freedom of Religion" have to do with anything? Do they have such a stunted ecclesiology mired in the bankrupt ideology of christendom that they must receive their license to be religious from the state? Did they really say they refuse to render unto Caesar what belongs to God and then miss the irony in their own statement? Point me to that which doesn't belong to God.

There isn't anything to this declaration from a theological perspective at all. So what could be so attractive about it to conservatives in my denomination? I have a hunch that it isn't the theology. It's the ideology. I suspect they would agree with any document that was anti-gay marriage and anti-abortion regardless of the theology, exegesis, or community behind it. Because at the end of the day their theological commitments aren't as deep as they claim, but their ideological commitments are deeper than even they know.

Christianity: It's About Gay Sex and Abortion

Halden knocks it out of the park again. From Inhabitatio Dei:

Today saw the release of the “Manhattan Declaration,” a sort of ecumenical conservative manifesto with 148 signatories from Roman, Eastern, and Evangelical denominations. Its a consolidated statement of the usual stuff super conservative Christians care about — abortion, gay marriage, and well, I guess the freedom to not perform abortions and gay marriages, they call this religious freedom.

On the one hand there’s really nothing that needs to be said about this. After all there is nothing really said here that hasn’t been utterly clear for some time. We all know that abortion and gay marriage, framed under the language of religious freedom are pretty much all the Christian political right cares about.

Naturally in the long tirades about a holistic ethic of life there’s no substantial discussion of poverty, let alone militarism and war. Likewise in the flowing praises of marriage as the bedrock of civilization and Christianity don’t see fit to mention any of the things Jesus or Paul actually had to say about marriage. This is standard sub-biblical conservative fare.

This is also precisely why stuff like this shouldn’t be considered a manifesto in any realistic sense of the term. The document styles itself as standing in the line of Barmen and even MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. This is bullshit. Its simply a consolidation of widely-held conservative opinion. Hell, they even claim that their views represent the majority of Americans while they style it as a bold sort of minority courage against the powers that be. That’s the best thing about popular conservative Christianity. You can be an oppressed minority while still really representing pretty much all the real people.

Its actually painfully obvious what this is all about. Its simply another instance of the conservative Christian unrest that always gets shrilly trumpeted whenever there’s a democrat in the White House. As such this is actually a perfect example of the sort of anxiety I discussed yesterday. What animates this document is nothing more — and I really mean that, quite literally nothing more – than a gnawing fear about not being in a position of cultural power.

We are offered here a vision of Christianity completely and intentionally sold over to ideology. There is no proclamation of the living God, of the crucified and risen Christ here. All we are offered by this document and the movement it represents is a life ruled by the very powers Christ has freed us from. The desperation for control, domination, and security that this movement needs to be called what it is, a falling back into the elemental spirits of the cosmos, a return to the world system that Christ’s death and resurrection has made nothing. It is nothing less than the rejection of actual faith in the coming kingdom of the living God.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Holier Than Your Violent Ass

One reaction that sometimes catches me off-guard when the subject of pacifism comes up is anger. Some people seem angry that I would dare to refuse to hurt them. Without sarcasm or exaggeration I'll do my best to explain where I think this is coming from.

The conversation usually goes like this: I say I am a pacifist. They respond with the usual hypothetical scenario about being a bystander to violence. I point out that there are a variety of nonviolent potential solutions to such a scenario. They push the hypothetical scenario to an extreme point where they allege the only options are violence or guilt by inaction. I say their scenario is contrived. They tell me I'm a horrible person for choosing personal holiness over the life of an innocent.

It's that last bit which is interesting. From their perspective the choice to commit to pacifism is ultimately about "personal holiness". They think, in other words, that a pacifist is a person who doesn't want to get their hands dirty; who would rather let other people suffer than risk their own purity. Pacifists are, in their minds, rather like the Levitical priest in the story of the Good Samaritan who passes the wounded man without helping to avoid coming into contact with something unclean. We are too holy for our own good.

It is a bizarre way of looking at an ethical commitment that is fundamentally about others. How is my determination not to harm other people construed as a self-centered choice of pride? Here is what strikes me as prideful - believing that you can ever see a situation so clearly that you are able to make a choice with the ultimate consequence for another human being, the loss of their life. How could you possibly have sufficient certainty in the heat of the moment, overwhelmed by adrenaline, that your actions were justified? Isn't it better to do everything in your power to prevent the death of another, even if that person appears to you to be a monster? Dead people can't forgive or be forgiven.

Furthermore, pacifists don't make such a commitment because we believe we are superior to other human beings, but because we know the opposite. I am not a pacifist because I am innately less violent than anyone else, but because I know how violent I am capable of being. As Stanley Hauerwas famously says "I tell everyone I'm a pacifist so that other people will prevent me from killing some son-of-a-bitch one day." If anyone has a superiority complex, it is a person who believes they are justified in killing another human being.

So when someone accuses me of self-righteousness based on my pacifism I think it reveals more about them than it does about me. It says that their conscience is troubling them, but rather than probe what could be the issue, they concoct a narrative to alleviate the sting. In this narrative, it is the one who offers no violence who is arrogant and blasphemous and dangerous, who must be crucified. Whereas those who cling to violence are tragic heroes, relieved of their guilt by virtue of the belief that it was done to protect the innocent - a terrible, but unavoidable cost. The only problem is that in order to continue believing this narrative they have to look away from the cross, where the alternative is on blazing display. And looking away they leave a trail of crosses in their wake.

Wisdom Ethics part 1: Introduction to the problem

Wisdom Ethics part 1: Introduction to the problem

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Monday, November 16, 2009


Nick was ordained this weekend, and this is what was preached.

Isaiah 52:13-53:9
Mark 8:22-26
1 Thessalonians 5:12-28

It is a pleasure and an honor to be with you for this celebration. What I’m about to say is for everyone here. Nick would be the first to point out that what we’re doing here isn’t all about him. These words about ministry are for any disciple, though I will be addressing Nick a lot, because… well it’s his name on the program.

Nick. This is not your ordination sermon. This is an unsermon. I had the perfect sermon nearly written for this occasion. It was about all of the problems you’ll face as an ordained minister. I was going to tap into my vast experience of one year of being ordained to let you know how arduous it will be, but that you can get through all of this if you just realize that Jesus is the answer. Because that is something you would never have heard before.

I can’t preach that sermon for strong and pressing reasons, you will soon learn.

If I had though, I know exactly how that sermon was going to go, and after 10 minutes or so of scintillating rhetoric I would have arrived at the dramatic resolution with this line from the end of Thessalonians, Paul’s farewell phrase “The grace of Lord Jesus Christ go with you.”

I would have pointed out that this is not a throwaway line Paul just tacks on for flourish. It is not just a stock farewell, like the word “sincerely” written at the end of a letter that is anything but sincere. Paul uses this phrase “The grace of Lord Jesus Christ go with you” as a benediction – a hope, a wish, even a prayer that the actual presence of Christ will accompany you.

In this sermon I’m not going to preach I would have told you that I’m praying the same for you, and if you pray hard enough yourself you can receive this grace and it will carry you through the trials of ministry – all that hard stuff I would have spent 10 minutes describing to you in lurid detail.

And then, I even had a list of ways which you can use as a test to know if the grace of Christ is actually with you, since presumably this grace is invisible.

The first is that you would find yourself filled with trust in God’s Love. If the Grace of Jesus Christ was with you, you wouldn’t feel anxious or worried about the future, or what other people will think of you. You would know your true value as one of God’s Children and wouldn’t need to look for outside sources of approval to boost your self-esteem. You wouldn’t need to be in control all the time, but would be able to let the outcome rest in God’s hands. Like the suffering servant from Isaiah you could trust even when things look bad. That is one sign I would have listed in this sermon I’m not going to preach.

The second sign, that the Grace of Jesus Christ was with you, is that you would be unafraid to make mistakes. Like this story from Mark where Jesus is trying to give the blind man back his sight, but after the first attempt everything is jumbled and people look like Ents from the Lord of the Rings, but Jesus doesn’t get flustered or angry, he just tries again… You wouldn’t mind being fallible if you had the Grace of Jesus Christ with you.

If I had been preaching this sermon I would have said the third sign, which is much like the first two is a willingness to be vulnerable – to expose your true self to scorn and ridicule. None of us are lovely all of the time. As someone filled with the Grace of Jesus Christ you would be able to share your weakness with us to make us stronger.

Most importantly, and stemming from these other signs of Christ’s Grace – you would be capable of transcending suffering. Not skip it. None of us gets to skip suffering. But you would be able to transform it into source of good. When afflicted to look mercifully on your tormenters and say “Father forgive them…” That’s what you would do if the Grace of Jesus Christ were with you.

And in this hypothetical sermon which will never see the light of day I would have appealed to you to pray for this grace so that all of these virtues could be yours. But there is absolutely no way I can preach that sermon, for absolutely the best of reasons – it isn’t true. It isn’t true, even though it hides behind a charmingly cliché notion of grace, it isn’t the gospel it is just a heap of advice that you don’t need. Advice is something you’ll get plenty of… you’re sitting in a roomful of reverends. We are good at such things.

Contrary to what my sermon was going to be all about, this unsermon is truer, and in it I tell you that you can pray as often and as fervently as you want and sometimes grace won’t come. And without it you’ll fail. You’ll fail at every one of those things I listed.

Using my prodigious powers of prophecy I can guarantee you that you are going to fail at trusting God’s love. You aren’t going to believe you are worth what Jesus has given for you. You will be afflicted with a fragile ego that needs affirmation from outside sources, and you will seek approval. You aren’t going to trust the future to God either, you will try and control it and make it what you think it should be. You will often do this in the most noble and futile of ways, not out of some luciferian moment of hubris when you wrest the reins out of God’s hand, but in moments of genuine compassion you will think you are doing God’s will for the sake of others. Most of the time when looking at your ministry you won’t be able to tell if what you feel is the Spirit moving or if you just had one too many sips of communion wine.

You will fail also at being unafraid of making mistakes. I know you are an easygoing guy so this might seem strange to you. I remember sitting upside down in your Jeep Grand Cherokee, so I know you are accustomed to laughing at your own missteps – but I also know that you are going to experience honeymoon periods. You will be admired by people and it will be very hard for you to let go of their admiration. You also will have people that you respect, mentors, friends, wise or compassionate elders, your absurdly talented and intelligent wife. You will not want to disappoint them. You will try too hard, therefore to get everything right.

And when you are trying to get everything right all the time it is impossible to succeed at being vulnerable. You will hide your mistakes, your flaws, your petty and serious transgressions and you will do so for the best possible reason – because sometimes it really does seem like people need a leader, a hero, a wise, strong, cornerstone kind of a guy, and you will want to be able to be that for them, not for yourself – because you will believe it is necessary.

Having failed at everything else, most excruciatingly you will finally fail at transcending suffering. You will be in pain and it will not be the educational kind of pain. You won’t be a better person because of it. You won’t see any grand design. You will just hurt, and instead of saying “father forgive them” you will curse and complain and shout at the heavens… For the love of God! And many other words that I won’t repeat in the pulpit when I’m a guest in someone else’s church.

Why? You will ask. Why didn’t I stick with Graphic Design?

And when that happens, someone will come up to you and interrupt you, while you are in mid-tirade. It might be a little girl, or a cranky old lady, or a young man very much like you and I are today. My prophetic vision isn’t that precise. But whoever it is will tap you on the shoulder and say… “Thank you…. Thank you for sharing the grace of Jesus Christ with me.”

And that’s when you’ll realize that this throw away phrase at the end of Paul’s letters “The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ go with you,” isn’t a wish. It isn’t a hope, and it definitely isn’t a prayer. It’s a promise.

And you’ll laugh through your tears as you realize that you haven’t been working at cross-purposes with God at all. That God somehow has been working in you essentially regardless of your awareness, or your faithfulness. That the Grace of Jesus Christ has been going with you the entire way and through you countless others have witnessed the Truth, that God is love and in him there is no hatred or darkness at all.

You’ll laugh because you’ll know how wrong all those pompous pastors (no offense to present company, Nick knows I am an expert at pomposity), those experienced ministers who tried to dissuade you from going into ministry using that old saw “if you can do anything else…” They were wrong and ministry isn’t a tiresome, thankless, never-ending, low-paying, dead-end job. It’s unequivocally the BEST job.

Because somehow through you Christ’s love is being spread. Even though you’re utterly inadequate, the grace of Christ has and does and will go with you.

As ministers, we, all of us, are vehicles of God’s grace. Though we despair. Though our conviction is feeble – or worse, all too strong. Though we talk too loud and listen too little, and we charge ahead when we should wait, and sit on our hands when we should be busy. Somehow in the midst of that Christ is working. Grace is available. Grace is with us and it is our spectacular good fortune to be present when others receive it, again and again.

It doesn’t get better than this. Today you get to stand here at this table and from your hands, deliver the bread of life and the cup of salvation to people you love.

So, thank you. On behalf of all of those who you will minister to in your future. Thank you for all of the ways large and small in which you will be a sign of God’s purposes in the world. Thank you for all of the hearts you will ease, and consciences you will raise. Thank you for your future ministry in its lumpy, stumbling, inglorious beauty.

You are well loved. Take heart in that and go boldly forth toward future failures, knowing that especially in failure, the Grace of Jesus Christ goes with you.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Basic Family Unit

Gay Marriage was on the ballot again in Maine and Oregon and maybe other places. Once again there were conservatives in the newspapers and on television screaming that the "basic family unit" was under siege, that society as we know it was going to collapse. All hysteria and idiocy aside, what really surprises me about this rhetoric is that much of it comes from protestants who should know better. That is, they should know that a heterosexual couple with kids is not actually the basic family unit.

The usual religious line they spout is that God created man and woman to be "one flesh", to cleave to one another in marriage and "multiply". Cloaked in a bunch of faux sociology they then allege that the nuclear family is the most basic social institution upholding civil order. This conveniently ignores the fact that in most societies the extended family is the most basic social institution - that really only since the 1950's and the one-house one-family trend in the USA has the nuclear family been dominant. It also ignores a host of societies that are polygamous, or polygynous (including, you know, the Biblical one). It ignores a variety of popular and legitimate social ways to be single, from celibacy to widowhood. Really it turns human relationships in general into a caricature that bears no resemblance to reality.

But the reason that protestants in particular should know better than to parrot these talking points, is our historical protestant definition of marriage as a civil institution rather than a sacrament. For a long time marriage has been whatever the state defines it to be for protestants, whereas Catholics have traditionally been opposed to the civil institution altogether, holding it to be a sacrament of the Church. The reason for this, which I think is sound, is a look at Biblical perspectives on marriage.

The Bible doesn't give a single definition of marriage. There are all kinds of different marital arrangements in scripture, none of which are held up as absolutely normative. Most importantly for Christians marriage is given very low importance in the New Testament. Jesus is not married, neither is Paul. Paul extols the virtue of celibacy and treats marriage like a lesser compromise for those who can't keep their libido in check. Jesus tells us that marriage won't even exist in the kingdom. Jesus tells us to deny our father and mother (which given that whole "cleaving" theme seems should apply equally to spouses) and seek God.

The overwhelming point in all of this is that for Christians marriage and the nuclear family are most adamantly NOT the pinnacle of human relationship. The very definition of love that Christ gives is to sacrifice one's life for a friend - not a spouse. Jesus thoroughly restructures the emphasis in relationships around the community of disciples - the Church. The Basic Family Unit, according to Jesus, is the communion of saints, all other allegiances dissolve in the egalitarian brotherhood of the children of God.

So then, what is the place of marriage? It is certainly not a bedrock institution upholding society. It is as Paul says, about meeting human needs. As God notes in Genesis - it is not good that we should be alone. It is a gift that is gratuitous. One can live a full and joyful life without it, but if you feel the need, it is a welcome opportunity for you to give and receive comfort in intimacy. For those homosexuals who desire it, why are we withholding the gift? It has nothing to do with the basic family unit. I'll tell you that.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Giving Up On Self-Defense

Say you are a pacifist and the first thing someone will do is throw a hypothetical self-defense or defense of innocents situation at you. "What if a robber broke into your house and threatened to kill your wife and children..."

What this reveals is that for the most part violence is already understood to be illegitimate by most people in most circumstances. Very few are willing to argue in favor of unilateral aggression, or retributive violence. The difference between a pacifist and most people is that a pacifist says, " even in the case of violent threats I choose to refrain from responding violently." So we are not arguing about 99% of violent scenarios. We are arguing about 1%.

I could go into detail about various hypothetical scenarios, or historical scenarios arguing from a pacifist viewpoint. I could point out (as I have in the past) why these scenarios are dishonest, but here I want to make a different point about why it is crucial to give up on self-defense even in that vanishingly rare hypothetical situation. The reason is this: self-defense inevitably becomes a cover for other types of violence.

Think about the wars the US has waged in the past century. Which one of them was not justified on the basis of self-defense? Even in the most extreme cases of obvious unilateral aggression such as the most recent Iraq War the justification was "weapons of mass-destruction", "Iraq-AlQaeda link", "defending Iraqi people from an evil dictator" etc... The doctrine of pre-emptive warfare is just self-defense stretched beyond the breaking point. WWI? Self-defense. WWII? Self-defense. Korean War? Self-defense? Vietnam? Self-defense. We've been defending ourselves from Nazis, communists, and terrorists over and over again by spending billions of dollars to fly overseas and bomb other countries.

In the case of an individual - when am I entitled to defend myself with violence? When someone physically attacks me? When they threaten me with a gun? When they loom over me menacingly? When they verbally abuse me? Is me feeling scared a sufficient justification for violent response? How can I even make a wise decision about proportional response to danger when I am in a state of terror? It seems like begging for a tragedy to me.

As long as we keep self-defense on the table it will continue to be a universal justification for any kind of violence that we can pretend falls under that umbrella. We adamantly refuse to see ourselves as anything other than paragons of nobility and peaceful intentions beset by violent bullies on all sides. If you want peace the only option is to give up the ways of war.

Speaking theologically I think this is a reason we need to cling to some language about Christ that is repugnant to some feminists and liberation theologians. To understand Christ as submitting himself to evil, or as a willing sacrifice may indeed be problematic from the perspective of victims of violence and the oppressed. It certainly has been abused by those in power to encourage passive acceptance of injustice. I understand this critique - but is there anything more urgent for those who walk the corridors of power or for any budding peacemaker to grasp than the truth that we absolutely cannot, under any circumstances, return evil for evil? Is it not close to the heart of the gospel to say that we must endure calamitous injustice rather than lift a finger in retribution? Isn't that what Christ actually does on Good Friday and Easter?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

God Out of Bounds: Brain/Mind Science

This post struck even me as a tad long, so I am starting off with a cheat-sheet with some main points from the post:

* The human brain is wired to connect and cannot help but do so; this seems to be the imago of a trinitarian dei
* We are born with structures and templates already in our brains which guide our development. Some of these structures appear to be moral, and when we talk about utter depravity we must also account for an apparent inborn capacity for altruism
* Our brain has developed as three general 'layers', reptilian, mammalian and human, and theologically we should account for each when we speak of sanctification
* Consciousness is mysterious - how much more so is God's consciousness?
* Though "mental health" is troublesome to define, there does seem to be a collective human intuition about what whole personhood is, including living peacefully with others, forming loving relationships, and being able to exhibit trust - we as Christians might see this as an intuition of Christlike personhood

I want to get back to my Out of Bounds series, because I realized I'd neglected it for a while there, and being only about 2/3 employed, I have a lot of free time compared to most of my adult life.

For this round, I wanted to talk about God and brain/mind science. Brain/mind science is clunky, but terms like neuroscience are a little too limiting, and there isn't a good term in common use (that I'm aware of) that covers the functioning of all levels of the brain (lizard, mammal, human) and nervous system as well as the mind, which I take at the moment to be an emergent property of the brain and nervous system but not synonymous with it.

I'm also not a brain nor mind scientist by any stretch of the imagination. You're getting the collected thoughts of an enthusiastic dabbler here, in case you were wondering. I'll try to cite some of the things I'm drawing upon, and otherwise if this is of interest, feel free to comment or email me or doing research yourself to form your own conclusions.

Limbic Resonance and Mirroring
Most of your communication has nothing to do with the words you use. I think this is part of why the Internet is so chock-full of flame-wars and trolls and fighting and argument, why I have found it to be such a faulty medium for communication - it is missing the most important components.

Sitting across a table from someone and talking to them, your brains are passing cues back and forth to each other in thousands of snippets, far more cues than you could cram in words. These little cues come from the limbic systems in your brains, the parts of the brain that mammals have which reptiles, for example, lack.

Rapport is when these cues line up. It is possible to watch people flirting, for example, and see how their shoulders and pelvic areas align, how they blink at the same rate, how they put their weight on the same side of their body, how they lean at the same time, how their voices change pitch and so on. If these things happen, you know the people like each other. If they don't, buying drinks isn't likely to help you.

You can record someone's face and see hundreds of micro-expressions, changes in facial muscle tension, eyelid adjustment and pupil dilation over the course of a short conversation. The more emotion is at stake, the more these signs become obvious. This limbic information accounts for anywhere between half and 95% of our communication depending on different articles and books I've read.

In short, we are wired to connect. It is impossible to avoid. We are in relationship insofar as we are mammalian - that is to say, constantly and entirely. I can see an easy connection to the Trinity here, that God is in relationship as well at the core of God's being, that God is not sole and alone and impervious like a Greek statue.

We are not born as blank slates. There is already a lot of ground-work done in brain-building and mind-building. I remember holding my neice Grace-Ann literally an hour or two after she was born, and I remember (apart from being petrified I'd drop her or something) thinking "Holy crap, this is a person." She had that glazed, perpetually-startled baby look of course, and had good reason to look that way, but behind it I could already see an intelligence trying to make sense of things.

If we were not born with templates in our brains, it would take too long to make sense of everything. Every brain would have to start from scratch, and we'd never mature - it would be as if everyone had to build their own personal computer from raw materials without any help from others.

We have instincts which are functional from the moment of birth and likely in the womb in our late development as well. Grasping, sucking, crying, making little encouraging noises, following lights and movement with our eyes - those are all present from the start. Branching out with more nuanced noises, laughing, exploring and so on are built on those early templates. Trial-and-error is a method for learning and protecting ourselves we don't have to learn by...trial-and-error. There is even a kind of morality present (see below) upon which more can be built.

Baby birds, fresh from the egg, will exhibit fear when shown an outline of a predator bird, but will not show that fear when shown a very similar outline of a non-predator bird. We are only really beginning to understand what is already hard-wired into our brains at birth and shortly after, but we're a lot more complex than baby birds.

I've alluded to the general structure of the brain, and I want to say a little more without getting too complicated or going farther than I understand. I've seen and heard the human brain described more than once as a lizard with a mammal brain stacked on top of that and a human brain stacked on top of that. We still have the lizard and the mammal, but we also have something that, say, a rabbit doesn't have as much of - that's the human part.

The lizard brain is what lets us predict the flight of a baseball, dodge a falling book-case, fight competitors and run away from predators. All the stuff a lizard can do. It rewards us for eating fatty and sugary foods and tells us we're hungry or have to go to the bathroom. It is the base of our brain, and also seems to house a lot of our base desires.

The mammal brain is the limbic part I talked about earlier and some other parts attached to it. It is the part of our brain that connects us to other brains and, therefore, to other living minds. It is what makes a group of prairie dogs or a pack of wolves behave differently from a school of fish or a swarm of newborn sea turtles. The prairie dogs and wolves have complex communication. They work together. They form relationships with each other of dominance, submission and mutual benefit.

The human brain is what houses our imagination, as well as our ability to conceptualize and plan ahead. It lets us use symbols and complex tools and various kinds of language. It is what separates you from your dog (besides blunt teeth, brittle claws and dull senses).

One thing I like about religion is that it engages all of these levels of the brain. We eat together, dance and play games, and spend time with people who don't provoke our fight-or-flight response. We make relationships and maintain them with personal contact and one-on-one communication, and we acknowledge our connections even to people we don't know personally. We also talk about ideas and use imaginative imagery and manipulate symbols and language to communicate with each other and with God.

I believe that a robust theology of sanctification needs to work with each level of the brain and see how it is redeemed.

No one understands consciousness. That's a bold claim but I'll stand by it for now. As I said, I believe that the mind, or consciousness, is an emergent property of the brain and nervous system. This is just because no one without a functioning brain has been recorded to demonstrate qualities we associate with consciousness - that is, knowledge of the self as an individual, object permanence, complex decision-making and communication.

From my own study, I've come to understand consciousness a something that I trust exists but cannot prove. I cannot prove that anything I do isn't predetermined. I cannot prove that my feeling like I make choices means I am making choices. However, trusting that I am conscious makes my life worthwhile and a lot more meaningful, and doesn't seem to detract from my life at all.

If our consciousness is mysterious, how much more so is God's? Can we even say God is conscious? Is consciousness too limited a term for God? What can we possibly mean when we say that God "intends" something, or "plans" something, or "says" something? I take these to be metaphorical statements, since I don't have any idea what it means for an infinite and incomprehensible being to intend or plan or speak. We can trust that these things are meaningful, but we cannot get anywhere near proving that they are, anymore than I can prove that...I am.

This is yet another layer of consciousness, the thing that theoretically human beings have but other very intelligent animals, like dolphins or chimpanzees, do not have.

Self-consciousness is the "I Am" of the mind. It is continuity and identity and various kinds of memory. Like consciousness, I'm not sure we can prove it. I'm not convinced that there is a difference in quality between me and a dolphin, or me and a chimp - more in quantity at best, as in I have more ways to communicate than a chimp, or more tools than a dolphin.

Then again, every time "language" is defined, some ape somewhere demonstrates that it can do whatever language is. So language seems to be becoming 'the thing that other animals can't do', and that's a stupid definition if I ever heard one.

This consciousness and self-consciousness question is a big reason behind vegetarianism and veganism. If no one can point to this magical line between human and animal, how can I justify eating an animal? I have long seen a connection between this view and the Noahic limitations on eating meat. Even in ancient times, there was a sense that animate life was special - after all, it was the animals that God brought to be the first human's companions.

Infant Morality
I heard about this on NPR and was really surprised, and not only because I find babies to be frightening little critters with nefarious plans. Apparently, studies of baby behavior at the Yale Infant Lab have found that altruism can come to the fore very early, and that moral reasoning of some kind, altruistic or not, seems to be present even in six-month-olds.

This is yet another mark against the "blank slate" idea, and I think adds some nuance to the "utter depravity" argument. There is a big difference between being inclined toward evil and being evil, having distorted capacities for good and having no capacity for good. I think Reformed language can get out of control in this arena, and I'm glad the babies are representing.

Mental Health
Our concept of mental health is flawed, but it is also influenced by what I perceive to be a collective conscience. There are traits that we associate with a healthy, functional adult human being, for example, and when these traits are lacking or are perverted in some way, we suspect that something has gone wrong.

For example, if someone commits serial violence, or if they are unable to form close relationships, or if they experience the world to be frightening and adversarial, we seem to have a sense that something is wrong. Conservatives might say that the person in question needs to grab hold of their bootstraps and liberals might say they need to be coddled by government-paid therapists, but we all have a sense that this person's personhood has gone awry.

What this indicates to me is that we have a sense of a potential wholeness, the perfection of which is perhaps out of our grasp, but part of that wholeness is being able to live peacefully, forming close supportive relationships, and being able to exhibit trust that the world isn't out to get you. These are just examples. Mental health is incredibly sticky and difficulty to talk about because it is so subjective, but our collective subjectivity points toward a kind of full personhood that, for the Christian, is found in Christ, and is approached by sanctification.

Sam Harris
Religion does something, even when the world is explainable in other ways, politics can try to divorce itself from overt religion, relationships and communities do not depend on it, and it is not compulsory. It serves a function that seems to be deeply rooted in what it means to be human, what it has always meant to be human.

I don't agree with some things Sam Harris says, but he is an accessible writer who is very interested in the intersection between religion and neuroscience.

My own suspicion is that ultimately there will be no "there" to be found there. That is, we won't find the Easter-egg of the God Gene or the God Lobe or the God Particle. I have this suspicion because I believe God exists and I believe that the world is interesting, and if I combine those two beliefs, it rules out any reducible place where God is located. However, on the way, as we are looking, we consistent find out some really interesting stuff.

Works Consulted and Recommended:
The Bible: esp. Genesis 1-3, 8-9; God in the whirlwind at the end of Job; Jonah
Experimental Theology, Dr. Richard Beck's blog
Dr. Oliver Sachs, author and neurologist

I have a few other books that are in storage and I'm blanking on the names. I'll add them as I find them.

These are all pretty accessible sources - I'm not a genius or an expert or anything like that. I just like thinking about the thing I use to think...

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Cliche Driven Pastors

I find this study, depressing. It's a look at what pastors around the country are reading. I suppose the good news is that there isn't much commonality. The bad news is the one thing everyone seems to have in common is Rick Warren's "Purpose Driven" series. More ministers have read it, and more cite it as influential in their ministry than any other book (I'm hoping this study excludes the Bible). Furthermore, the bigger your church is the more likely you are to regard Warren as influential to your thinking.

There are definitely worse books out there than Warren's drivel, but there are also much better. Pastors it seems are largely reading fluff books from the Christian living genre, instead of serious theology. More pastors have read something by Joel Osteen than by folks like Bonhoeffer, Yoder, Hauerwas, Brueggeman, Wright, Barth, Wink, Niebuhr, or Tillich. We are more likely to be influenced by Rob Bell or Mark Driscoll than by David Hart or Karl Rahner.

Despite how it sounds this isn't an elitist whine. It is anti-elitist. I have no problem with the C.S. Lewis popular style of writing. Marcus Borg, Brian McLaren, Sara Miles and Carol Howard have all written books of this type I enjoyed and have encouraged others to read. But if anyone should be mining the riches of James Alison, or Marilyn McCord Adams, or Gustavo Gutierrez, shouldn't it be pastors? How else is this kind of vibrant beautiful theology going to get into our churches? Don't we lose something if the only level of discourse we are having is at the "purpose driven" level?