Monday, November 28, 2005


The comments on an earlier post, "Well... He's a Liberal, But..." are heating up. I would like to invite anyone who is interested in issues related to how we interpret scripture or how we define words like "faith" and "belief" to check out the comments that have been left, and, if possible, to leave one of your own. One of the great aspects of blogging is that it invites you into the sorts of conversations which you can't have every day. Please, if you so desire, join the conversation, especially if you disagree with me.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Mindful Moments

C.S. Lewis was once asked what his Chronicles of Narnia were about, to which he slyly replied, "Magic." Of course, as everyone caught up in the allegory of those great tales knows, they are about a good deal more than just magic. But first and foremost they are magical stories, stories which contain as much magic in their pages as they do in the enchanted reading of those pages. This morning I was reminded that magic - the kind of magic that Lewis channeled in his classic stories - is all around me, if I pay attention to it.

I am a bit of a holiday fuddy-duddy. As I'm sure you can tell by now, I hate going to the mall, particularly during the Christmas shopping season. And, every year it seems that the Christmas shopping season starts just a little bit earlier. This year I was startled, as I walked through a store which still had its Halloween ghosts and goblins prominently on display, to hear the faint sound of Christmas muzak in the background. I say "muzak" because whatever it was, it certainly wasn't music. Music has magic, and that sterile background radiation masquerading as music was decidedly unmagical. In a Harry Potter world muzak is for Muggles, and I don't want to be mistaken for one of those.

Now that we are past Thanksgiving, however, it is safe for me to transform into someone who, if not exactly excited by the holiday season, is at least willing to tolerate all of the nonsense which goes with the most joyous time of the year.

My son and I have a routine. Every morning, after we both get up, I put on some music and we dance around the living room. The music varies with my mood. Sometimes we put in some rock and roll, sometimes some jazz, sometimes some classical, and sometimes some non-Western music. This morning I was in a mood that comes about once a year, so we danced to Christmas music. Phil Keaggy's Christmas album, recorded with the London Festival Orchestra, to be exact.

In the middle of our dance he asked me to put him down so he could roam around on the floor. Well, to say he asked might be a little misleading. Really he just tried to leap out of my arms, and fussed at me a bit when I saved him from yet another facial bruise. I let him down gently, and then he surprised me.

He crawled to me, pulled up on my pants, and grabbed my hands. Then he started to dance with me again, but with his feet on the ground. He turned around, let me hold him by his hands, and then started to walk across the room.

He's been working on walking for a little while, but he's so good at crawling he rarely has the patience to try to get anywhere on his feet. But here he was this morning, holding my hands and taking some faltering steps. I was overcome.

I am a dreamer, always looking for the next big plan, the next great moment. I rarely appreciate the moment I'm in. But this morning I was reminded of a mantra from the counter cultural sixties: "Be Here Now." I keep wondering when I'll start to live the life I thought I'd be living by now. You know, the life when I'm happy and fulfilled, doing all of the cool things that kids think that adults are supposed to do. This morning I realized that I've already starting living that life, and I just never noticed.

This morning I held my son's hand as he tried to walk. I gave him advice and encouragement, prodding him along and cheering with each clumsy step. I did all of this on a brisk, beautiful morning that reminded me so much of Christmas in the movies, while my favorite Christmas album played in the background. It was, to say the least, a magical moment. And I almost missed it.

I wonder, how much of my life have I missed because I was looking for or expecting something else? How much of my life have I missed because I haven't been mindful of the moment?

This holiday season is full of magic. Let's be mindful of each magical moment.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Holiday Cheer, Another Bumper Sticker, and Growling in the Parking Lot

[note: because of the holiday much of this was dictated to my wife in the car, the act of which reminded me a bit of the scene near the end of Amadeus when a frantic, feverish Mozart furiously dictates his haunted masterpiece to Saliere, only without the genius or the murder.]

I spent the first twenty-one years of my life in Lexington, KY, a smallish city with big aspirations. Each time I go back home I see those aspirations realized in the most souless way possible. Lexington was once an artistic college town, dominated by the University of Kentucky, horse farms, and a quirky music scene so talent-rich that a young Vince Gill was the bassist in a Lexington-based band which wouldn't let him sing or play guitar. But now Lexington is aiming for a new niche, characterized by unplanned suburban sprawl dominated by luxury houses and shopping centers.

Lexington is home to the state's largest mall, Fayette Mall, and this morning I had the great misfortune of being there on the busiest shopping day of the year. I wasn't shopping, mind you. I was just searching for a parking spot.

My mother, much like Lewis Carrol's famous Queen of Hearts, is uncannily able to believe impossible things. Earlier this week she called me to ask if it would be alright for her to take my son to the portrait studio on Wednesday so that she could get a picture of all four of her grandchildren together. This suited me just fine since we were planning to show up to her house Wednesday anyway. However this did not suit the studio at all, since they were already booked up, which brings me to my mother's first impossible belief of the week: you can call a portrait studio the day before you wish to show up and they will have exactly the time you want.

Thrwarted but undeterred, she made an appointment for the next available time: 10:10 am on Friday morning. One small catch, Friday happens to be the day after Thanksgiving, and the studio happens to be in a major department store in the state of Kentucky's capitalist capital, nay, Mecca. People from all over the state drive to this mall just to shop, and the day after Thanksgiving, as everyone presumably knows, is the day that retailers count on to finally turn a profit for the year.

But my mother has no trouble believing impossible things, and so she foresaw no problems with going to the mall at a peak shopping time on the peak shopping day with four small children spread out over two cars. So optimistic was she that we didn't leave until a few minutes before our appointment.

Entering the mall's parking lot was a lot like running into a wall, except that it is perhaps easier to get through the wall. There must be some sort of force field around the perimeter of the parking lot which requires that you abandon all decency and humanity before you enter. People stuck in mall traffic are, perhaps by necessity, as rude as it is possible to be. I had to fight through a sea of raging automobiles with foam-faced drivers just to drop my wife and child off near a mall entrance. Then I had to re-enter to fray to struggle against great odds to find a precious parking spot. Usually I exaggerate situations which irk me because, frankly, I enjoy doing so. This is one story which needs no exaggeration. It literally took me over half an hour to get to a place where I could actually park the car. From that parking spot it took me another fifteen minutes on foot (in 20 degree weather) just to reach the mall.

While searching for my parking spot I noticed a great many drivers doing unspeakably rude things, things which, under ordinary circumstances they would never consider doing. Like me that had been circling this crowded lot for longer than they could ever have imagined, suffering through the vile rudeness of others. They were tired, impatient, and even angry. They felt threatened by every move made by every other driver. They were in a Hobbesian state of nature, the war of every man against every man, fighting for an all too limited resource. They were ready to disregard all sense of decency and cooperation, and any semblance of law and order. It was dangerous.

When I got home this evening I read about riots and stampedes at malls and shopping centers today, and I was not surprised in the least. Holiday shopping, and the hassle it entails, brings out the worst in us. And yes, in each of us, there is that worst ready to leap out if given the opportunity.

While I was in the state of nature masquerading as a mall parking lot I saw a bumper sticker which I though explained the situation perfectly. It read:

Ever wonder if there is a life after death?
Mess with this truck and you'll find out.

I have a big, beautiful black lab mix named Pepper. Pepper is a great dog, and is the perfect home security system. He's very gentle, but his head is roughly the size of a refrigerator, and his teeth would make a Great White jealous. He also has, as far as I can tell, absolutely no idea whatsoever how to fight.

Of course he wouldn't want the dogs in the park to know this. If they find out that he can't tear them apart and feed them to our two cats he might be vulnerable. So, every time Pepper sees a dog in the park across the street from our house he strikes his most menacing pose and barks ferociously. He then, after having gotten their attention, growls ominously, baring each of his razor sharp teeth.

No wonder dogs pee on everything. You couldn't see this display and not be a little bit intimidated.

Humans, it seems, are not unlike dogs. How else do you account for the popularity of Hummers, vehicles as ugly as they are inefficient? They serve only one purpose: to intimidate other drivers into some sort of primal submission. Many bumper stickers, like the one I saw in the mall parking lot, serve the same purpose. With our cars and what we put on them, as well as with our mannerisms, we often unconsciously growl at others so that they give us the respect we think we need.

In the mall parking lot today, stuck in my Hobbesian state of nature - a war of all against all with no alliances and no quarter - I gave and received a great many automotive growls. I was as threatening as I was threatened, and as menaced as I was menacing. But after having valiantly fought my way to a parking spot, and then proudly trekked my way to the mall, I had to wonder what the fight was for.

I must have aged a decade today, and I doubt I'm the only one. And what did I gain for it? The right to fight even more once inside the mall to get items that I don't really want anyway?

Oh well. Happy Thanksgiving. And, let's all try to chill out and cooperate a little this holiday shopping season.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Magnetic Ribbons and Bumper Politics Revisited

After having my last would-be-post unceremoniously erased from my computer not once but twice, I had decided to swear off this unsavory habit for good. But then, on the way home from the grocery (Kroger, by the way, has bought out all of the competition in our neighborhood, so now we can never find what we want - but that's a rant for another time) on the back of a red, mid 90's Toyota Tacoma I saw a magnetic ribbon that compelled me to revisit the subject of bumper politics and magnetic ribbons.

Half of the ribbon was the familiar yellow "God Bless Our Troops." The other half of the ribbon, however, was black. In simple, gray letters it read, "God Forgive George Bush."

We all want things nice and simple. You are either for us or against us, for the war or against the war. You are on one side or the other. But reality is complicated. And the reality of war is that soldiers do not get to choose when or where to go to war; and most soldiers do not even get to choose how the war is waged. Soldiers are sent. Soldiers are ordered. They are not ordered against their will, as their will is not even a consideration. They are to have no will.

For better or for worse, politicians choose wars. They choose when to go to war, where to go to war, and against whom to wage war. Far too often they even get to decide how the war is fought. Soldiers merely pay for the war. Not with their money, mind you. That is our job. Rather, soldiers pay for the war with their lives and with their deaths.

Many people who have gone to war struggle with the implications of their combat actions. It is no easy thing to kill a person, or at least to attempt to kill a person. Hell, it is no easy thing to participate in any way in a project which leads to the death of a single person. But war is not about the death of a single person. War is about the deaths of many, many people. And any participation in war is a participation in killing. People die on all sides. People are maimed on all sides. People are emotionally scarred on all sides. War is expensive, and I'm not talking about the billions or trillions of dollars spent in the campaign and the clean-up.

Soldiers do not get to choose very much if anything about a war, but they do get to pay for it. This is why it is so vitally important, if you claim to support your troops, to choose very carefully when, where and how you spend their physical and emotional resources. In many cases what is spent can never be gotten back.

In our simple version of war to fail to support a wartime president and his hasty decision to wage a war of luxury rather than necessity is to fail to support our troops. This magnetic ribbon, if it argued anything, argued that perhaps the opposite is true. To support a politician or group of politicians who frivolously waste the physical and emotional resources of men and women willing to kill and die for us is to fail to support our troops.

God, if you're listening, God if you care, please bless our troops. They need your guidance, your strength, your love, your protection and your mercy. Hold them in your hands, and care for them as we have not.

And God, please forgive us. Forgive us for being timid when we needed to be strong. Forgive us for not standing up and saying, "Not in our name, not with our money, not with the lives of our brothers, sisters and friends." Please forgive us for cowing to power. Please forgive us for not fighting for peace.

Lord guide us in this fight against violence, and keep us from using violent means. Violence only begets violence, and there is already too much violence in our souls.

In your merciful name we pray,


Thursday, November 17, 2005

Embracing the Mystery, Unraveling a Riddle

Can a mortal asks questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think. All nonsense questions are unanswerable. How many hours are there in a mile? Is yellow square or round? Probably half the questions we ask - half our great theological and metaphysical problems - are like that.

- C.S. Lewis, from A Grief Observed

One of the biggest theological problems with traditional Christianity is the problem of suffering. It points out that our description of God is logically incompatible with the fact of suffering. It says that these statements cannot all be true:

1. There is a God.
2. God is all powerful.
3. God is all seeing or all knowing.
4. God is benevolent, or all loving.
5. There is suffering in the world.

Surely a God who loves us (and all things), and who knows all things (including what will lead to suffering), and who can do all things, would not allow suffering in His world. And yet we experience suffering, and this is, to us a mystery.

C.S. Lewis wrote two books which attempted to deal with this problem. The first book, The Problem of Pain, attempted to rationally reconcile the idea of a perfect, all powerful God with the fact of suffering. The second book, A Grief Observed (from which I have quoted), was, I think, a way for him to distance himself from much of the content of the first book. This is because, as he experienced the overwhelming suffering which followed his wife's death, Lewis realized that the problem of suffering is not, after all, a purely rational, logical problem. It is an existential problem. We do not mind that our idea of God is challenged by the fact that we suffer as much as we mind that we suffer at all.

Lewis can, in the quote above, be excused then for brushing aside one of our greatest theological puzzles by implying that it is probably just a nonsense question, a category error caused by human limitations. After all, if we hold that God is a mystery incapable of being completely comprehended by the human mind, then why should we be too disturbed if our ideas about God cause a few logical problems. But by brushing aside a very real problem as though it were an inconsequential gnat after making a rather lucrative career offering simple answers to complicated questions, C.S. Lewis may have once again unintentionally given serious skeptics of his religious views some ammunition to use against him and his view of the Christian faith.

Modern, rational Christians usually deal with the problem of suffering the way Lewis initially tried to deal with it, by using the tools of modernity. The problem is presented as a logical problem, and so some appeal to logic or reason must be employed in dealing with the problem. If it is said that the above statements are logically incompatible, and if one believes the above statements to be true, then one has to demonstrate, using the tools of reason and logic that the statements can be made to fit together. This attempt to solve the problem of suffering by reconciling irreconcilable statements is called theodicy.

A theodicy usually works in one of two ways. It either attempts to explain away suffering by appealing to some overwhelming good which comes from it, which could not happen if suffering didn't exist, or it attempts to get God of the hook for suffering. If suffering is not such a bad thing, or if somehow God is not responsible for it, then perhaps our concept of God can be reconciled to the fact of suffering.

A particular kind of appeal to human free will is my favorite theodicy because it actually employs both methods at the same time. This theodicy advances two main arguments which work together to reconcile an unlimited and good God to the fact of suffering:

1. God is not responsible for suffering because suffering comes not from any act of God, but rather from the free actions of human beings. As such, suffering is a product of human freedom and not the will of God.

2. This human freedom was given by God because God did not desire that people serve God out of necessity, but rather by their free choice. This freedom is a good which overrides the harm done by the suffering which comes from it.

I was once very persuaded by this kind of argument. So persuaded, in fact, that I tried it out on one of my philosophy professors, who happened to be an atheist. "Wouldn't you," I argued, "rather be a free agent and experience a little bit of suffering than be a determined automaton who never suffered?"

He replied, very honestly and with much more regret than condescension, "No, I really wouldn't, and I don't think that anyone else would, either. Look at what happens every time we feel threatened, every time we feel unsafe. We voluntarily give up all of the liberties we claim to cherish if only some Big Man, the president or whomever, will give us back the illusion of safety."

This professor didn't want a God who exchanged suffering for freedom and called it a fair deal, and he didn't think that anyone else really wanted that, either. He saw the theodicy for what it might really be, an unintentional act of self-deception designed to preserve the integrity of beliefs we don't really hold anyway.

Theodicies fail in two very important ways. They fail philosophically, and they fail religiously.

They fail philosophically because the arguments they advance don't really work. They don't really let God off the hook for suffering, they just push it back a step. If suffering is, for instance, caused by human freedom rather than an act of God, who was it that made humans, and made them free? Who was it that put them in an environment in which they would have the ability and opportunity to cause and experience so much suffering? Who was it, if it was not God? And could not this God, who is described as being all knowing and all powerful, not have been able to see that giving humans this freedom and power would lead to suffering, and be able to do something about it? There is no escaping the fact that, if God truly is unlimited, then it is only the will of God which rules the universe. Everything which happens, however it happens, happens (if God is unlimited) according to God's will. Whatever happens, be it good or bad, is God's fault.

They fail religiously because they present us with a God who is more concerned about explaining suffering away than actually doing anything about it. This view of God reminds me of some of the criticisms leveled against the current American president and his administration, who spend more time doing PR than solving the problems created by their policies. This God, like the Bush administration, would rather have you believe that the suffering you experience is either a good thing or someone else's fault than to help solve the problems which have created the suffering in the first place. This may be an unfair criticism of both God and the administration, but it is a criticism made possible by those who would presume to speak for both.

The view of God provided by something known as Process Theology tries a different way of solving the problem of suffering. Rather than by trying to explain away the logic of this problem, it embraces the logic but says that some of the original premises are flawed. What if God were not unlimited? What if God were not all powerful or all knowing? Wouldn't that solve the logic of the problem without resorting to bad arguments or bad religion?

In process theology God is not unlimited, but God is good. And this good God is aware of the suffering in the created order, and is working within that created order to help alleviate the suffering there. This, of course, takes a great deal of time, because the problem is a large one, and God is not all powerful. But, rest assured, God is at work, and calls you to work, too.

This theology makes good use of the reconciling work of Christ. After all Christ represents God work in the world. In Christ, God doesn't just stand apart from the world, deaf to its cries. Rather, God enters into the world and does things to make the world a better place.

The main knock on process theology is that it diminished God. After all, process theology denies the traditional view of an unlimited God. Instead process theology presents us with a God who cannot do all things, a view which appears particularly limited when placed against the view of God's omnipotence. And, isn't placing certain limits on God at least insulting to the divine if not outright blasphemy?

This reminds me a bit of an argument in astrophysics. Is space infinite, or are there some boundaries at some point? This is a question which can probably never be answered. If there were limits on the size of space, how would we experience those limits? Could we go to the edge of space? Of course not. Space represents an expanse so large that we can't even comprehend it. In light of the vastness of space, whether or not space is infinite is a moot point. It is, at the very least, unfathomably large.

To say that there are theoretical limits on God is much like saying that there are theoretical limits on the size of space. To claim that God is not all powerful is not the same as claiming that God is weak any more than to claim that space is finite is to claim that space is roughly the size of my backyard. And since claiming that God is entirely without limits creates such serious logical problems for our theology, why should we cling to the human idea of an unlimited God?

But, to claim that the description of God which creates the logical problem of suffering is a bad description of God does not make the existential problem of suffering go away. It is that existential problem which is our real problem. We are bothered by suffering not because it creates logical problems but because we suffer, and we wish we didn't. What process theology does is place God inside the problem of suffering, working with us and for us to solve the problem not by explaining it away, but by working for the cessation of suffering.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Well... he's a liberal, but...

A few years ago, back when I was a youth minister in need of retreat, I went on a Youth Ministers Retreat. It was a great idea which temporarily saved me from the inevitable burnout that comes from always giving and never taking.

At the retreat we often divided up into groups to discuss anything and everything that might come up. It was kind of like group therapy for people who wouldn't admit that they need therapy.

During one group meeting we were asked, toward the end of the meeting, to describe someone who had modeled the example of Christ to us, and in doing so, had inspired our ministry. Each person in the room described someone who had helped to form their experience of the faith. Most of us talked about people who had helped us during our tumultuous teenage years. I picked a man named Paul, and those of you who know him know why. Those of you who don't know him will never understand the impact that he had on my life, because I doubt I will ever be able to put it into words.

The retreat, as could be expected of a youth ministers retreat in the state of Kentucky, consisted entirely of people who identified themselves as evangelicals. As such, there was a certain set of assumptions that each person there could be expected to make. Those assumptions were apparently challenged by one person in the room, who, when asked the question, answered, "My person... well... he's a liberal, but..." and then went on to extol the spiritual virtues of the man and how he had modeled the example of Christ.

In that room this statement seemed exceedingly generous. An evangelical complimenting a liberal, and claiming that a liberal, at least in this one case, could model the example of Christ. It was unheard of. The response from the room was similarly generous, as each person agreed that, at least in this case, a liberal had done something beneficial to the cause of Christ.

The statement appeared to cut to the heart of a prejudice and then undermine that prejudice by presenting someone who had been colored by it with a more full description. But, as I am coming to claim the often misused title of liberal for myself, I am beginning to think that, rather than countering a prejudice, that statement, "Well... he's liberal, but..." actually reinforced the prejudice by providing the exception that confirms the rule.

After all, if you believed that, by and large, liberals could model the example of Christ, why would you have to mention that the person in question was a liberal? In what way is that relevant to their modeling the example of Christ? And, if you really believed that liberals could model the example of Christ, why would you have to, in saying "but" after declaring that the person in question is a liberal, make apologies for their liberalism before extolling their virtues?

The way in which the comment was phrased spoke to a couple of assumptions which were in the room. These assumptions were:

1. Liberals usually do not and probably cannot model the example of Christ.

2. There is an intimate connection between belief and faith, and, as such, those who disagree with us theologically must have some sort of problem with their faith.

The speaker, by providing us with a rare contradiction to these assumptions, actually helped to confirm their validity in the same way that someone who says "She hits pretty well, for a girl" confirms the assumption that girls, by and large, can't hit.

These two assumptions are related, and the ability to hold the first one depends on the second one. Christians have assumed an association between belief and faith from almost the beginning of their history. In 325 CE the Roman Emperor Constantine called together a council of all Christian bishops in the Roman Empire because he thought that Christianity could be a tool used to hold the Empire together. From this council, the Council of Nicea, we get the earliest formal Christian statement of belief, the Nicene Creed, which was designed to counter the influence of Gnosticism and to unite the Church under a single set of beliefs.

One of the effects of the Nicene Creed, and the mentality that led to it, was an emphasis in Christianity on orthodoxy (right belief) over and against orthopraxy (right practice, right conduct, or right action). Belief became the most important thing in Christianity, and it was most important for Christians to believe the right things. Faith became intimately associated with belief, and because of the centrality of belief in Christianity, a deviation in belief meant a failure of faith.

This mentality, however, blurs the distinction between faith and belief too much, and creates some serious problems in the lives of faithful believers in Christ. Last week I received a phone call from a friend of mine who was having a "crisis of faith." She said that she had been teaching the story of Jonah in a children's Sunday School class when a wicked thought entered her mind: "This could not have happened."

Having this thought creep in, and worse still, believing it after it popped up, meant to my friend that there must be some sort of serious problem with her faith. Why couldn't she accept the historical accuracy of a story from the inerrant Word of God, like her church teaches? That she wondered this demonstrates the extent to which she has been conditioned by her church to associate faith with belief. That a question of how the Bible should best be interpreted is rendered in her mind as a "crisis of faith" means that she has totally accepted her church's failure to distinguish between faith and belief.

Phrasing disputes over matters of belief as problems with one's faith is an excellent way for churches to make those who disagree with them on some points of doctrine go away frustrated without rocking the doctrinal boat. If my friend condemns herself as a heretic and walks away, or even better, repents of her shameful thought, then her church, and specifically her pastor, never has to deal with the challenge to the view of scripture presented in that congregation. If my friend assumes that the view of scripture which she no longer accepts is the way in which Christians must, by virtue of their faith, approach the holy scriptures, then her options are either to no longer claim the name of Christ or agree with her church.

But there is a third option which those who would monopolize the interpretation of the Bible do not allow. That option is to look at the scriptures both faithfully and critically, and remain faithfully within the body of Christ, claiming the name of Christian.

Neither my friend nor her church had considered that they were applying a modern standard to a decidedly premodern text when they assumed that stories such as the story of Jonah must represent literal historical events. The Modern West no longer has any use for mythology. Beginning in the appropriately titled Age of Reason we have assumed that reason (by which we usually mean a combination of logical and empiricism) is the only way to obtain truth. As such, we don't know what to do with or make of myths. Or, rather, we know just what to do with them: we discredit them and throw them away.

We make no distinction between "myth" and "lie," as evidenced by such programs as Mythbusters which contradict popular but false beliefs. We are forever "debunking the myths of" anything and everything about which one can hold a false belief. Because of this, when someone says that a story from the Bible is a myth, we think that they mean that the story is false. We think that, when they declare parts of the Bible to be primarily mythological in nature they are attempting to discredit the Bible and undermine its authority in the lives of Christians.

As such, to my friend, she had two options when dealing with the story of Jonah:

1. Accept it as an accurate representation of a historical event.
2. Reject it as an accurate representation of a historical event.

If it represents accurate history, it has value. If it does not, then serious problems are created. And, to her, it was pretty obvious that it could not represent accurate history. What, then, becomes of her faith?

I have not always identified myself as a liberal. In fact as a teenager I had a rather slow but radical conversion from a kind of practical atheism to a more fundamentalist brand of Christianity. Since then I have been undergoing just as slow and radical conversion from that brand of Christianity to a different one. How we are to interpret scripture has been at the heart of the transformation of my faith.

Myths are not lies. Myths are stories which communicate a very deep and meaningful truth. I have come to understand much of the Bible in this way. This does not mean that I do not accept the authority of scripture, nor does it mean that I think that parts of scripture are false. Stories are neither true nor false. Or, of they are true or false, their truth or falsehood depends not on whether or not they represent events which happened in history, but rather in whether or not the communicate something true.

Hamlet is both a work of fiction and a true story. It is a work of fiction because Shakespeare wrote it that way. His intention as an author was to create a story, a fictional story. But it is also a true story because it communicates a great many true things. This is why it has lasted these many years. This is why each new generation is drawn to it. Hamlet teaches us something important about ourselves.

Similarly, while much of the Bible may not represent literal historical events, it does contain true stories. These stories, these myths, are a great deal more true than the story of Hamlet, but their truth does not derive from the accuracy of their representation of history. Rather the truth of the Bible derives from God's ability to speak to us through the text, providing our lives with order and meaning. As we live out the principles we learn from the voice of God which we hear through the Biblical text we demonstrate in our own lives the truth of the Bible. We demonstrate in our own lives the power and authority of the Bible.

As we allow our encounter with the Biblical text to order our lives and provide us with meaning we demonstrate the value of the Biblical text. This value is not found in whether or not the text accurately represents historical events, as it was not the intention of the authors of the text to represent history. Our understanding of history did not come about until more than 2,000 years after the formulation of the earliest Biblical stories. How then can we apply that standard to a text which predates the standard? Would our view of history and historicity have had any value for the earliest interpreters of scripture?

Because of this understanding of scripture, and the way in which this understanding drives a wedge between me and the more conservative elements of the community of faith, I now, with some reservation, identify myself as a liberal. I say that I do this with some reservation not because I buy some of the vague criticisms leveled at liberals, but rather because I have some criticisms of my own.

Liberalism is a very vague term, and no one knows exactly what it means. This is a problem which liberals themselves contribute to. In the first part of the twentieth century to be a liberal was to be an optimist. To be theologically liberal was to deny original sin or human depravity, and to hold that human beings are basically good and getting better all the time. Liberalism was progressive in the sense that it saw history and humanity progressing toward a particular goal. The atrocities of the first and second World Wars made this position laughable.

Since then liberalism has been more about rejecting what it disagrees with than actually affirming anything. In politics this manifests itself in the willingness of the liberal caucus to criticize conservative policies and politics without proposing an alternative vision. In theology this manifests itself in the willingness of liberals to deny traditional Christian doctrines without affirming anything to take their place.

Liberalism is a broad, and broadly undefined phenomenon, and liberalism is often a negative phenomenon. Because of this conservatives can dominate the political and religious dialogue virtually unchallenged. It is incumbent upon liberals to cast a competing vision. As I now claim to be a liberal, it is incumbent upon me to cast a coherent vision. As you read the postings here you can judge for yourselves whether or not I am doing so.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Not Again

Pat Robertson has once again spoken for God, and declared God's wrath against people who disagree with him. The last time he did this, the shock-waves it sent through my congregation eventually drove me out of pastoral ministry.

After hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, inspired by Pat Robertson's vision of God, the overwhelming majority of my church declared that the destruction that ensued was evidence of God's judgment against that city for its sins. The next Sunday I felt that I had to respond, so I gave a sermon entitled: God of Wrath or God of Mercy? My congregation was so bothered by this sermon that they devoted the rest of my short time there to making me and my family so miserable that we had to leave.

Yesterday, in response to the city of Dover's rejection of a school board that inserted their theological beliefs into the science curriculum, Pat Robertson, on his TV show, said "I'd like to say to the good citizens of Dover: if there is a disaster in your area, don't turn to God, you just rejected Him from your city."

I cannot let that stand without some form of comment, and so I am posting my original sermon on this blog. Here it is:

God of Wrath or God of Mercy? A Christian
Response to Katrina

There are two great mysteries that consume our existence. The first of these can be summed up in a question raised by the French existentialist Sartre: Why is there something instead of nothing? Existence itself is a mystery. Those of us who have truly contemplated the nature of life; those of us who have stared into the eyes of another, or into our own eyes, and seen something stare back know this. There is no accounting for the fact that anything exists, much less this mysterious experience of life, of consciousness.

Christians account for this mystery by proclaiming that God is the reason, the only reason, why there is something instead of nothing. God is the source of all things, the ground of all being. God is the creator and sustainer of the universe.

We describe this God in many ways, using metaphor and plain description, as well as a combination of the two. Sometimes, in fact, we can't tell whether we are describing God by use of metaphor, because perhaps all descriptions of God, if they hope to be in any way accurate, are metaphors of some kind or another. Just as the nature of life, or existence, is as mystery, the nature of the God who is its source is mysterious.

Traditionally, however, we Christians have described God by giving God particular attributes. We say that God is omnipotent, or all powerful; omniscient, or all seeing (or all knowing); benevolent, or all loving. These attributes which we ascribe to God have been very meaningful, because they remind us that the God who is our source, and the source of all things, is so much greater than we are. But these attributes which we ascribe to God create a problem with the second great mystery.

Those who do not believe in any kind of God, like Sartre, have great difficulty with the mystery of existence. But those of us who do believe in God have, perhaps, greater difficulty with the second mystery, the mystery of suffering. A fundamental problem with traditional Christianity is called the problem of suffering. It points out that our description of God is logically incompatible with the fact of suffering. It says that these statements cannot all be true:

1. There is a God.
2. God is all powerful.
3. God is all seeing or all knowing.
4. God is benevolent, or all loving.
5. There is suffering in the world.

Surely a God who loves us (and all things), and who knows all things (including what will lead to suffering), and who can do all things, would not allow suffering in His world. And yet we experience suffering, and this is, to us a mystery.

The world is full of all kinds of suffering; this is one of the facts of existence. We were, this week, slammed by that fact, as a devastating storm destroyed much of the city of New Orleans, as well as other parts of the states of Louisiana and Mississippi. This is a great tragedy. Many of us are shaken by the scenes of devastation. Entire communities have been leveled. Homes and lives have been destroyed. And now, in the wake of this natural disaster, we are witnessing a very unnatural disaster, as looters, murderers, rapists and thieves take advantage of the chaos.

In the face of such suffering; in the face of such natural and unnatural evil, we are left wondering how this can be in accordance with the will of our beloved God. This is roughly the same question that every Christian is asked by the problem of suffering, and it is a question which every Christian, at one point or another, must answer, either privately or publicly.

An attempt to answer, or resolve, the problem of suffering is called a theodicy. There are many kinds of theodicies, but, perhaps the most effective of these involve a notion of free will. If suffering in the world can be explained by human free will, then perhaps God is off the hook. The basic question becomes, then, one of balancing what is gained by human free will against what is lost by suffering. If suffering can somehow be balanced against human freedom, then it may be justified.

There are two main ways in which it is asserted that human freedom is responsible for suffering in the world: directly and indirectly. If human free will is claimed to be the direct cause of suffering in the world, then suffering results immediately from the misuse of human freedom. This is particularly obvious in situations in which suffering is obviously directly derived from a human act. I punch my brother, and this causes him to be injured. I drink before I hop into an automobile and drive, and this directly leads to the death or another and the suffering of the affected friends and family.

But this does not account for certain natural disasters, such as hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, or even illness. In these, if human freedom is to be the sole cause of suffering in the world, there must be some subtler argument. Illness is still in some cases easy to describe in terms of being directly caused by the misuse of human freedom. I am promiscuous sexually, and contract AIDS or another STD. I smoke for years and acquire a cancer. I have an unhealthy diet and get a heart ailment or diabetes. But some diseases are not obviously directly related to human behavior. And hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes and the like are certainly not obviously related to human behavior. These may be indirectly related to the misuse of human freedom. They may, in fact, according to some, be God's response to our misuse of freedom.

The notion of a "fall" is central to the Christian faith. All humans, despite having been made in the image of God, have in some way chosen to rebel against God. God gave us freedom so that we could freely choose the ways of God, but we have used this freedom to pursue our own selfish desires. As such, all humans are estranged from God, and in rebellion against God. If this were not so, then we could expect a world in which there is no suffering. But this is so, and so suffering is created. As we have seen, sometimes suffering is directly caused by our bad choices. But sometimes it caused by them indirectly.

God would not be just in bringing suffering upon "good" people, but as there are no good people, then, some claim, God is justified in causing them harm. This has often been used to explain the kind of suffering that cannot easily be explained. Sodom and Gomorrah, we read in Genesis, are destroyed by God for their sins. This same God, in the time of Noah, destroyed the entire known world in a flood as a way to try to purge evil from all creation. In this we are introduced to a holy and just God of Wrath, who is justified in bringing destruction upon sinners.

This mindset was applied by some to the events of September 11th. It was claimed by some Christians that the terrorist attacks of that day were evidence of God's judgment against the United States for its manifold sins and wickedness. The same kind of argument was made by some members of my church in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. These honest Christians, who see in parts of the Bible a God of wrath, wonder if perhaps this hurricane wasn't sent by God to destroy the city of New Orleans because it had become too wicked.

In seeing events like these as being signs of God's wrath on mankind - or, at least, on certain portions of mankind - these people knowingly or unknowingly appeal to a particular kind of argument (mentioned above) to explain away the problem of suffering. They see suffering as a product of the misuse of human freedom, which is what they mean by sin. They see God as standing apart from the earth, estranged from sinful humanity as it is estranged from them, externally judging and condemning. They see a righteous God of wrath, who is justified by that righteousness and our own wickedness. The suffering in this case may be a tool for redemption, if it causes sinners to repent, or it may merely be just desserts.

This view is supported by a particular reading of scripture. The Hebrew Bible is full of references to the holy wrath of God. In it we do get a picture of a God who can visit destruction on humanity for its wicked, sinful ways. But this view is, in my mind, not justified by a full reading of scripture. In saying this I am not saying that those who disagree with me are not fully Christian, nor am I saying that they do not read their Bible. Rather, I am saying that they emphasize on aspect of the description of God which we find in the Bible, without taking other aspects of scripture's description of the divine nature into account.

But, before I deal with that, first I must ask those who hold that natural disasters like what we see in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina are evidence of God's judgment against the world a few questions:

1. If God uses events like hurricane Katrina to smite sinners, and if scripture is correct in asserting that all have sinned, why are any of us left? Wouldn't a just God, if such a God were inclined to annihilate sinners, annihilate all sinners and not just a few arbitrary ones?

2. If hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters represent the judgment of a God of Wrath on sinners, and if we as Christians seek to follow the will of God, how should we respond to victims of natural disasters? Most of us, even and especially those in my church who have wondered whether or not this hurricane represents the judgment of God on the city of New Orleans, feel a moral, spiritual, and religious obligation to help those who have been victimized by the storm. Yet if the devastation of this storm represents the active will of God, aren't we standing in God's way if we help those whom God has harmed?

3. If natural disasters like Katrina, and unnatural disasters like the terrorist attacks of September 11, are manifestations of the wrath of God in a way that can be compared to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, why haven't those who remained behind or helped the victims, or even witnessed the events on television, suffered the same fate as Lot's wife, who was turned into a pillar of salt?

These questions call our belief in a God of Wrath into question, because they point to an inconsistency in the theology of a God of Wrath. But, those of us who take scripture seriously should also take the theology of a God of Wrath seriously, because evidence for it can, as stated earlier, be found in scripture. In the Hebrew Bible God calls for and brings about the destruction of cities and nations. Entire races are wiped out by the hand or command of God. This leads us to declare that this Bible depicts a God of Wrath.

But there is also in the Hebrew Bible evidence for a very different kind of God. The God who destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah is the same God who sent Jonah to Nineveh. Jonah, who served a God of Wrath, refused to take the message of a God of Mercy to the sinners there, and so, serving his idea of God, he rebelled against and ran from God. But still, despite Jonah's protests and rebellion, God changed the heart of the Ninevites.

It is said that God cannot tolerate sin, and this must be so, for we know that sin is separation from God. But the God who cannot tolerate sin shows a remarkable toleration of sinners. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the biblical story of King David, who used his political power to sleep with a married woman and then kill her husband after failing to cover up the affair. Surely this bent toward sinning - assuming that we can come up with some sort of hierarchy of sins, which is not an entirely safe assumption - is worse than that of the average victim of hurricane Katrina. Yet, rather than being destroyed by God, David was redeemed, and even called a man after God's own heart.

The picture of God that we get from the Hebrew Bible, then, is not an unambiguous picture of a God of Wrath. Rather, it is a complicated picture of a God who is sometimes characterized by wrath and sometimes characterized by mercy. This picture is troubling to Christians who hold that God is by nature unchanging. After all, the account of God in scripture seems clearly to change. Thus the picture of God that we get from the ministry of Jesus ultimately looks nothing like the God of Wrath that we see in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.

In the ministry of Jesus we see not a God of Wrath but a God of Mercy. Christianity is founded on the notion of the incarnation of God. That notion of the incarnation flatly contradicts the theology of the God of Wrath. The God of Wrath is a God that stands over and apart from creation, looking down on it, judging it, and punishing it. The laws of the God of Wrath are as absolute as they are arbitrary, and the penalty for disobeying those laws is sift and severe. But, the defining attribute of the God of Wrath is separation. Sin is separation from God, and as all have sinned, all are separate from God. Just as all are separate from God, God is separate from creation. This is why God can so harshly judge creation. But in the ministry of Jesus, and the theology of incarnation, we see God, in Christ, entering into the world. This God of mercy enters into the world in Christ to take on the sin, and the suffering, in the world, to reconcile the world to God.

Christians see Jesus as the Christ, even as the Son of God. Jesus, in a mysterious way, represents the merging of the divine with the natural. If God were a God of Wrath, a God who visits judgment on sinners, why would God send us a Christ who is a suffering servant? Surely a God of Wrath would send a conquering ruler to judge the world and destroy the wicked. And, as we believe in a universal fall, surely all would be destroyed by such a Christ.

But in Jesus we have a very different Christ. We have a Christ who lives a poor humble life. We have a Christ who prefers the company of sinners to the company of the self-righteous. We have a Christ who preaches love and mercy. We have a Christ who suffers and dies on the cross. We have a Christ who humbles, even humiliates himself. We have a Christ who takes on the sin of the world. We have a Christ who does not judge, but removes judgment, who does not punish but forgives. In short, we have a Christ who embraces the grace which comes not from a God of Wrath, but rather from a God of Mercy.

This Christ teaches us how to respond to the suffering in the world. We are not to create some sort of theology to explain it away and let God off the hook. We are not to comfort ourselves in the midst of it. Rather, we are to take it on, just as Christ, in taking on our sins, took on as well our suffering (as sin, being separation from God, is the root of suffering). We are, like the God of Mercy we see in the ministry of Jesus and the doctrine of incarnation, to enter into suffering. We are to share suffering. And we are to, in sharing suffering, work to alleviate suffering.

Fortunately even those among us who believe in a God of Wrath serve a God of Mercy insofar as they feel called by God to share in and alleviate the suffering caused by Katrina. This divine calling is the proof we need to know that the one true God is not the God of Wrath, but the God of Mercy.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Good Grief

A season is set for everything, a time for every
experience under heaven:
A time for being born and a time for dying,
A time for planting and a time for uprooting the
A time for slaying and a time for healing,
A time for tearing down and a time for building
A time for weeping and a time for laughing,
A time for waling and a time for dancing;
A time for throwing stones and a time for
gathering stones,
A time for embracing and a time for shunning
A time for seeking and a time for losing,
A time for keeping and a time for discarding;
A time for ripping and a time for sewing,
A time for silence and a time for speaking;
A time for loving and a time for hating;
A time for war and a time for peace.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (The Jewish Study Bible JPS)

My son spends two days a week at his babysitter's house so that he can have some social interaction with other kids and so that I can have some time to do all of the things I think I need to do during the week. Usually my wife drops him off at the babysitter's on her way to work, but today the schedule was a little weird, so I had to drop him off. I'd never done that before, and it broke my heart.

When we got there, he held me tightly. I'm his playmate, rarely his snuggle-buddy. If we wants snuggles he goes to his mother, if he wants action and adventure he comes to me. This is a pretty good division of labor, as far as I'm concerned. I get to be the fun-guy, which is probably my favorite role in the world, and my wife gets to be her usual doting and affectionate self. Anyway, she doesn't have the stomach to launch a baby into the stratosphere and then catch him as he free-falls back. It takes a certain kind of maniac to send his child into orbit and not be in the least bit concerned about the potential for maiming or death as the kid rockets back to earth. I am that maniac. My wife is not.

But here he was, standing in the front doorway of his babysitter's house, desperately clinging to me. I felt wanted. I felt needed. I felt my arms go numb as he cut of my blood circulation.

Now, you have to understand, the boy loves his babysitter. I'm usually the one who picks him up, and when I do he almost never wants to leave. He adores her. Whatever it is that she's doing at the moment, with whatever kid it is she's trying to do it, you can rest assured that my son is following her and trying as hard as he can to be in the middle of it. He wants her attention at all possible moments, so it never occurred to me that he might not want me to hand him over to her. But here he was, holding onto me, refusing to go to her. I tried my usual trick to get him to go to someone other than me. I launched him into the air, caught him, spun him around, and while he was still in his giggly state of ecstasy, I handed him over as fast as I could, hoping he wouldn't notice what happened.

He noticed. As I walked out the door he stared after me, dejected, betrayed. He screamed a little, but mostly he just communicated with his watery eyes and his quivering, protruding lip, that I had broken his heart, and he would never be the same again. On the way to my car I said, "I know this won't make you feel any better, but I feel the same way." My son and I were both grieving the loss of our contact. I had the experience and emotional maturity to know that our parting would only be a temporary one. I don't know if I can say the same thing for him.

But babies are nothing if not resilient, and I'm sure that he was down on the floor playing with the other kids within ten minutes of the time I dropped him off. His grief was short lived, and having expressed it, he could move on with his life. By now I'm sure he's in the middle of his morning nap, blissfully asleep, dreaming about whatever it is he dreams about. My grief, alas, has more staying power, and comes out less frequently and less easily.

My first job in ministry was as the Youth Minister at a United Methodist Church in Louisville, KY. But, while I was hired to work with the teenagers, my wife and I quickly became involved in many other ministries within the church. We helped out with a worship service for children called KidStuf (an excellent program). She was on a planning team for it, and I played a uniquely hyper recurring character in the skits. We also sang in the contemporary worship service.

That worship service was interesting, because while it was designed for young adults who wanted to break with some of the liturgy of the traditional worship service while updating the music, it also attracted a surprising number of senior citizens. Most of them came to the service because it was early in the morning, and they were up and ready to go to church, so they came to the worship service that we offered at that hour. [note: offering contemporary worship services as the early service is often counter-productive. You usually start a contemporary service to attract younger people, who are much more likely to sleep in. So the people you're trying to reach with the service won't go because they aren't up yet, and the people who are up and ready to go to church don't want all of the changes that, almost by definition, come with a contemporary worship service.] But some of the older people (notice, I didn't say "old" - I don't have the guts to toss that word around!) who came to the contemporary worship service were curious and wanted to connect with God in a new way.

One of these curious souls was a man named Al, who quickly befriended my wife and I. Al was a seeker who never gave up his search for a better understanding of the nature of God and a closer relationship with God. I learned a great deal from him. He was, in fact, the last person I visited as a staff member of that church, right before I accepted an appointment to pastor my own church. He was very sick, but he gave my wife and I more fresh vegetables from his garden than we could have ever hoped to eat. Delighted, we ate what we could and gave the rest away.

A few months later, while preparing to lead worship at my own church, I read in the newsletter of our former church that Al had died. I shared this with my wife, who cried a great deal, and expressed many regrets that we hadn't taken the time to go back and visit with him again. We made the usual mistake of thinking that he would last forever, so we could go see him again when the craziness in our lives had died down. Life, or death, had other plans.

This past weekend I got a phone call from a dear friend of mine. He told me that his grandmother, whom we had been thinking about and praying for for quite some time, had finally passed away. He was grieving his loss, but had come to terms with it. She had been in a great deal of pain, and that pain, he reasoned, was now over. She was in a better place.

These deaths, and the grief that accompanied them, forced themselves upon me as I watched my child go through his own grief. Then it hit me. Through this terribly tumultuous time, I haven't allowed myself to grieve. I haven't given myself the time or permission needed to properly mourn the loss of who I thought I was and what I thought I was supposed to do.

One of the most important doctrines in Buddhism (and, I know that it is misleading to say that Buddhism has doctrines, but that's going to have to wait for another time) concerns impermanence. The Buddha, in his critique of the Hindu system with which he was raised, taught that there is no permanent self, no atman. This teaching has troubled Western minds, because our whole way of thinking assumes a permanent self which we call the "soul." But, while this teaching has troubled us, we stand to learn a great deal from it.

There are two obvious respects in which we are not permanent, and it is important to come to terms with both of these:

1. We all die. While the truth of this statement should be obvious, we don't want to admit that it holds true for us or the ones we love. As such we are so often taken by surprise when someone dies, and are incapable of dealing with it. We need to grant ourselves and the ones we love permission to be mortal. Not, of course, that we or they need permission in order to be mortal. Mortality imposes itself, with or without permission. But as we give ourselves and others permission to, at some point, die, we come to terms with our mortal nature.

2. We are all in a constant state of change. I am not who I was yesterday, nor am I now who I will be tomorrow. This fact is imposing itself on me as I transition from one stage in life to the next. Right now I am dealing with this in terms of vocation. I was once a minister, now I don't know who or what I am. Earlier there were other obvious changes. It was a big jump to move from being single to be married - and living with my wife, constantly trying to accommodate myself to her desires as she accommodates herself to my desires, was a real mechanism for change. It was similarly big jump to become the parent of a small child.

Even within these apparently fixed categories I am constantly changing. I am not the husband I was earlier in our marriage, nor am I the father I was earlier in the life of my son. He is not the same either. He is most obviously in a constant state of change. When we go back to look at old pictures of him we almost can't recognize him. Could that tiny creature possibly be the same being who currently eats us out of house and home.

But there are still subtler changes which happen every day, and each of those changes come with a degree of grief. Every time we make a decision we choose one path over many others, and so lose all of the potential paths we could have taken. In gaining the finite actual we lose the infinite potential, and in doing so we grieve the loss of all of our possible choices. I was in the bookstore the other day, and I had enough money to get one book. But, there were two books that I wanted. In choosing the book I did, I may have gained a book, but I lost another book, and there was (as silly as it may seem) a time of unconscious mourning for the book I didn't buy. In fact, I was a bit surly for a couple of hours until I figured this out.

So what? Why do I bring all of this up? Because, I think that we need to become aware of our every day griefs, and give ourselves permission to experience them. So often we experience an inarticulatable sense of loss, like what my son experienced when I dropped him off this morning. We don't know why we feel the way we do, and we don't like the loss of control that comes with it. But Ecclesiastes, the great Jewish book of wisdom, reminds us that there is a time for everything. We should not feel bad because we experience everything in its time.

Monday, November 07, 2005

The Capital of Conspicuous Consumption, Music, and The Living Word of God

My wife and I (along with, I suppose, our son) are in search of a new spiritual home. We have always felt that the church, first and foremost, ought to be a community within which one should find oneself, and, as such, the church ought to be a place one can call home. Having been burned in ministry and estranged from our spiritual home, this weekend was to be a time set aside for finding a new home. In other words, we were supposed to go to church yesterday. It didn't really matter which church, since we have no idea where we'd like to set up our new spiritual home. But, per our own, self-imposed rules, we were supposed to go to church.

A series of events beyond our control which certainly involved an inexplicably fussy baby conspired to keep us from going to church. So, in the afternoon, rather than sleeping through, er... I mean, watching football games we set out in search of a new spiritual sanctuary. We went to the heart of suburban secular religion, the place in which many of us find our sacred community and meaning (however hollow) in life. We went to the mall.

I mention this in part as a confession, and in part as an explanation. I've always wondered why it is that I go to the mall. It certainly isn't because I have the money to actually buy anything. Nor is it because I love teasing myself with all of the things I can't afford to buy. It certainly isn't because I like hanging out at the mall - I'm in entirely the wrong social demographic for that. I'm too old to pretend I'm like the teenagers who go there just because they need a little bit of freedom from their parents, and I lack the polish, material wealth, and apparent superficiality of the various assortment of soccer moms and other adult mall creatures.

Perhaps I go to the mall because it gives me a chance to remember, as I look at and listen to the various forms of advertisements, all of the fallacies they taught me in my college Logic class. Rarely do you get a chance to see so many people willingly persuaded to do something foolish by such obviously bad arguments. But, I suspect I really go to the mall for three reasons:

1. It gives me a chance to get out of the house without having to think about what it is that I want to do while I'm gone.

2. It gives me a chance to complain, and I always need something to complain about. When I go to the mall I get to a.) complain about having to go to the mall in the first place, which involves fighting through traffic to get there and a sea of people to get anywhere once I'm there, and b.) complain about putting up with all sorts on nonsense from the people who are trying to sell me something.

Once I asked someone how they were doing, and they said, "I can't complain." I thought that, if they were serious, then they are missing something essential to being human. We humans can complain about anything. It is one of our gifts. Absent anything else to complain about, we can even complain about not having anything good to complain about.

3. It gives me a chance to force my wife to listen to music she would never voluntarily listen to, at volumes she would never voluntarily expose herself to. I tell her that second hand noise pollution may be an urban (or at least suburban) blight, but, by God, it's my blight.

In August, confronted with the unalterable fact that we are parents, we bought a minivan. I had thought that the act of buying a minivan would have suck all of the remaining youth from my soon-to-be-soulless body (though my wife insists that buying the van was my idea from the start), but there are actually some good trade-offs. The first of these trade-offs, and the hardest for me to either admit to or accept, is that the van drives better than my car. It has a smoother ride, does better on the road, and even has a great deal more pick-up. I took this realization hard, because I am an American male, and it turns out that we American males have way too much of our self-esteem tied into the vehicle that we drive, but that's a subject for another post. Another good trade-off is that it is much easier to fit the baby, and the ten thousand pounds of accessories which go with the baby, into the van. But, perhaps the best trade-off is that it turns out the van actually has an amazing stereo, as opposed to the piece of crap in my car.

This fact leads to some great arguments. For instance, after I put in a cd and turn the volume up to the appropriate level, she tells me that it hurts her ears. And, of course, if it hurts her ears, what must it being doing to the baby? I respond, "What? I can't hear you! What are you saying? You'll have to talk a little louder!" To which she replies, "See?" I, in turn, say "What?" and we go back and forth like that until she just turns the volume down herself.
In my defense, at least I don't damage the ears of people outside my car. I only inflict permanent ear damage on those inside my car, and if you get into my car you ought to, knowing me, be able to anticipate that and take certain precautionary measures such as... I don't know, maybe wearing earplugs?

Now, I don't mean to listen to music so loudly. It's just that I want to be surrounded by sound, organized sound. Sound which wraps me up in its arms and lets me know that everything's OK. Sound which, in some inexplicable, indescribable way, makes life worth living and provides life with meaning. That organized and organizing sound is music, and music, for me, is a very mystical thing. Music, if you really know how to listen to it, is not just something you hear. It's something you feel. You feel it in the very fiber of your being. Your bones resonate with it as you become one with it and it becomes one with you. Of course, if you really know how to listen to music then you don't have to blast everyone's ears to feel it in this way. But really, ask my parents. I've never been a good listener. So, I play it LOUD, OK?

When I was a preacher I used to tell my congregation many things which I suspect they didn't appreciate. The least appreciated thing I used to tell my congregation involved a notion of music as the Word of God. We Christians usually hold that Jesus is the Word of God (see the divine Logos of the Gospel of John, for instance) or that the Bible is the Word of God, or that both Jesus and the Bible constitute the Word of God. And, of course, we hold this for good reason. We often hear the inaudible voice of God through the text of the Bible and the example of Jesus. But, if by the Word of God we mean the way in which God speaks, then we have to acknowledge that God does not just speak through these things.

I used to tell my congregation that the Word of God is neither fixed nor dead. It is very much alive, and active, and working in new ways, constantly seeking to draw the world nearer to God. This idea is, of course, not unique to me, but it is important to me. It tells me that God cannot be limited to our beliefs about God. It tells me that God does not speak in the way that we expect God to speak, nor does God say what we expect God to say. It says that we can find God anywhere, in anything. And we can find God in music.

In fact, in my current spiritually impoverished state, I do not experience the presence of God the way I used to think that I did, nor do I hear the inaudible voice of God the way I used to think I did. Unfortunately I rarely experience the divine in the usual way, which is through religion. I expect that is a temporary problem, but a very real problem nonetheless. Right now I experience God almost exclusively through music, so it is very important for me to hold that music can be a part of the Word of God.

Music is art for art's sake. [note: by music here I mean the interplay between melodies, harmonies, and rhythms. I am not here considering lyrics.] It does not represent anything other than itself, it does not communicate anything other than itself, it does not mean anything other than itself. Music simply is. Music simply is itself. And, simply as itself, music is beautiful. Music, as part of the Word of God, teaches us to simply be, to simply be ourselves, and, as such, to be beautiful.

Most of us are searching for something, some kind of purpose, some kind of meaning in life. But what if the point of life is simply to live? What if God just wanted to share the existence, and to share it with us? Would that be so bad?

Music as part of the Living Word of God confronts us with a beauty of meaninglessness, the beauty of simple existence for the sake of existence.

What does all of this have to do with my trip to the mall? I don't know, and I don't have to know anymore. I simply have to decide, each and every day, that life is beautiful, and worth living. Music, listening to music and feeling music, helps me do that.

Friday, November 04, 2005

The Mystery of the Missing Magnetic Ribbon

This morning I had to take my wife to work because, a mere 6,000 (or so) miles into its meager existence, the CHECK ENGINE light came on in our new minivan, so it's in the shop getting its engine checked. I doubt that there's anything wrong with it, but if you ignore the CHECK ENGINE light, and something goes horribly wrong, the manufacturer tends to ignore you warranty.

Anyway, while driving to drop my wife off so that I could keep the one working car, I rediscovered my love for the connection between free speech and the back of automobiles. Sometimes when I drive I set out in search of collections of bumper stickers and other such items that just don't seem to fit with each other. Today I saw a beautiful trifecta. On the back of a mid-nineties Toyota there were three items:

1. A NASCAR bumper sticker.
2. A metallic ICHTHUS fish.
3. An anti-war magnetic ribbon.

I had never considered that those three could go together.

Having spent most of my adult life in one form of professional ministry or another, my cars have rarely advertised any sort of idea, much less a political one. I've always thought that professional ministry and political expression don't go well together, for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who has ever disagreed with the stated politics of their pastor. The Church (universal, institutional, and even congregational) is so divided over so many internal issues that the last thing it needs is a minister accidentally or intentionally dividing it over external issues like politics. There is, as far as I can see, no political viewpoint which is entirely consistent with the Gospel, and there is probably no political viewpoint that is necessarily entirely opposed to the Gospel. When we mix the Gospel with politics we create some strange concoctions, and we also, from a religious standpoint, unnecessarily cut off those who do not share our political views.

Consequently, despite my love for the ways in which others express themselves all over the back of their cars, I really haven't tried it myself. But, my car has had one magnetic ribbon, which is entirely my wife's fault.

My wife is a behavioral therapist who works with autistic children, and she is very good at what she does. She is even, against all odds given her aversion to self-promotion, pretty good at the political side of her job. She has the amazing ability to, along with other people from the non-profit organization that she works for, convince people who have money that what she does is so worth doing that they ought to help fund it. [note: she is helping with a fundraiser this weekend, which means two things: 1. I won't see her on Saturday unless I go out to the fundraiser, and 2. Several unsuspecting people will unexpectedly contribute money to a worthwhile cause.]

Because of what she does, and how good she is at it, my wife tends to view politics and political expression through the lens of the autistism community. If someone or something can help treat and/or prevent autism, or if someone or something is willing to fund programs which help treat and/or prevent autism, then she is for them. If not, she is against them. For her, with a few notable exceptions (like war!), it is pretty much that simple. As such, the only political statement I have ever at any time allowed on my car came from my wife: an Autism Awareness magnetic ribbon, which had been proudly displayed on my car, up until yesterday.

I know that most political expressions found on the backs of automobiles can be inflammatory. In fact, that's what I like about them. They often say the sorts of things we would only say with a degree on anonymity. They are intentionally polarizing, and as such demonstrate at least a great deal of gall, if not outright courage. Here are two of my all time favorite political bumper stickers, one from the right and one from the left:

1. "George W. Bush is my man, John Kerry is Osama bin Laden's man" - This had the guts to say outright what Republican operatives had been trying to imply the entire campaign.

2. "We're making enemies faster than we can kill them." - This is a statement with far more truth than most of us are comfortable admitting. It cuts right to the heart of the problem with declaring war on something like terrorism. You don't wage war against ideas, you wage war against people. And how you treat people profoundly affects the ideas they have about you.

[note: my best friend is a former Marine who fought in the war in Iraq. I am glad that he and many of his fellow soldiers can appreciate the difference between protesting against the war they fought in and protesting against them. I hope that others who, like me, oppose this war, can make the same distiction]

I can see why someone, particularly someone who, despite protests to the contrary, opposes free speech, might want to rip these statements off the back of a car. They are polarizing and inflammatory at best, potentially offensive at worst. But I wouldn't exactly put my Autism Awareness magnetic ribbon in the same category. For the life of me I can't figure out why someone or something would bother to remove it from my car. I simply have no theories.

Here is my desperate plea: Help me solve the (Hardy Boys-esque) Mystery of the Missing Magnetic Ribbon. If you have any ideas, plausible or downright crazy, please either post them as a comment on this blog, or send them to me in an email.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Novel Idea

A few weeks ago I resigned my pastorate and left professional ministry, the only career for which I have really prepared. Since then the two big questions for me have been:

1. So, what next?
2. Who am I, really?

These questions are not so easy to answer. I know the answers I give to other people, and sometimes I even start to believe them myself. I am unemployed right now, but I've never been comfortable saying that. Like most American men my self-identity has always, consciously or unconsciously, been tied to my vocation. So, when people ask what I do, I tell them something like "Right now I'm doing some freelance writing." A nice plausible half-truth, since I am in fact writing, and I am doing it on my own rather than in someone else's employ. But the only thing harder than getting someone to read what you write is to get them to pay you for it, and so, while I write, my writing, as of yet, brings in no income. [Note: I used to joke that my wife makes about 3 times what I make. Now she makes infinitely more, which as far as I am concerned is moving decidedly in the wrong direction, but thank God she's good at what she does!]

I've been trying to fix this by submitting everything I can to every magazine I can think of. I've even resorted to polishing up some older pieces - you know, scraping to mold off to see if its still edible - hoping they'll catch a bite. Last week I pulled out an old piece that I wrote in a Chinese philosophy course, The Tao of Relationships. I hate to toot my own horn, but its pretty good. It was the only philosophy paper (as far as I know) to win my university's writing competition (which really ticked off some English majors, always worth doing!). So, after revisiting it and making a few cosmetic changes, I decided to submit it to Shambhala Sun, one of my favorite magazines.

Problem: It has been brought to my attention that someone just published a book by that same title, on roughly the same idea.

On the one hand, it feels pretty good to have an idea so good someone got it published. Alas, on the other hand, it wasn't me who got it published, so that doesn't do me any good, does it? Bummed by this, I called a friend of mine who is a pretty good (to say the least) writer. She said the same thing had happened to her. She got a great idea for a novel, so she told it to a friend to get some feedback. Turns out it was such a great idea that her friend had just finished reading it. It was already published.

So, we commiserated for a while, and then got back to work. She has another brilliant idea, which I suspect is so weird that it hasn't been taken yet. And, after talking to her, my creative muse, long thought dead, woke up from its coma and started spinning out some ideas of its own.

One of my favorite biblical stories is found in Genesis 22. In it, God asks (?) Abraham to sacrifice the son that he and his wife Sarah had prayed for, had waited for, had been promised, and had doubted would ever come. So Abraham sets out with Isaac to a mountain in Moriah to perform the sacrifice, only to be stopped at the final moment by the voice of an angel.

In a seminary class I was once taught that the purpose of theology is often to recover lost voices. In this story, or at least in the telling of it that we have, there are a couple of lost voices. First, Isaac, the child to be sacrificed to God by his own father, has very little voice even though, by all rights, he ought to be the main character since he is the one threatened by the knife and the fire. In the biblical reading all he gets to say is one lame line, "Father? The wood and the fire are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?" (NIV) Now I know a child about to be betrayed by both his father and his God would have more to say about it than that, wouldn't he? But at least he gets to say something.

Sarah, on the other hand, doesn't even get mentioned, even though it is her son being taken up a mountain to be sacrificed to God by her quite possibly crazy husband. After all, the man hears the voice of God and then decides to kill his kid! And she just has to take it, without having anything at all to say about it?

So I thought, wouldn't it be great if somebody set this story in the 21st century, retelling it from the point of view of the lost voices. My crazy idea for the novel I will never write is something remarkably like that. A retelling of the story of the "binding of Isaac" told by a modern day Isaac and his mother sitting in a shrink's office trying to make sense of why such a loving, doting, devout father would try to kill his own son in the name of God.

Of course, the idea is as much in jest as anything else. Because the story is taken from the Bible it comes with a great deal of baggage, and that baggage must be respected. But as I think of manipulating the story to fit some of our modern (or post-modern) assumptions, I am reminded by a challenge from Fredrick Buechner. He wondered how we would read the Bible, and what we would get out of the Bible, if we forgot for a moment that we were reading the Bible and just read it as a story, without all of the assumptions that we bring to it.

In his great sermon, The Magnificent Defeat, he said this:

When a minister reads out of the Bible, I am sure that at least nine times out of ten the people who happen to be listening at all hear not what is really being read but only what they expect to hear read. And I think that what most people expect to hear from the Bible is an edifying story, an uplifting thought, a moral lesson - something elevating, obvious, and boring. So that is exactly what very often they do hear. Only that is too bad because if you really listen - and maybe you have to forget that it is the Bible being read and a minister who is reading it - there is no telling what they might hear.

We all need to have an appreciation, I think, of the Sacred. But, when we sacrilize things we too often conform them to our expectations for the Sacred rather than allowing the Sacred to speak through them in new and surprising ways. The Bible is held by Christians (and I am still a Christian) as a Sacred text. Yet, as we sacrilize the readings from the Bible we limit them to our concept of the Sacred, and in so doing we still the voice of the Sacred which speaks through them.

In other words, we do not diminish God in any way to suggest that if Abraham was a real (by which I mean historical) person, who really did claim to hear the voice of God and then went out to kill his child, that might not be such a good thing. In fact, that might indicate that Abraham was a little bit off his rocker, and somebody should have tried to stop him sometime before an angel had to intervene.

There are too many people, sometimes including myself, who sacrifice their children to their religion, whatever it is at the moment. One of the reasons why I left professional ministry was to spare my son the fate of Isaac, wondering whether or not his father would really sacrifice him in the name of his God.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Lord? Singing?!?

Disclaimer: this story, like so many others, is more mythos than logos.

I used to be the pastor of a small Methodist church in roughly the middle of nowhere. To get there (or somewhere like it) drive toward the smallest town you can think of, and, just before you get there, turn left.

Our worship leader loved "special" music, by which I expect he meant music that grew up riding the short bus. Every chance he got he inserted a moment for "special" music into the order of worship. I was fine with this. Less work for me. The congregation loved it, because it meant something that came dangerously close to entertainment (even though it cut into their nap time - the time I got to preach). The worship leader would invite someone from outside the congregation to come in and sing or play the piano or maybe even whistle, as long as they whistled an "old time Gospel" song.

One Sunday he brought in a young man with a reputation as a dynamic singer. This man got up and sang as well as he possibly could have, and everyone clearly loved it. At churches, particularly small churches deep in the country, the social element is at least as important as the spiritual element. So, if you perform anything at a small church there is an expectation that you will stick around after the service so that everyone can tell you just how good they think you are.

This young man was well schooled in small church etiquette, and so like a good Christian he milled around inside the church after the service so that all the people could get a chance to talk to him. And, sure enough, everyone wanted to talk to him and tell him what a good job he had done, and how much they enjoyed it, and how much they would like to have him back, and couldn't he stick around for lunch, etc.

We Christians often have a strange concept of humility, which produces some truly bizarre (if you think about it) behavior. Humility, so often, is the inability to accept gracefully anything that resembles a compliment. It is certainly the inability to take credit for anything that might be considered good. [note: I'll probably write more on the subject of humility, and competing definitions of it, at a later date] So, like a humble Christian, this young man could not accept that people thought that he (as though on his own efforts) had done something good. Every time someone complimented him on his singing, he blushed his sheepish blush, and responded, "Oh, thank you. But it wasn't me singing, it was the lord singing through me."

This (mock?) humility, which to my congregation clearly indicated a deeper piety, only endeared him to them all the more. Church people love it when talented individuals refuse to take any credit for their talent. But, every church has at least one truly honest person, and sure enough my small church in the middle of nowhere had an elderly women who, every time she opened her mouth, had people wondering how she was going to embarrass them this time. She, a lover of music, had been deeply moved by a rare instance of music which was both "special" and actually good. So, she went to compliment the young man, who, upon hearing her compliment, protested mildly, "Thank you, ma'am. But, it wasn't me singing. It was the lord singing through me."

This honest woman responded, somewhat indignantly, "Son, if the Lord sang, I'm sure the Lord could sing a fair amount better than that!"

As a former preacher, I can't resist the temptation to find morals or meanings in stories every chance I can. So often we hide behind the rhetoric of our religion, and don't accept the fact that, for good or for ill, we are responsible for our own actions. We can't keep doing things, and then blaming the result on God. The young man in this story sang to the best of his abilities, motivated by a relationship with God, seeking to honor God, and trying to lead others into some sort of an experience of God. But he sang. It was his act, not God's.

So many evil things are done in the name of God. So many good things are also done in the name of God. But these actions, for good or for ill, are not the actions of God. They are the actions of men and women desperately seeking to find and follow the often indiscernible will of the God who is a complete mystery to us.

Embrace the mystery.