Justice, Courtesy, and Love

This is a brilliant quote to help us treat one another more decently. It is from John Watson who was a minister in the Presbyterian Church of England who later became an author who toured North America with a short tour of fame. He dies in 1907 and this quote comes towards the end of his pastoral ministry in 1904.

We must not therefore assume that our kind of religion, and our traditional views, and our favorite notions, and our particular set make the whole round world. This man beside us also has a had fight with an unfavouring world, with strong temptations, with doubts and fears, with wounds of the past which have skinned over, but which are smart when they are touched. It is a fact, however surprising. And when this occurs to us we are moved to deal kindly with him, to bid him be of good cheer, to let him understand that we are also fighting a battle; we are bound not to irritate him, nor press hardly upon him nor help his lower self. We must feel as a brother towards the man beside us, and say to him the things that we should like to have said to us, and treat him as we desire to be treated when our hands as hanging down and our hearts are heavy. This is the very essence of courtesy. – John Watson D.D. (1903), “The Homely Virtues” Hodder & Stoughton: London. pp. 168-169.

Winning is Not the Only Thing

“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” – Vince Lombardi

America is addicted to winning.

Competition is king in the United States and fear is a tool used to gain advantage over another. It is symptomatic from news broadcasts to advertising to politics to healthcare. It’s keeping up with the Joneses or a getting a better deal on a product than someone else. Sports are only the obvious venue for the relentless drive to “be the best.” If you are not the best you are a loser or a second class citizen. You are entitled or desperate for handouts. You are merely siphoning the wealth of winners rather than pulling yourself up and “getting a job” as if that is the one solution to all of society’s ills. Just shut up and compete.

The pressure to be perfect and the shame of being left on the bench or on the losing team is intense and exhausting.

One McLean elementary school recently asked for a presentation on whether its students should take the SAT or ACT, college admissions tests at least seven years away. Bowers’s husband, Bruce, almost stopped coaching girls’ soccer because of the win-at-all-costs attitude. Some other parent-coaches, he says, would spend weekends going to games to identify the top players so they could try to recruit them. “It really meant something to them to have the cream of the crop and win,” he says. “And this wasn’t travel soccer. This was when the girls were 7 or 8.”

There are always losers and the left behind because we live in a society that values the zero sum game. We don’t value the tie game or the appreciation of a good match. If there is no winner then the game isn’t worth much. But even that’s not enough.

As much as we love winners, we also like to watch others lose. If we can’t root for someone we can always root against someone. We create celebrities only to tear them down; we absorb an endless stream of negative political ads and have a sick pleasure in watching those with plenty lose it all.

There is a serious disconnect. Schools and companies require people to work in teams and to have the social skills to be effective with others. We know that cooperation guarantees a better outcome for all parties involved. A little bit of sacrifice for the good of the community and the state goes a long way towards balancing the scales of justice. But it means either not being at the top of the pecking order or at the very least delaying it.

Having less means more happiness and more time to be with each other rather than fearing someone stealing our stuff or our freedom. Cooperation requires discipline, patience, prudence, and all of the basic virtues of working hard for our own happiness and the happiness of others. Wouldn’t it be great to live not in fear but with a little more faith in humanity?

Maybe Howard Beale was right. Maybe all of us have to get mad as hell, together, and not sit by, idly accepting the toll of human life and dignity that the unfettered drive to win exacts on our society.

Do the Rich Get to Heaven? Dave Ramsey Says Yes.

“When you start putting limits on the power of the cross and limits on the power of grace that is extended to us from the Father through the son, based on someone’s wealth, then that’s Gnosticism – the worship of spirit versus materialism versus the worship orthodoxy,” Ramsey said. “So what that means is that someone just doesn’t understand the Bible.”

We might be very quick to pick out where Dave Ramsey is just wrong here. He doesn’t understand what gnosticism really is, neither is he clear about materialism or orthodoxy (big “O” or small “o” – your choice). But I’m not posting this to complain about how wrong he is.

I’m actually defending him a little. He is right. There is nothing in any of what Jesus says that tells us wealthy people can’t “go to heaven.” If we want to read about camels and rich men that way, we are as guilty as he of reading agendas into the bible. We do know that it is “hard” for the wealthy to find God.

Ramsey tries to do too much. He swings his “defense” with the bible too far and stumbles.

Then Jesus said to His disciples, “Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Matt. 19:23-24

The point of the passage isn’t really wealth. Wealth is a symptom, not a cause.

When we are rich it is harder to give up all of our comforts for the purpose of resisting temptation and seeking holiness by following the commandments. Jesus’ point is always rather clear – wealth is dangerous because it can easily become an idol to pull us away from God. Living without idols is hard and when our idols give us comfort and satisfaction in the world we live right now, it is all that more difficult to wake up and let it all go. Living without that false comfort and hope is what the saints call “dispassion.”

As with so many other places in the bible, idolatry is the real problem. Material wealth is but one idol among many. Gratification in any material comfort is dangerous – delayed or instant. The good news is that Jesus also consistently presents clear behaviors to counteract idolatry vis-à-vis love. This is the kind of love that asks us to sell everything we have if we need to in order to follow Jesus (Matt. 19:21).

It’s a good test. Make a list of any material attachment you have and be honest: Are you willing to give that away in order to meet God? If not, you may just find a source or two for feeling spiritually “dry” or “inadequate.” These are spiritual wounds. When the rich young man sees his own wounds, rather than take the right medicine for healing, he responds with sadness. He wasn’t mourning his condition, but began to wallow in self-pity. These little wounds in spiritual growth are where we can put together plans of action to work with God to heal them. That’s called working out your salvation.

The real heresy with being rich is when love is not put in the very same breath as wealth.

For without love, wealth is nothing.

So my little question to Dave Ramsey is an old one: Dave are you willing to sell all of this and give to the poor?

SOURCE: http://coolsprings.com

Dave Ramsey’s Mansion in Tennessee
SOURCE: http://coolsprings.com

Don’t Pray for Healing

Michael Brown - Dead on the street

“It is time to heal.”

“May we begin the healing process.”

“Prayers for healing.”

The white refrain for healing has begun. I have heard many times before.

I despise racism. I also want our society to heal from its persistent violence.

Racism is painful and appalling. There is no comfort or serenity in a cycle of violence that does not seem to be going away any time soon. Racial violence is just as it was in the 60’s and well before the Civil Rights Movement just as terrorism existed well before 9/11. These things have not gone away, they have only been pushed around. Ferguson in Missouri and ISIS in Iraq are two acute events in a chronic and persistent set of problems that will repeat.

They will repeat because we will work on only the symptoms long enough for the problem to “go away.” That’s what “healing” really means in the end. We want to have the illusion that racism, injustice, torture, inequality, abuse, and so on can be healed with the wave of a magic wand (or prayer). Saying “Prayers ascending” on a Facebook post, liking someone’s passive aggressive link to an article, retweeting someone else’s thoughts on an issue, and the white conscience is once again free to do as it would without hindrance.

The prayer for healing is too often the white cry of the annoyed and bothered.

This wound is too bloody and too gaping for healing yet. This body is way too riddled with bullets to be sewn up. Let’s continue to examine the dead body of Michael Brown and to pull the bullets out before we pray for healing. We need to be disturbed by it. This is grotesque stuff that messes up all boundaries and we need to be uncomfortable. I need to be uncomfortable.

This is still trauma and we haven’t the right to push Michael Brown’s body in the recovery room where we think someone else will deal with it. In recovery is the only place where we can start talking about healing. Who among us believes that we are there just yet?

There’s a Hole in the Ice Bucket

There is a global crisis for clean water. Environment, political oppression, violent tribalism, and economic instability are but a few of the conditions and causes. This affects poorer people and nations where infrastructure is lacking even in large cities much less in geographically isolated communities. Lest we falsely imagine this is a problem for people outside the US, poor well water and increasingly dangerous drought conditions from shifting weather patterns are creating serious economic issues and forcing people to make uncomfortable lifestyle changes. Water is like gold is some parts of the world and more valuable than anything the digital trading of billions on Wall Street could offer. Clean water shortage is a trauma and needs traumatic intervention and care.

Deaths to water shortage versus deaths to ALS

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is also a health trauma even if it affects fewer people. People began dumping clean ice water on their heads largely to raise awareness and money for ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. It went viral.

As of Tuesday, August 26, The ALS Association has received $88.5 million in donations compared to $2.6 million during the same time period last year (July 29 to August 26). These donations have come from existing donors and 1.9 million new donors to The Association, which is incredibly grateful for this tremendous outpouring of support (ALSA).

Some are now getting tired of the challenge and would rather not see any more people with ice buckets parading through their various social media feeds. For many, ALS is becoming associated with annoyance.

Ice bucket challenge wastes water

Many who recognize the high value of clean water for millions of  people in the world are critiquing the challenge. I am glad that the ice bucket as a symbol of charity has raised this conversation. It has also raised the discussion of what it means to be charitable. Why do we need gimmicks to raise awareness of different problems in the world? Why do many detach the gimmick from its referent charity just to feed their own popularity or to relieve their irrational fear of missing out? Indeed, the ice bucket has caused us to question morality and mortality in ways that far outstretch the impetus: raising awareness and research funding for a horrific disease.

I can understand why a water depleted community would take serious offense to so many buckets of water wasted for all to see. Try spending an entire day, outside, without drinking a single glass of water. It’s simply terrible if not life threatening. Yet pregnant mothers and babies do it every day.

Nevertheless, the bucket is not the problem. It is a symbol.

If many of the people now criticizing the symbol of the bucket of water as something offensive to those who have none would calculate the gallons of water they needlessly flushed away to transport urine to the sewer, there might be a case. The gallons used at public pools for leisure, golf courses, athletic fields, water parks, dishwashers, laundromats, and carwashes are innumerably more than the collection of all ice buckets that have been and ever will be dumped. Yet we discuss none of these conveniences or the resistance to let all of it go in order to support world clean water shortages.

ice buckets not the problem in water shortage

What we cannot do is devalue the symbol of one act of charity in order to raise the value of another. If comparing the human lives lost is the foundation of our critique, we are no longer talking about water, but competing ideologies. Sabotaging one charity for the sake of another is a deceptive set of behaviors that devalues charity itself by filling it with guilt. Rather than reinforce a good intention, we demean it because it is not the right behavior. We force the giver into making a commitment to competing interests.

The first act of charity one can give is often fraught with anxiety because it requires losing something one has. The best way to ensure another act does not happen again is to negatively reinforce it. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t as the saying goes. Charity becomes a zero sum game and the logical outcome is that neither the giver nor the receiver wins.

We need more cooperation than competition. Please, use someone else’s strategy to support a cause in order to bring awareness to your own. But work together on the world’s problems. Don’t empty powerful symbols of meaning in the process. Once drained of meaning, the ice bucket becomes just that and speaks for no cause. Symbols can serve as legacies in a saga filled with greater resources of hope when more contribute to the greater good.

  • If you are interested in helping to support initiatives for clean water, water.org is one place to get you started. For more domestic issues see the Water Blues, Clean Solutions site and watch the film if you can.
  • To donate for ALS or offer other support, go to the ALS Association. Also, watch my challenge that I dedicate to my grandmother who died of ALS just a few years after being diagnosed.

Biblical Literalism is Scientific, but Not in the Way You Think

The argument assertion goes something like this:

Number 1:

  • Evolution has never been directly observed.
  • It is based on of a theory created by one man (Darwin).
  • Therefore it is not science.

Number 2:

  • The probability of the ordered universe emerging out of chaos is infinitesimally small.
  • You can’t get the order of the universe without direction.
  • Therefore a Designer must have made it that way.

Let’s table the fact that what we see here is a total lack of understanding of what the scientific method is, what a hypothesis is, and how all of those observations and predictions create theories. The scientific method is in itself a process of creating order out of chaos.

If you can stomach it, this fellow goes through the tired assertions of the above argument. Not to mention he is basically calling his atheist interlocutor stupid which is ironic since the supposed atheist seems to understand 5th grade science better than Mr. Feuerstein.

Literal readings developed when both German biblical criticism and science began challenging the construction of knowledge itself. The process by which knowledge is created in ways not related to God gained traction as research based education grew. LIteral readings of the text emerged as a response to the growth of a more or less agnostic presentation of knowledge through science and rationalism, but did so in a strange way. Fundamentalism, and similar evangelical streams of religious thinking, actually made a move to make the bible more scientifically relevant. That is to say, the bible was based in observable fact even more so than science. It is like an epistemological pissing contest.

However, this fundamentalist understanding of knowledge relies on a Baconian scientific system that rooted in pure observation. Science is not in itself the problem. The hypothetical testing process is what, and still does, have the biblical literalist sort in a tizzy. They argue that because you can’t “see” evolution, it is a faith claim and therefore not science. Yet faith in God is formed out of experience and belief in the authority of the bible as a testimony to actual events people witnessed. Because it is authoritative by divine mandate, it is more “factual” and based on “observation.” See how that move works? It argues that a literalist reading of the bible is more scientifically valid than the science of evolution! How’s that for irony.

We should pay attention to how we make sense of the world. Watch how this way of constructing knowledge persists even in post-fundamentalist thinking where the process remains the same, while only the content changes. A kind of self-pity emerges because when one system is destroyed, no alternative means of knowledge construction is there. I call this the depressed liberal. You have new content for what you believe, but you no longer have a viable structure to make sense of all of it and manage it. Thus, the blanket term “postmodern” is thrust upon it as an explanation for something that isn’t even there.

Here is where science and religion converge. Science is an act of refining and making more precise what we know about the world down to the smallest building blocks of nature. The practice of knowing God is a disciplined program where one comes to understand oneself in relation to God down to the smallest fraction of time and through the most mindful of behaviors. In both, a kind of awareness develops about the cosmos and how everything is somehow intelligible and mysterious at the same time.

While Feuerstein and his ilk see this relationship between two understandings of reality as a war, I see it as a dance.

Refusing the Gangster God

Why did Jesus die?

I was baptized Catholic and then went through a few stages of Protestantism as my mom sought a different expression of her faith. If memory serves me correctly, she had become alienated from the Catholic focus on original sin and persistent guilt. The idea of “if you don’t follow these rules then you will go to hell” was no longer something to settle for. Catholic guilt was the real deal in my family. When my family was going through some rough times the way God looked was alienating.

When my mom married my step-father we joined him in the Presbyterian Church (USA). As she puts it, that church was the first time she heard the Gospel preached and she met God there. It was a powerful experience for her and she has remained Presbyterian ever since. I was just in junior high school so at church, I pretty much just fell asleep.

In between naps, it was there that I hooked into evangelical Protestantism. I found an identity there. Evangelicalism eventually fit. It was my first real faith journey and it lasted from the end of junior high school through seminary. I was a Calvinist, evangelical through my middle year at seminary. However, the fit was never as comfortable as I thought it needed to be in order to fit a solid evangelical mold. I felt out-of-place and as I got more honest about my faith, the friction intensified. So what changed?

Doctrinally, the change came down to one idea: I could no longer accept the notion that God needed to satisfy His own law and its consequences by killing off His Son. The idea that Jesus died to fulfill a legal contract God made with a humanity that didn’t keep up its end of the bargain seemed absurd. It was as if the presence of Jesus himself was relegated to a background status because none of that in itself was meaningful in closing the deal on sin.

God the judge. God the gangster. God made an offer that we couldn’t refuse. Since we refused it we deserved death.

Since we could not possibly satisfy a king and judge like God, God had to suck it up and do it for us. It is as if God was shackled to His own Law. Love is in the service of justice and Jesus serves justice on the cross. Jesus came to die. My exposure to the church Fathers beginning with St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation turned my understanding of God upside down.

Saint John's Orthodox Church of Hermitage, Pennsylvania, Old Church

Saint John’s Orthodox Church of Hermitage, Pennsylvania, Old Church

In Orthodoxy Jesus didn’t come here to save us from God’s wrath, He came in order to heal what was broken. The most broken aspect of human life is death itself. That’s the Gospel I heard in the narratives. This was the same God who raised Lazarus, who welcomed prostitutes and tax collectors, gave sight to the blind, and told a man to pick up his mat and walk.

God is a God who heals wounds in spite of the fact that we cut ourselves open every day.

God healed death by dying and rising from death. He did this not to satisfy an immutable Law, but because the very nature of God is Love. God’s salvation is not a legal contract, it is a radical healing of the very structure of nature for it to be what it was always intended to be: undivided from God Himself. As the Paschal Troparion is sung:

Christ is risen from the dead
Trampling down death by death
And upon those in the tombs
Bestowing life.

Love, Life, Grace. That’s a God for whom I am will to work. That is a God for whom amending my life to get closer is completely worth the effort.

This is something of a preview to what I will be speaking about at the 2014 Wild Goose Festival. Hope to see you there!

Wild Goose Festival 2014

Wild Goose Festival 2014