Archive for November, 2007

A Need to Believe

November 29, 2007

I’m not planning on continuing my subscription to Time, but I do appreciate their basic coverage.  I’m considering a subscription to a more international publication that might provide another perspective on the world.  The Guardian is definitely one of my top possible choices. 

In last week’s Time, there was an interesting articleby Jeninne Lee-St.John on the phenomenon of ‘Sunday school for Atheists’.  The concept isn’t surprising.  Frankly, I think that’s what much of public education has become already.  But the idea of having a specific time for teaching these doctrines only makes sense.

But I still find it fascinating.

If you don’t believe in anything beyond this current life, or believe that you ultimately keep coming back until you figure out what the truth is, or believe that we’re just sort of absorbed into the cosmic essence and lose our individual traits and identities, then what’s the pressure to teach kids to believe something specific? 

It’s clear that these people love their children and want to educate them well.  But I find it curious that if you don’t believe in any metaphysical reality in particular, it would matter to you what your child ‘chose’ to believe.  If this life is all there is, wouldn’t whatever made someone happy be an acceptable and encourageable belief system?  So long as you’re not hurting someone else, wouldn’t beliefs fully enter the subjective realm of relativism that our culture is pushing them towards already?

Why the stress?  Why the bother?

To me, it speaks to our innate need to believe in something.  The denial of God or any larger metaphysical reality requires just as much faith as belief and faith do.  There are just as few answers, frankly, in empirical Western rationalism as there are in Christianity or Judaism or Islam – or Buddhism or Hinduism for that matter.  Regardless of the belief, you reach a point where you can’t answer your questions with a microscope.  You reach a point where your mind just can’t wrap around the details of reality completely. 

You reach a point where you have to trust.

But regardless of what people choose to believe, the need to believe is pervasive, universal.  Someone may claim that they have no beliefs, but that’s a belief in and of itself.  It isn’t physically possible to function in a purely rationale manner without taking some things on ‘faith’.  We couldn’t function in a day without doing this.  The only difference is what our faith is placed in. 

And on a side note, I wish that churches taught the sort of reasoning skills that these folks appear to be focusing on in their lessons with their children.  Christianity trumpets the absolute uniqueness and value of every individual – something that rationalism can’t do if people don’t posess certain intellectual or productivity-measured abilities.  Humanism can’t truly value all people equally, becausee it has no basis for declaring that equality.  Christianity does – we’re all of equal value because we were all created by God.  Period.  Whether we were born with all our limbs or not.  Whether we were born with high-functioning intellectual capabilities or not.  Humanism really struggles in these areas.  Ultimately, without a universal baseline that demands all people’s equality, no equality is possible.  The standards will just slip and slide around depending on who is in charge or what the popular opinion is.

Likewise, Christianity traditionally championed the ideas of communal interaction and interdependence, but that’s been practically destroyed in America by the Church’s co-opting of secular principles of rugged independence and the need to never need. 

And Christianity once was renowned for it’s ability to interact with the predominant philosophical and rational minds of the day, to not deny the intellectual side of mankind, but to embrace it.  It’s a shame that Christianity seems to have denigrated to the point where that is viewed in many circles as blasphemous, as though theology and faith can and should only be emotional, as if there are no rational grounds for our faith.  It’s a dangerous argument to lose, and one that I don’t see Christianity as needing to lose.  But it’s an argument that large segments have just walked away from.

We have much to learn as a people of faith.  We have much to share about our faith with other people of other faiths.  But regardless, we all have that need for faith. 

I think God was pretty clever in creating us that way.

Laptop Offer

November 26, 2007

So I’m really considering taking advantage of the One Laptop Per Child program, which has a special running through the end of the year. 

The OLPC project is the result of an effort to develop a laptop durable enough and cheap enough for children in developing nations to have access to.  The goal was to create a laptop that could be sold for $100 – theoretically making it cheap enough for developing nations to purchase for their citizens, and allowing the next generation of citizens to acquire education and computer skills.  The computers can be recharged with a hand crank, use very little power to begin with, have a swivel monitor, and built-in wireless networking capability.  The user interface (operating system) is custom designed to be intuitive and simple for a child to use. 

Now through the end of the year (the offer originally ran through the end of November, but has been extended) purchasers in the US and Canada can pay $399, for which they will receive one laptop, and a second one will be sent to a child in a developing nation.  It’s a form of philanthropy, but you have the added benefit of getting one of these devices for yourself.

My oldest boy is old enough to begin messing around with a computer, and this might be just the combination of philanthropy and practicality for this Christmas.  I think the special offer is a great idea, providing added impetus for folks who might not otherwise shell out a chunk of money to send a computer to a kid someplace across the world.

Thanks for…Nothing?

November 26, 2007

Do non-believers celebrate Thanksgiving? 

I was thinking over the past few days that – like most of our major observed holidays – Thanksgiving is inherently a Christian holiday.  The concept of giving thanks requires that one acknowledge some sort of source towards which thanks can and should be directed.

If you don’t believe in God in one shape or another, how can you be thankful in the broader, more generic sense?  How can you be thankful for your job, if you believe that you really deserve whatever wonderful position you hold?  Are you thankful for your spouse and children, or do you just assume that this is your just desserts, that you’ve earned them or somehow are entitled to them simply because of who you are and what you’ve done?

Thanksgiving is not a thanking of ourselves, after all.  There’d be little point in that.  You don’t thank yourself for just doing what you do.  Thankfulness implies that there is an alternative state, a state of lesser blessedness, and I would argue, it implies at its core that what we are thankful for is not something we have earned or deserve.  We are blessed in spite of ourselves, in spite of what we ought to receive, to the contrary of what we have actually earned.  Hence, thankfulness.  Gratitude.  Humility. 

Can you be thankful in a general sense, without a God to be thankful to?  It would seem to me that the only option would be thankfulness to specific individuals for specific things.  But frankly, without the idea of a God behind it all, it would seem that such specific, individual thankfulness would quickly dissipate into so much matter-of-fact equal exchanges.  We have our job because we are best qualified for it, and therefore there’s no reason to be thankful – our employer is simply doing what is in their best interest.  It’s an even exchange.  We have our good health because of our genetics – and since that’s nothing that can be controlled (yet), there’s no sense in being thankful.  We have our spouse because we were attractive or convicing enough to woo them successfully, which means that they are getting what they want, and it’s back to an equal exchange again. 

We don’t tend to think about these things – as Christians or otherwise.  But it’s fascinating to let the mind loose on some of these concepts that we take for granted now and then.

What Would You Let Go Of?

November 16, 2007

We all have them.

Preferences.  Needs.  Ideals.  Those things that really make us happy and at peace.  Ways of doing things.  A certain state of existence.  The familiar.  The predictable. 

We seek control, we seek to impose some level of order on the chaos that might run rampant throughout our lives otherwise.  After long enough, we get good at imposing our form of control and order.  We become known and respected for it.  Synonymous.  People look to us to perform this function, to fill this gap, to plug this particular hole in the dyke that happens to match our particular finger so well. 

Could you give that up? 

That need, that identity, that preference, that gnawing item that frustrates and irritates you if it’s not just so, just right?  Could you let someone else replace your finger with theirs?  Could you step away from that role, that identity and allow someone else to do it their way?  Differently, even, from how you have done it, how you prefer to do it, how you prefer to have it done, how you need it to be?

There is a line that is crossed within each one of us, when what we prefer becomes something we need.  When our habit of imposing control turns the tables and begins controlling us.  When our tongues and our facial expressions and our body language become slaves of this need, lashing out at anyone or anything that dares to contradict our insistence on doing something a certain way, on having things a certain way. 

We move from being masters to slaves, and the most dangerous and bitter form of slave – a slave who still believes that they are the master.

How do we get rid of this?  How can we let go of those things, or more accurately, force those things to let go of us?  How do we step free and clear to breathe and be without that identity, that preference, that need?

We can’t. 

Only by the grace of God can we be freed from slavery.  And while as Christians we are fond of focusing on the slavemaster of death – and to a lesser extent sin – that we were once bound under, God is not content to depose only that slavemaster.  We are given the Holy Spirit to continually work in us, loosening the bonds and chains that we ourselves are continually forming, freeing us from the shackles that we consciously or subconsciously clasped to our hands and feet.  Any slavemaster that arises or is created in our lives is one that God seeks to depose.  Any chain except for those that bind us as slaves to the love of Christ should not be tolerated.

But it hurts.  The light is blinding after forcing ourselves into shadows of our own casting.  And it’s hard to let go of things that we know we could do so much better, if they would just let us.  But little by little, day by day, moment by moment, those chains can be broken if we let them.  If we are not insistent on our own way, our own desire, our own preference.

I pray that this is true for me.  For you.


November 14, 2007

Last night we watched an odd little movie entitled Venus.  It stars Peter O’Toole, looking most of his 70+ years.  He is paired up with another veteran actor, Leslie Phillips, as well as a brand-spankin’ new actress by the name of  Jodie Whittaker. 

It’s a story of relationships, a story of needs and the lengths that people will go to fulfill them, and how ultimately, fulfillment can be had in ways we never would have imagined.  It’s odd in that the love story is between O’Toole, who is in his 70’s, and Whittaker, who was about 23 or so at the time the movie was made.

Of course, we have the natural horror at the idea that a 70-year old man could be infatuated sexually with a 20-something.  And we have a slightly slighter sense of horror for the idea of a woman interested in a man 50 years her senior.  There seems to be a cultural assumption that men should grow out of their younger sexual tastes, while women are assumed to be willing and able to handle an odd pairing if there is something – popularly assumed to be financial – that she can get out of the relationship.

It reminds me of a high school friend of mine who once was commenting – now that we’re 20 years out of high school – that he still thought high school girls were hot.  His theory is that dirty old men aren’t really perverted, they’ve just maintained their same notions of beauty and attractiveness over time.  Whereas some – perhaps many? – men gradually find that the drawbacks of extreme comparative youth in a woman outweigh the attractions, some don’t.  For some, hot is always hot.  The physicality of attraction is always the predominate factor in attraction.

This movie seems to reinforce that in touching ways.  O’Toole’s character has always had a wandering eye.  Has always sought out new beauty and the attendant beauties it conveys, regardless of who he hurt or abandoned along the way.  He’s been an emotional and sexual wrecking ball, careening through the lives of those around him.  This hasn’t changed now that he’s in his 70’s, but it has reduced his opportunities.

Jodie’s character, Jessie, has abandonment issues, and aches from being forced into having an abortion by her mother.  Nobody seems to have ever really loved her very long, or for more than the physical pleasure her body is able to provide.  Maurice (O’Toole) is the first man to take a real interest in her.  But of course, his interest is also physical. 

The relationship devolves into a kind of bartering system.  Crudely put, she exchanges brief touches of her hand or shoulder for earrings and attention.  More poignantly put, they each offer one another the best they have ever figured out how to give – he the captivated attention that women desire, she the physical response that he desires.  It might be prostitution, if there also weren’t a desperate need in both people for something more than a business transaction.  They seek affirmation.  They seek valuation.  They seek a sense of worthiness and attractiveness to one another.  But if you don’t know how to give good gifts, you give your bad gifts – not in a desire to hurt, but because you genuinely have no idea how to love. 

It was a curious movie on many levels.  O’Toole is of course a fantastic actor.  Whittaker was passable in her youthful awkwardness and thick accent.  She did a good job of portraying the desperate uncertainty of youth, masquerading under the apathy and jadedness appropriate to a much older woman.

And as always, I can’t help but think that what both characters lacked was a valuation independent of who they were and what they had to offer themselves, one another, or the world.  A valuation independent of their age and physical abilities, independent of the whimsical attentions or neglect of others.  A valuation dependent on the fact that they were planned from eternity, valued simply for the fact that they have been thus planned and created, valued to the point that someone gave His life for them – not because of who they are, but because of whose they are. 

I appreciate films that are honest.   But it’s sad when that honesty is so bereft of hope, of peace, of joy.  We’re left settling for such crumbs from one another, when we’ve been invited to a banquet, a feast. 

Promoting Transgenderization?

November 12, 2007

In the current issue of Time magazine, there is an article on the debate over hormone-blockage treatments that delay the onset of the physical signs of puberty.  The concern is that for children who demonstrate a lack of gender identification by the time of puberty, delaying the onset of the physical changes of puberty can give them longer to come to grips with the whole issue of what they want their sexuality to be.

The category for this kids is gender variant, and the issue is that some objective measure of their sexual identiy indicates that they aren’t girlish or boyish enough, assuming that their physical sexual identity is girl or boy, respectively.  Tests are conducted on their sexuality identity – “The clothing they wear, the way they style their hair and the type of toys they play with are assessed”. 

It’s funny to me.  For over 30 years, the feminist movement has lobbied vociferously for the separation of gender from physicality.  It has been argued – in other camps as well, not just the feminist camp – that the traditional role-playing of boys and girls needs to be equalized, if not outright reversed.  Girls should be playing army, boys should be playing house.  They should be able to swap this role-playing equally.  The argument has been made that gender identity  has been determined by men, and so it can be reversed, swapped around, and undone.  Everything is arbitrary.  Just because your genitalia indicate you’re male or female shouldn’t determine if you act male or female, because those are arbitrary role-playing functions (so the argument goes).  Whether your body is male or female shouldn’t determine whether you think you *are* male or female.  If you don’t think you match your body, change your body, the argument has evolved.

All of this is clearly not based in a Biblical understanding of gender and sexuality as God-gifted and God-determined.  It’s clearly based in the evolutionary assumptions that we aren’t really hard wired for much of anything – everything is arbitrary and can be modified by proper eduction.  It’s been an ongoing crusade for over 30 years to prove this and assert this.

Fortunately, there’s practically no scientific data to back it up.  In fact, much of the research that has been done (hard, empirical research that we’ve decided as a culture equals truth), proves just the opposite.  Give a boy a doll, and eventually he’ll probably start shooting with it.  Give a girl an army soldier, and she’s much more likely to relate to it and demonstrate mothering characteristics than she is to imagine a battle.  Not that kids don’t ocassionally switch up these tendencies on their own.  But the research seems to overwhelmingly support the idea that gender and sexuality *are* hard wired. 

So perhaps it’s just my morbid sense of humor that finds this article so ironic and funny.  Now, if you demonstrate opposite gender inclinations, it’s not proof of the success of degenderizing people, it’s evidence that you’re gender confused and might be transexual in the making. 

Funny, when I was young, girls that acted more like boys were called tomboys.  Boys that acted more like girls definitely had a harder time fitting in.  But nobody assumed that tomboys or apparently misfit boys were future transexuals.  They were late bloomers.  The assumption was that they’d grow up and out of it.  I have a sneaking suspicion most did. 

But now, instead of reinforcing the idea that gender and sexuality are tied together, we can delay puberty to give a 12 or 13 year old CHILD time to sort things out for THEMSELVES.  Ah.  I don’t know about you, but when I was 12 or 13, I could barely sort out matching socks.  How in the world do we expect children to arbitrarily choose their gender-identity?

Perhaps if we spent more time supporting and encouraging children in the proper ways, instead of assuming that everything is open to choice, and that THEY are the best qualified to make the choice, there would be far fewer instances where this sort of treatment could even remotely seem like a realistic option.  Perhaps the social pressures that science is attempting to bypass here are exactly the types of pressure (admittedly brutal at times) necessary to nudge people into their proper roles. 

Children need to be taught.  They need good role models.  They are not decision-makers in terms of issues that will affect the rest of their life.  The nonsensical idea that children should be free to explore and choose their spiritual beliefs, their sexual identities, even their genders, is self-destructive and a complete abdication of parental responsibility.  If the church wants to find a cause to champion, to triumph, and to stand on, family issues are perhaps the most compelling and useful arena to do so.  The heretical Latter Day Saint cult has done quite well for itself in terms of outreach by playing up their emphasis on family values. 

Somehow, when Isaiah prophesied that “a little child shall lead them”, (Isaiah 11:6) I don’t think this is what God meant.  I think the wisdom of Solomon is much more appropriate to keep in mind as parents, teachers, pastors, grandparents, baptismal sponsors, etc.  “I am only a little child, and do not know how to carry out my duties.” (1Kings 3:7)

A Generous Orthodoxy

November 8, 2007

So I’m working my way reluctantly through Brian D. McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy.  I’ve lost much of my interest in doing so, but I have this fetish that forces me to finish a book I’ve started, even if I don’t care for it.  I think it’s out of guilt for the fact that my mom bought me a book when I was in junior high (The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams).  I had loved Adams’ other book, Watership Down, which I read as part of my junior high advanced English course.  But I couldn’t get into Dogs at all.  I tried valiantly.  Repeatedly.  She would ask me over and over again if I had finished it yet.  And I was always ashamed that I hadn’t, that I didn’t like the gift she had gotten me. 

Thank God I’m the only person motivated by guilt.  Right?

So I’m trying to read Orthodoxy.  And I like the premise.  It’s just that McLaren can’t ever leave the background that he’s coming from long enough or convincingly enough to make it sound like an authentic call to move on.  At the halfway point in the book, there have been no recommendations on *how* this moving on takes place, simply a lot of constructive criticism.  The criticism is not necessarily inaccurate.  But it’s also hardly balanced, clearly highlighting more of McLaren’s views on things than promulgating a way forward beyond the roots of those views. 

So I hope to finish it sometime soon.  Because I have a lot of reading that I’m really excited about getting into.  And that’s a great feeling.

Funerals – An Open Letter to Christians

November 6, 2007

Death is a horrible thing to have to deal with.  Sooner or later though, unless Christ returns first, most of us are going to have to deal with the death of a friend or loved one.  While we live in a culture that tends to deny and hide when issues of aging, illness, or death are raised, it is foolish to try and ignore the reality we all have to face.  Frankly, if we were a little more mindful of death, I think our lives would be a lot different, perhaps a lot more meaningful. 

But I digress.

When planning for the funeral of a friend or loved one, or when planning your own, if you are a Christian, there are some things that you should remember and think about.  Communicating your wishes to others prior to your death – both verbally and in writing – will help ensure that your wishes are followed through on.

First of all, a sense of perspective is essential.  This perspective is hopefully grown throughout the life of faith on your Christian walk.  It includes a firm perspective on your own life as a part of the communion of Saints that is confessed in our cherished creeds, such as the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed.  This perspective helps to fight against the exagerated emphasis placed upon our own life – both as we live it, and as others gather to remember it. 

Those gathering for a funeral will undoubtedly be aware of the many fine attributes of the deceased – else they wouldn’t be there.  A service that does nothing but glorify the life of the deceased is horribly askew with our Christian perspective of history and salvation.  Those gathering, while well aware of the deceased’s many virtues, will also undoubtedly be aware of some of their shortcomings.  We all have them.  Nobody is perfect.  A service that extolls the virtue of the deceased in too glowing terms becomes dishonest.  It describes only half of  the person.  Yes, we are saints in Christ and destined for eternal fellowship after death.  But we are also sinners.  We are imperfect.  While describing the shortcomings of the deceased is probably not what most people would expect or want to have happen at a funeral (though I have met a few exceptions!), remembering our simultaneous status as sinner and saint should help keep the glowing descriptions somewhat subdued. 

Perspective as to the nature of death itself should is critical.  Death is not the end.  We have the hope of eternal life through faith in Christ Jesus.  If this is the faith that the deceased confessed, this MUST be proclaimed loudly and clearly during the funeral.  In fact, frankly, this is the most important message to be communicated.  The life of the individual – as well as their death – should point always to Christ and away from themselves.  In fulfillment of the Great Commission (Matthew 28), our goal as Christians is never to glorify ourselves, but to glorify our risen Lord and Savior. 

Failure to proclaim the hope of Christianity in Jesus Christ leaves people in the grave.  You can extoll the life of someone all you want.  But if you don’t preach the Gospel, and the implications of that Good News in life *and* death, then everyone in attendance remains at the tomb.  There is no hope.  Only memories of the past. 

Remember that funerals are a wonderful opportunity to proclaim the Gospel, because people come vulnerable, open in a way they rarely ever are otherwise.  The reality of death shakes them out of their routines, rocks the make-believe worlds we all build around ourselves, and stirs in people that desperate hope that the grave is not the end.  The Gospel assures them of this, and more than a few people have been brought to faith by the Holy Spirit during a funeral service. 

Every Christian can be an evangelist through their funeral.  Please pray and consider this as the most important function of a funeral.  People will reminisce and grieve no matter what.  They will gather to celebrate someone’s memory in many small and large ways.  But they won’t hear the Gospel unless you ensure that the minister or presider knows that this is the most important thing you want to hear from them on that day.  If you don’t demand it, there’s no guarantee that it will happen. 

Be proactive.  Don’t let an opportunity to speak in death about the most important thing in your life pass you by.  You’re only going to have one chance to do so.