Archive for May, 2009

Whether Permitting

May 29, 2009

Interesting news story about a pastor & his wife being told to cease their home Bible studies or else face prosecution for the county for using their home for gatherings that would normally require a major use permit.  

A representative for the county has defended the citation, while also stressing the safety issues that would cause such a citation for any event that is perceived by someone as some sort of safety threat of some kind.  The rationale sounds plausible at first.  If you have enough people on site, with enough vehicles, then emergency vehicles might not be able to access the area in the event of, you know, an emergency.
However, by that reasoning, the county ought to be imposing a limitation on how many vehicles are considered safe for one house, and how many are considered excessive.  Should there be a limit on the number of vehicles associated with any home on the cul de sac?  Does each homeowner have a right to a specific number of spaces?  Are there special exceptions?  This issue was apparently prompted by a neighbor complaining about his vehicle being hit by one of the people as they were leaving the study.  At what point is the complaint valid, and at what point is it spurious?  Does the county have any hard and fast rules on these things, or is it simply a matter of what the visiting officer feels is appropriate?  Based on the lack of specifics by the county representative, I’m guessing that things aren’t very well defined here.
On the flip side, the pastor and his wife are now claiming that the county is attempting to stop home Bible studies.  Given the alleged nature of the conversation with the visiting officer, and the wording of the official report on the incident,  that’s an understandable claim.  But I wonder about their approach to the situation.  How many vehicles were actually on the street?  Is there a way for the couple and the city to come to a common understanding about what the real issue is?  How is it that the officer would feel it appropriate to demand that the couple stop having Bible studies, instead of warning them about an excessive number of vehicles being parked on the street?  
I can understand taking things public if attempts to come to an understanding of the real issues fails.  I don’t know if that is what has happened here.  If the county refused to back down on it’s stance, then taking the matter public would seem the only logical course of action for the couple.  This is certainly an issue that demonstrates some major difficulties in terms of educating not only citizens, but law enforcement officials about key related issues.  And perhaps it’s a justifiable effort to set a precedent for defending home Bible studies – and really any other form of home gathering – from spurious complaints of either a neighborly or official variety.  But I dread to think about how certain elements are going to be screaming about this at the top of their lungs, from their pulpits and YouTube feeds.  

Cause Célèbre

May 26, 2009

I’m by nature averse to attention.  Not that I don’t want it, it’s just that I’m not comfortable when I receive it.  A hopefully-healthy understanding of my profoundly flawed and inadequate nature makes me quick to point out the contributions of others, and especially God, whenever anyone reaches out to give me a pat on the back.  It’s sort of a psychological karate – imagine Ralph Macchio using the wax on, wax off routine with compliments instead of bullies.  

Hope you enjoyed the 80’s movie reference.  I know I did.
Our church garden, as well as the unusual story of one of our 90-year old members taking in a young family that was prepared to be homeless, has made the front page of the county newspaper.  The hard-link to the extended story is here.  
It’s great, because it’s wonderful that some of our folks who are doing wonderful, amazing things in terms of giving and sharing of themselves with those in need, are getting well-deserved kudos.  It’s also hard, from the theological perspective, because this sort of thing should be the norm, not the exception.  I know there are millions of Christians doing similar acts of service every day who go unnoticed.  What often is noticed (by me, as well as those outside the church) is how often big churches are intently focused on navel gazing and taking care of their next building project rather than taking care of the least of these.  
I wonder how quickly the papers and nightly news would grow weary of reporting on the acts of kindness and generosity of churches, if every church began intentionally supporting those in their communities most vulnerable to the ups and downs of economic cycles.  We’re doing so little, really, and yet it makes a big splash.  What if this was one of our primary means of building relationships to share the Gospel with others in our community?
It would be fun to see the blitz of media coverage (assuming it happened, of course).  But it would be even more exciting when the coverage stopped, because it was just too routine to report on any more.  

Postmodernism for the Visual Learner

May 26, 2009

An unexpected call from a local colleague precipitated me catching the latest installment of the X-Men franchise last night about 10pm. While I hadn’t intended to go and see the movie (I don’t intend to go and see *any* movies – they’re too freakin’ expensive!), it was one I had followed with some interest due to the publicity of the leaking of the film in advance of the release date. And since I like a good brutal sci-fi film as much as the next masochist, my arm didn’t have to be twisted very far out of place to opt in.  

Philosophically, the movie was pretty point blank.
No authority can be trusted. Ever. In fact, nobody in general can be trusted. Not your parents, not your siblings, not the woman you love – nobody. Everybody has a hidden agenda. Everyone could be working against you. You can only rely on yourself. And yet you yourself are inadequate for this task. You *must* rely on others, and therefore your life is a cycle of tenuous trust, betrayal, revenge, and failure. Death is your only release.
To say that this movie is dark is accurate, but then, so ultimately is the post-modern conundrum of having to rely on others that you can never trust. As Sabertooth literally begs Wolverine in one scene, the only hope, the only glimmer of release, is death itself. “Finish it” Sabertooth pants. You’ll have to see the movie to decide whether or not his wish is granted.
I find it interesting that the only way some of the characters in this film can be killed is through decapitation. The removal of the head, the brain, the rational control center. For any of the *real* (meaning useful, resourceful, talented, strong, etc) mutants, this elimination of the seat of reason is the only way to kill them. Weaker mutants can be eliminated through other means, including a bullet wound to the gut, the classical location of the emotions. But for those who embrace the bleakness of postmodernism and survive in it, you gotta eliminate their ability to think.
The movie is a lot of visual eye candy. Jackman looks good throughout, with the ideal male physique displayed liberally. The back story is compelling in it’s bleakness. Having not seen the other two films in the franchise – or followed the comic book – I’m sure that there is a lot of subtle meaning infused into events that went completely unnoticed by me. Yet the plot is easy enough to follow without this detailed understanding of how the character has been built and portrayed up until this movie. It seems like a strong continuation of a franchise that is likely to keep playing out over the next 20 years or more – if viewers can be convinced that the lives of the weaker mutants can be equally interesting to the lives of the most glorious mutants.


May 24, 2009

I’m so excited.  

Either the summer before or after my freshman year of high school, I was handed one of those lists of books that every well educated person should read.  You’ve all probably seen one of these at one point or another in your life.  Like a dope, I decided to try and read them all over the summer.  I didn’t get through all of them, but I made it through quite a few of them.
One of them was The Chosen, by Chaim Potok.  This unassuming book sparked a lifelong fascination – no, fascination sounds too clinical.  A lifetime love and affinity for Orthodox Judaism.  In the hushed tones of that story, a world unfolded to me.  A world full of profound loss and sorrow – so much greater and deeper than my own adolescent agonies.  And yet in the midst of that sorrow and loss, despite the echoes of pogroms and dreams dashed and looted, there was hope and beauty and even glory.  I was awestruck at how profoundly the study of the Torah could affect someone.  I compared it with the laughingstock of a Confirmation class that I had endured at my church, and I realized how much more these people cherished the Word of God than I.  
I went on to read as many of Potok’s works as I could discover in a pre-Internet world, encouraged in part by a College Prep Literature class and teacher in my sophomore year of high school – Mrs. Nicolls.  She, too, loved Potok, and so we shared this odd bond, and I could sense her equal joy in his works as I discovered them for myself, or passed on a more recent work of his for her to enjoy.
So on an outing to our massive public library the other day, I stopped into the used bookstore and found a copy of perhaps Potok’s last novel before he died in 2002, Old Men at Midnight.  I stashed it away on our bookcase as I was already in the midst of three other books. But having just finished two of those, I went to the bookshelf to pick up a new book, and was delighted to find this book that I had forgotten purchasing.  I can’t wait to dive into it, to see if the simple words that captivated me so long ago could still weave their spell of amazement on me now.  
I love reading!
P.S. – in looking up the precise year of Potok’s death on Wikipedia, I was surprised to learn how many books he had actually written – at least half of which I never knew about.  Looks like I’m going to have lots of reading fun in the coming months & years!  I also noticed he wrote a series on Jewish Ethics that I’m going to have to find and try to purchase!  

Till Death Metal Do Us Part

May 21, 2009

A sharp wit and biting sarcasm are often effective covers for fundamental flaws in logic or holes in an argument.  What can’t be demonstrated through logic or argument can sometimes be more convincing simply by mocking the opposing viewpoint.  I appreciate this fact, and rely on it daily.  

That being said, this clever writer clearly isn’t following the logical trail that he himself is reporting on.
Mr. Abernethy glibly mocks the argument that if gay marriage is ratified at either Federal or State levels, it will be laying the groundwork for future permutations of marriage that are either inconceivable today or just laughable.  He jokes about marrying his electric guitar, for example.  And yet his logic – or rather the logic that he is reporting on – leads directly to these very sorts of applications.  Abernethy declares that “at it’s heart, marriage is about the law”.  Actually, he has it reversed.  The law is about marriage.  
Law  did not create the concept of marriage.  But the law is intended to recognize this innate trend in human relationships, and set up some safeguards – both for the people in the marriage as well as those around them.  Thus, the law exists to acknowledge what is, and to ensure that it is conducted in a responsible manner.  The law does not create marriage – the law codifies particular aspects of marriage in terms of identity, finances, and legal issues.  Law is in the service of marriage, not the other way around.  However, if you want to argue that the law defines marriage, you’ve just pretty much destroyed the logic for any limitations on what is or is not allowable or definable as marriage.
The justification given by the Iowa Supreme Court is that the State must have a compelling issue to act in a situation, and that in the case of gay marriage, the State does not have a compelling reason to deny legal marriage to gays.  So the traditional argument of it’s not hurting anyone else so why should you care? seems to be at play here.  However, if this is the standard by which the State determines how to limit the institution of marriage, there would seem to be little room at all for denying anyone marriage to literally anyone – or anything.  
You want to marry your guitar?  Fine, go ahead.  You’re not hurting anyone, and at least you know the guitar isn’t going to cheat on you, right?  Since the guitar isn’t likely to want to exercise any of the legal rights available to it, there should be no problem.  Marriage is reduced from a socially and biologically determined issue, to one of personal preference or choice.  If I want to marry my guitar, or my hamster, or a tree – does the State have a compelling reason to stop me from doing so?  Not that I can see.  Not based on the criteria the State itself has provided.
The drive to treat homosexual marriages on the same basis as heterosexual ones has no basis in religion, obviously, but nor does it have a basis in evolution or natural selection (for those of you who feel those are good explanations of things), history, sociology, or pretty much any other aspect of human experience.  It’s not that homosexuality has never existed before, but rather that everybody – throughout history and across geographical and cultural boundaries – understood that it was something fundamentally different than heterosexual marriage.  Even cultures that were permissive of homosexual relationships understood that it wasn’t marriage.  The law reflected this understanding.  
But by turning the tables, so that law is now seen as determinative of what constitutes marriage, rather than the reverse, all manner of possibilities open up based on who wants to lobby for what and majority opinion.  But now, marriage is just a matter of what I feel like.  If I feel drawn to a woman, wonderful.  If I feel drawn to another man, no problem.  Heck, if I’m drawn to another man and four women, and they all feel that we ought to be married, what basis does the Iowa Supreme Court have for denying us this right?    What basis has been left that would prevent six loving and caring people from marrying and becoming useful contributors to their community?  LIkewise,  there should be no issue with me being drawn to any random inanimate object in my possession.  Who is the State to insist that marriage must involve people?  Who is the State to determine at what age someone is ready for marriage?  What compelling interest does the State have in limiting marriage on practically any criteria?  Very little, it would seem.
You can laugh at the arguments against redefining the nature of legal marriage.  But laughing doesn’t ignore the fact that some very real and important legal precedents are being thrown out the window and replaced with completely different ones.  And in the end, I suspect that fewer of us are going to be inclined to laugh about where these changes lead us.  

Objective, Schnubjective

May 21, 2009

Just another subtle reminder that pretty much everyone has an agenda.

I think I’d pass on the artichoke dip, but I’d be interested in trying out that dessert…

Healthy Distrust

May 21, 2009

I have followed only sporadically the case of Colleen Hauser and her 13-year old son Daniel who has been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.  This is a sad situation, and I pray for Daniel as well as his parents.  May God grant Daniel healing, and quickly.

However healing is just the first of their difficulties now.  
Colleen has disappeared with Daniel after a court ordered him to receive chemotherapy which doctors believes has an 80-95% chance of killing the tumor and allowing Daniel to live a long and healthy life.  The Hauser family (including Daniel’s father, who did not go missing with his wife and son), believes in alternative healing practices, and is part of a small native American group – Nemenhah – dedicated to such practices.  The Hausers are Roman Catholic, and not native American, but have claimed exemption from medical treatment based on their religious affiliation with this group.  Add to this the fact that Daniel is alleged to have a learning disability that authorities claim means he doesn’t understand the gravity of his illness, or the efficacy of chemotherapy as a treatment option.  Daniel insists that he will physically fight against his doctors and nurses if he is forced by the State to undergo chemotherapy treatment.  Authorities suspect that Colleen and Daniel are somewhere near San Diego, and hoping to get across the border to Mexico.
Clearly, there are some confusing things happening here.
I’m extremely ill at ease with the idea of the State forcing people to receive a specific form of medical treatment.  I believe that God gave us brains, and that those brains have come up with some amazing medical procedures that we are fully free to avail ourselves of – as long as they aren’t destroying other people’s lives in the process.  The Bible that I read doesn’t say anything about refusing medical treatment.  It does advocate prayer, but not in an exclusive fashion to any other potential remedies.  God works in many ways – directly and indirectly – and I have a big problem with people and organizations who insist that availing ourselves of ethical medical treatment is a sin of some sort, or a demonstration of a lack of faith.  That’s a pretty brutal form of the Law they’re living under, and I don’t see much grace evident in their stance.
That being said, chemo and radiation treatments are devastating treatments in and of their own right.  Yes, they can destroy cancer cells.  But they do that by destroying *all* cells within the treated area.  The side effects of these treatments are sometimes as terrible as the disease they seek to cure – and sometimes just as fatal.  Would I opt for such treatments if I’m diagnosed with cancer?  I honestly don’t know.  But what I *do* know is that I would certainly not want the State to force me into such treatments against my will.  
True, I’m a 40-year old man and not a 13-year old boy (thank God), but the issue at stake here is the same whether applied to an adult or to a child under the care of parents.
I find it interesting that other folks who have dealt with cancer through natural alternatives to chemo and radiation have voiced their support for the Hauser’s decision to forego chemo.  And I find it interesting that the media will often relate that these other folks attribute their healing to natural alternatives.  And yet the State sees fit not simply to force the Hausers to seek treatment, but to seek a specific treatment.  I’m not at all comfortable with anyone telling me that I must seek one and only one form of treatment for my sick child – a treatment that could in and of itself kill my child, and which is not guaranteed to heal my child, and which is likely to significantly reduce my child’s quality of life in the near and potentially long term.  
Does the State have the right to force me, as a parent, to seek a specific form of treatment for myself or my child – to relinquish my personal or parental rights to a third party?  Would it matter if the treatment guaranteed success?  If there were no side effects?  I don’t think that would matter.  It might make it easier for me to consider a particular line of treatment, but to force me to take it?  To demonize me for choosing another course of treatment?  That’s frightening.
Parents should be paying close attention to these sorts of cases – how they’re presented in the media, etc.  I haven’t found an article yet that provides a clear description of the Hauser’s specific objections to chemotherapy.  I’m not sure if that is because they haven’t provided one, or that it’s not conducive to the desired course of action to treat the Hauser’s stance on an equal level to the State’s.  That may sound like paranoid speech, but remember that the news you get is provided by someone, and no news is fully and completely objective.  Not only is it not possible, it’s rarely actually desired.  
You may feel that the Hausers are being negligent, and should get Daniel this treatment.  That’s another issue.  The thing you should be concerned about is that if the State deems it appropriate, the State can demand that you not only seek treatment, but seek the specific form of treatment the State feels is best.  Maybe that doesn’t make you nervous.  But it sure makes me nervous.  

Notre Dame, Again

May 20, 2009

I find this to be not at all surprising, and also a means of explaining why the President of a Catholic University might feel so strongly about defending the decision to invite a commencement speaker so blatantly outspoken against some of the most fundamental beliefs of the Catholic Church.  The president of Notre Dame University, Fr. John Jenkins, sits on a board for an organization that actively promotes contraceptives as a solution to problems in Africa.  

It doesn’t appear that Jenkins is trying to hide this affiliation, I just find it interesting that it’s only now come to a wider public (and Catholic) awareness.  Further evidence of the dangerous assumption – even among the faithful – that we are free to pick and choose at our discretion which tenets of faith we feel are appropriate  or binding.  

Garden Update

May 19, 2009

The garden at my church is coming along great!  We had our first workday this past Saturday to do some weeding.  There are more weeds to be pulled, but we made a good start of it.  I keep praying that we will begin to draw interest from folks in our community who want to participate.  I just talked with one woman who saw a recent article that the local city paper ran based on a press release I sent them.  Hopefully she’ll be able to join us for our next workday, and will share the information with friends as well!

As of last week, our preschooler’s came up to plant sunflowers, watermelon, and pumpkin.  It was fun to watch their various reactions to actually planting the seeds in the ground and covering them up.  Tempting to draw analogies to John 12:24, but that would probably not have been very effective with three & four year olds!
The big plants on the right are zucchini squash, which are likely to take over pretty much everything else.  Beyond them (above them) is another row with tomato plants.  The row on the near left is radishes, with corn coming up nicely just to the right of that.  
It’s hard to see, but in the next plot over is where we’ve planted pumpkins and watermelon.  We’ve had to tweak the watering solution on that second plot a few times.  Initially my garden experts had thought that we could use sprinkler style watering, but we apparently don’t have enough water pressure for that.  So we’ll be installing dripper heads on those lines as well, once the seeds start coming up and we know where the plants are
We have two groups that meet in our fellowship hall each month.  Crossover Education Center and Happy Friends Club are both headed up by one of our members, and are opportunities for special needs people to receive life skills training as well as engage in social activities – respectively.  The groups have been growing and growing over the past year.  The Happy Friends Club adopted this small area of ground to plant lavender, herbs, and flowers.  It looks beautiful, and will smell great in the near future!
The lovely bi-color paint job on the portable building is due to some very thoughtful tagging that some neighborhood kids provided us with.  I’d love to get in contact with these guys and ask them to do a mural or something really artistic – instead of just practicing signing their names.  I continue to pray for more people, and for protection of these fragile little plants from taggers and other folks with too much time on their hands or just a mean streak.  And I pray that people will be blessed from the food as well as the process.

The Reason for God – Problem

May 19, 2009

Writing is difficult work.  If nothing else, reading this blog should prove that it is very difficult to write well, and that more often than not, people (including myself) write poorly.  Writing theologically is even more difficult.  The need for clarity, the need to write precisely about things that are in some ways very imprecise, and the need to write accessibly are each cherry bombs that must be adequately juggled constantly so that one does not have one’s hands blown off.  

So I try to bring this appreciation to my critiques of others’ writing.  Or at least, I want to.  That being said, there are times when a theological concept has been treated, and that treatment is not Biblically accurate, and so this needs to be pointed out because of the ramifications on talking about these things with people who do not already believe them.  
I’m closing in on the end of Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God.  Overall, it’s been a good basic primer on addressing the objections most commonly raised by non-believers about Christianity.  His treatment is not exhaustive, but it’s a good starting point.  The second half of the book attempts to lay out the argument for Christianity – why is it reasonable to believe in Christianity?  I think his premises here are a little weaker, but I try to remember that he’s writing this section as well for the non-believer, and so it’s necessary to use language and metaphors and explanations that are accessible to the non-believer.
But in his chapter on Sin, Keller really misses the point in an important way, I think.  He sets out to define sin, which will lead into a discussion of the solution to sin.  And Keller, since he’s writing apologetically, tries to explain sin in terms that will make sense to a non-theist.  As such, he defines sin as essentially a psychological problem.  Yes, there’s a God, and sin is our inability to be ourselves with God.  To embrace our creatureliness, our created nature.  This results in compensating behavior.  People attempt to fill their lives with other things, even other people – and none of these things or people can support us, can sustain us, and can allow us to be the creatures we are in the way we were designed to express ourselves.  
This basis of sin – this inability to be creatures – leads to all sorts of other psychological and social issues.  Nothing works right.  Everything we do is a struggle for self-validation that constantly eludes us.  We are truly pitiable creatures.  Truly sad people.  We are hurt and broken and woefully unhappy.  And yes, all of these things are true.  Except when Keller trots out the solution to sin, the solution to our angst and sorrow and unhappiness and lack of fulfillment, he falls flat.  
And the issue is this – the way Keller describes sin, it’s a psychological, existential issue just within ourselves.  It’s harmful to us, it’s damaging to us.  But if one does not feel this angst, if one does not feel the pain or see the damage, if one’s life seems full and good and abounding in wonderfulness, there is no perceived need for the solution to sin found in Jesus Christ.  If sin is simply feeling bad, and the solution to sin is feeling better, then only those people who truly and honestly know that they feel bad will find this compelling.  Keller has nothing more to offer to the self-satisfied, successful person than the fact that Jesus died for them, and how could they possibly reject someone who died for them?
The answer is, easily.  What need do they have for someone who died 2000 years ago for them, if they’re healthy and well-fed and prosperous and successful?  If their children are well behaved and successful?  If they love their jobs?  If they have a caring and supportive spouse?  Or if they simply have a long string of very pleasant one-night stands that fulfills their needs?  
Sin does have effects on who we are and how we feel, and I do believe that many people can search themselves and find the adverse effects of sin at play in their lives and emotions and thoughts.  But sin is an issue even for the successful and prosperous and beautiful.  Because sin is not simply a fully encapsulated and self-encompassed issue.
Sin is rebellion.  We can’t be our created selves with God because we hate the idea that we are creatures, and not God.  We rail against the fact that there is a God and that He gets to set the standards and rules of engagement for life, rather than ourselves.  We despise the fact that we are made to live according to His rules, His dictates – no matter how wise and good and healthy those rules and dictates might be.  We are not just full of psychological angst and seeking affirmation.  We are guilty of mutiny.  We are guilty of treachery most foul, of rebellion most heinous against the one true rightful ruler.  We attempt to usurp the king’s throne, and our continued desire for self-determination, to be master rather than servant, has led us in our sinfulness even to attempt to kill the king’s son.  
Sin is not demonstrated by our emotional turmoil.  Sin is a fact – the fact that we do not, can not, and will not live the way God has created us to live.  We will not acknowledge our creatureliness.  Will not recognize the love and honor and fealty due to God.  Will not accept the grace of God on God’s terms, because that would mean we would have to acknowledge our guilt and our wrong – objective, real, true moral guilt before a righteous and holy God.
This is sin.  If you feel happy and satisfied with your life, your sin is not removed.  If everything you touch turns to gold, your guilt is not assuaged.  We cannot make sense of the personal and psychological and emotional effects of sin, until we recognize that sin exists as a rejection of someone else – God.  Sin is not a private, personal struggle of suffering and pain.  Sin is an illegal and brazen defiance of God.  
And if there is a God, if it can be said that it is reasonable to explore this premise that there is a God, then surely the most important thing to understand is that if there is a God as the Bible describes Him, we stand in mortal danger because of our rebellion.  We stand under sentence of death for our refusal to accept His sovereignty, that we are doing violence not only to ourselves but to every person and every thing in this world by our rebellion.  And once this is recognized, we can see immediately the beauty and glory that is the atonement of Jesus Christ.  We can grasp for the life preserver that has been thrown to us by the Captain of the ship we are attempting to commandeer.  We can see that our need for God, and for forgiveness and grace and amnesty has nothing to do with whether we like our lives or not, or whether we’re lonely or sad or hurt or unfulfilled or anything else.  Our rebellion defines all of these other things – not the other way around.  And only in discovering our rebellion, and rejoicing in the amnesty we are offered, can we become aware of these other issues.
So, I continue to see this book as a good thing overall.  It’s just unfortunate that Keller opted to define sin so subjectively and personally.  Not that sin does not have subjective and personal aspects and effects.  But the Gospel won’t be heard where the law has not convicted, and the law does not convict us if we don’t understand the nature of our violation of the law.  We are not guilty for feeling bad.  We are guilty for rebellion, and this rebellion causes us to feel bad in a myriad of ways we often can’t even fully articulate.