Archive for December, 2009

Good Vibrations

December 8, 2009

I was listening to a local rock radio station the other day, when I heard it again – the DJ was sending good vibes out to someone in a difficult situation. 

Hey man, I’m thinking’ about you, and sending good vibes your way. 

I’ve started to see this popping up more and more frequently in conversations, Facebook, and other cultural pulse-points.  Of course, the words aren’t exactly groundbreaking, but their growing frequency in conversation seems to be.  I find them to be odd words.

The first thing that I think of when I hear them is oh, this person doesn’t believe in God – or at least in prayer.  And yet there’s this desire to say something.  Something encouraging, of sorts.  But meaningful encouragement must be rather hard to come by, so good vibes will have to do. 

I have something I can say to people who are going through a hard time.  I tell them that I will pray for them.  My commitment to do this implies several things:

  1. There is a God
  2. This God loves me, and also the other person
  3. My praying to this God is a moving from an internal emotional response to another person’s situation, through a Biblical filter of what I know about God and His will and work in this world, resulting in an appeal to an external source for change
  4. I can pray to this God for specific things for the other person – healing, comfort, strength, peace, patience, joy – which He is able to provide
  5. My God’s willingness and ability to act in this person’s situation are not bound by this person’s willingness or ability to acknowledge God.  I pray for my atheist friends as well as my Christian friends
  6. My prayers are not hampered by my own lack of knowing what to pray for or how to pray.  My prayers go to my God, who does know far more intimately than I or my friend what is necessary and helpful
  7. In praying, I acknowledge the Biblical tension that I myself cannot do anything to help their situation, but that I can intercede on their behalf with my God.  I am powerless personally, but I have access and audience with the God who created the universe
  8. Because of these things, I have a real reason to hope that their situation will change by the power of God

If someone is wishing someone else good vibes or some other sentiment, what might this imply?

  1. There is not a God.  If there were a god that this person believed in as a more powerful source for change than themselves and their own feelings, why wouldn’t they appeal to it? 
  2. The person they are responding to is suffering or struggling in a vacuum.  Their situation is either of no concern to a god or there is no god that is concerned and aware of their situation.  They are alone
  3. Wishing someone good vibes is a purely internal, subjective act.  The vibes are apparently internally homed and generated.  While the ‘sender’ can’t apparently do anything else to assist the ‘recipient’, the vibes are somehow intended to make the ‘recipient’ feel better all the same.  This appears to be wishful thinking if there isn’t a means for the vibes to actually accomplish what they are intended to do – which is rarely defined, in my experience.  Because –
  4. Specificity is not a part of this process.  I don’t hear people talking about sending good vibes for anything specific.  What do good vibes do?  What can they do?  Can they heal?  Can they give comfort?  What sort of comfort is received from the vibes that is different from knowing that one has friends or loved ones that care about you?  Does the sender honestly think that they generate good vibes, and that these good vibes might actually impact the recipient in any tangible way?
  5. From what I can tell, since the vibes themselves aren’t seriously considered to have any actual power to alter anything, the main issue is that the recipient know that the sender is sending them good vibes.  If the recipient doesn’t know that I’m sending them good vibes, the good vibes serve no other purpose.  Is this a profoundly selfish thing?  I can’t do anything to help you, but I want you to know that I’m a nice person and so I am telling you that I am sending you good vibes
  6. Since good vibes aren’t assumed to have any actual impact, I don’t even have to worry about what I really hope or wish or – dare I say it – pray – for this other person.  As long as I’ve sent the good vibes, my duty to this person is over
  7. Not only can the person sending good vibes not really do anything to help, there doesn’t seem to be any other entity capable of helping the person.  The true responsibility for change or improvement – if any is to be found – is with the recipient still
  8. Sending good vibes doesn’t give me any hope that the vibes are going to do anything.  I don’t expect them to.  The recipient doesn’t expect them to.  It’s just something nice to say, that helps us feel like we’re doing something helpful

There is probably much more at play here.  From what I can tell, sending vibes is a subjective act equivalent to wishing upon a star, and the expectation of improvement or change for the recipient is probably about equal.  Prayer actually offers hope, since prayer assumes that there is one being prayed to that is able and potentially willing to act in the situation to change the situation.  Good vibes can’t offer hope – but rather a shallow form of solidarity.  

I can’t think of anything more useless to offer someone who is really suffering, really struggling, really floundering somehow. 



Pleading the Fifth

December 6, 2009

One of the most interesting and thought-provoking video’s I’ve seen in a while.  I’d be interested in perspectives on this.  The full video is long – but worth watching through.

The Bag

December 4, 2009

I noticed the bag on my first few visits to the tiny hospital room.   A stitched bag, large and roomy.  Colored squares bound together with thread, and long straps suitable for slinging over a shoulder.  Big enough to hold the things that are necessary for these sorts of stays.  Some books.  A cell phone.  A notepad and pen.  A Bible.  A puzzle magazine.  The purse with necessary identification, bank cards, insurance cards, and all the accoutrements of day-to-day living.  Thrust together quickly into the bag by a friend or relative on the way out the door. 

The bag was never far from her when I would stop by.  Sometimes it would be slumped haphazardly on the small, rolling table that was ever-present at the side of her bed.  Other times it was tucked under her good arm, the one that was purple from where they had repeatedly tried – and failed – to get the pick line into her vein.  But that was the arm with the good shoulder, so she relied on it more.  Sometimes the bag would be lying on the far side of her bed, near the arm with the bad shoulder.  Most of her necessities were scattered already on the small table.  Perhaps the bag only held her wallet at times. 

The bag waited for her return home.  It was that kind of bag.  Not the small, tidy handbag that an elegant woman would choose for going out.  Not the slightly larger and more functional – yet still elegant purse of a life-long teacher and friend to children, ready and filled with unknown goodies to be spilled forth upon a moment’s notice.  This was just a bag, and bags are useful and helpful for going out and doing something that needs to be done and then returning home.  Bags have purpose.

The weeks crawled by.  She went home after a month in the hospital.  But a week or so later, she was back again, and so was the bag.  So were the books that her medications made almost impossible for her to read.  So was the notepad that didn’t appear to have much recently written in it.  So was the cell phone, which would call me from time to time. 

Thursday, it was used to call and tell me that she was requesting the ceremonies to prepare her for death.

I arrived to give her communion, to absolve her, to give her assurance and comfort in the Word of God.  Her worldly affairs were more or less in order, or at least as in order as they were going to get at this point.  She was concerned with what came next, with having a clean conscience and hope in the promises of her Savior.  My Savior.  There was nothing more that the world could offer her – nothing more that her doctors could do for her.  She had requested to have her medications halted.  The hospital was moving her into palliative care momentarily.  A more comfortable environment for her and for the friends and family that would swell in to visit in the coming hours and days. 

I accompanied her to her new room, walking behind the large, mobile hospital bed that had been her constant environment for nearly two months.  Neither of us thought to grab the bag.  The new room was nice, with faux wood paneling and fancier lighting sconces.  I had the orderlies and nurses position her bed in reverse so that she could look out the narrow window at trees in the distance without straining her neck.  A long-time friend arrived shortly, having gathered the belongings from the other room.  A few Christmas decorations were put up.  Get well cards and drawings were taped to the walls.  Her books rested on a side table. 

But there was no suitable place for the bag.  The closet was too small and filled with other items by this point.  It was a point of worry and consternation for her friend, where best to put the bag.  They rearranged the closet and managed to squish the bag in.  They reported to her with satisfaction where the bag was, in case she wondered.  But she had her eyes closed, mostly.  Within a few hours, her ever-present glasses were resting on the table.  She wouldn’t be needing those either.  She didn’t acknowledge the new location of the bag.  She wasn’t going to be needing any of those things any longer.  Not the cell phone.  Not the address book.  Not the wallet or the books or the magazines.  The identification inside that bag was no longer of use to her.  She would be inheriting a new identity before long. 

What are you preoccupied with, this Christmas?  What’s in your bag that you can’t live without, that you worry and obsess over?  What purposes fill your attention?  It’s a good thing to pause and think about this time of year.  Or any other time of year as well.

A New Co-Pray

December 3, 2009

Thanks to my friend J.P. for this curious little article from The Washington Post last week.  An additional related article can be found here , and what appears to be an earlier reporting of this topic from the Los Angeles Times is found here

The basic thrust of the article revolves around the Church of Christ, Scientist and the efforts it is spearheading to have prayer considered a form of ‘spiritual health care’ which would be reimbursable by insurers like any other health service.  Apparently this provision was in a former version of the health care bill in the House of Representatives, but was removed from the bill that passed in November.  However, lobbying efforts are underway to try and have the provisions reinstated as a means of ensuring that “health care reform law does not discriminate against any religion”. 

Based on the LA Times article, it would seem that only Christian Scientists would be eligible for reimbursement for “prayer treatments” which are argued for based on their cost effectiveness (“as little as $20 a day”).  Apparently at points in the past, some private insurers did reimburse for this treatment, however that appears to no longer be the case.  Other plans, such as some government and military plans, do provide reimbursement for these treatments still.  That was a real surprise to me. 

The LA Times article cites one authority as stating basically that if the patient is the one choosing treatment, and religious treatments aren’t given preference or any other sort of distinction, then they could legally be considered on the same basis as other treatment options.  However given the growing trend of holding people accountable when they decline traditional medical techniques and rely on prayer for healing and someone dies as a result, there appears to be a rather substantial head-on collision in terms of what might be legal at the moment and what is going to be the norm for the future.

I find the whole description of prayer as a form of treatment to be rather distasteful from my theological background and understanding.  In more traditional Christian traditions, prayer is not a treatment, any more than talking with a physician about your condition could be considered a treatment in and of itself.  What the doctor tells you to do about it might be a treatment.  But the conversation itself is not.  Likewise, prayer may result in healing, if God chooses to answer the way we would like Him to.  But that would be His prerogative, and the simple fact of being in conversation with Him would hardly seem to count as a treatment.  If you label prayer as a form of treatment, it seems to assume that the prayer itself is eliciting a specific and somewhat predictable response from God.  If I do this, God will do that.  Dangerous theological thinking. 

I pray daily for people who are sick or struggling with any number of issues.  I ask God for His healing, for His comfort, for His peace, and that the situation would be used to open people’s hearts to His presence – particularly friends & family members of the person suffering who may not be Christian.  But I don’t think of my prayers as treatment.  The Bible commands us to pray, and exhorts us to pray for the sick and suffering.  It even says that these can be particularly powerful prayers, depending on who is praying (James 5:16).  But these are God’s issues, ultimately.  We pray in faithfulness, and trust that He will act in the best way – even if the best way is not the way we would prefer. 

The purpose of a doctor’s prescribed course of treatment is to heal a particular symptom or condition.  The purpose of prayer is overall fellowship with our Creator God, and as part of that, requests for particular things – safety, health, healing, etc.  It’s a shame to think of prayer as being defined in such a limiting way, just as it’s a shame to think that people would be paid for doing what we are Biblically commanded to do.