Archive for March, 2011

Rest and Peace

March 31, 2011

Driving in this morning I was listening to the local NPR station.  During their Fresh Air program, there was a local interest story about the funeral of a homeless veteran.  Approximately 75 people gathered for the funeral of this man who served in the US Air Force from 1962 – 1968.  The curious thing is, none of these people knew the man they gathered to remember.  They had never met him.  

He was a homeless veteran, with no known surviving friends or family.  I don’t think the story indicated how he died, but nobody claimed his body.  He was destined to be buried in a pauper’s plot until a group called Dignity Memorial got involved.  This man received a full military funeral service with honors, and will be interred at a cemetery in Riverside.  
At the outset, I think this is a nice thing.  I don’t have any issue with this sort of program.  
But I suspect that it’s too easy.  
The story featured tearful testimonies about military mothers who never met this man, but who gathered to pay him respect, knowing that they would want the same to be done for their sons who have or are serving in the armed forces.  There was some official or other talking about how this man had, in receiving this military funeral –  been brought home amongst his fellow deceased service personnel.  It was all very nice and touching.
But I came away wondering how each of these people would have treated this guy a week before he died?  How is it that people could discover that he was a United States veteran after his death, but nobody knew it before hand?  Or if they did know it beforehand, why did they wait until after his death to give the sort of respect and care and love that they demonstrated after his death?  I wonder if the man, if he was watching the proceedings at the cemetery, would be shaking his head and wondering where in the world these people had been for the last 40 years.  Up until his death, was he just a homeless person?  Just a bum?  Just an addict?  Just a nuisance?  Just an eyesore?  
It’s easier to pay respects to the dead than it is to respect the living.  The tab is much smaller in terms of our time and emotional expenditure.  Ultimately, funerals are for our benefit anyways, not the deceased’s.  They make us feel better.  They provide us with an emotional outlet for grief and fears – whether related to the deceased or not.  They can be a cathartic experience as we face the reality of someone else’s death and in so doing briefly stare our own death in the eyes as well.  It’s not a gaze that we can hold for very long.  
The dead don’t need our respect.  The respect we pay to the dead ought to be a pointer to the respect that we owe the living.  The care we lavish on those we love who passed away ought to be a continuation of the love we showed to them during their lives, and a reminder to shower those still in our lives with that same depth of love.  Theologically and physically, our actions for the dead don’t make any difference to them.  But they mean a great deal to us and how we think about ourselves and our lives and how we would like people to remember us.
As such, gathering to show love and respect to a dead man nobody knows is a kind thing, but only inasmuch as it reminds us to show love to those marginal shadow-people in our own lives.  The people on the outskirts of parking lots or freeway offramps.  Scruffy and weather-beaten faces behind equally ragged cardboard signs.  If I showed up to one of their funerals but never bothered to give them a bite to eat while they were alive, what am I saying  about myself?  What am I demonstrating about the depth of my love and care for my fellow human beings?
As a Christian I am called to see Christ in every single person.  Without exception.  Whether they are a relative or a friend or a stranger or an enemy.  How does catching sight of Jesus in that other person affect my treatment of them or my acknowledgment of them?  Would I continue to scurry by and try not to let Jesus catch my eye as I went about my daily routine?  There are some days when the answer might be yes, and that’s pretty sad.  
Honor the dead, but let’s be honest about whose feelings we’re ultimately salving.  And in admitting that, let’s be honest about what that ought to mean for the remainder of the days we’re allotted in this world.  If this is the case about what is going on, then greater thanks are due the deceased man in the story this morning – hopefully in his death he will make an impact in the lives of those people who gathered on his behalf.  Hopefully because of his death, someone else’s life will be improved a little bit.  That’s certainly something worth honoring.  
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Bible Resource

March 30, 2011

There are some great tools out there for studying the Bible and dabbling in Hebrew and Greek.  While these are not my strong suites by a long shot, I sometimes like to be able to look at them just to see how the literal wording is in the original language.  Also, I enjoy having more than one translation of the Bible available, so I can see how the NIV translates something and how, say, the ESV does.  

I have a delightful couple in my congregation that I call on every two weeks.  On my last visit with them, they shared this website that their son has put together.  It allows you to compare different translations of the Bible, as well as to examine the original languages.  While the default Greek language option they have is not the best, they do offer a better one, but you have to specifically request it.  Their Hebrew language bible is the same version I used in Seminary.  You can do word studies on the Greek or Hebrew words, and these are all cross-linked with the most common lexicons.  
For a long time I have used e-sword as my default, for-free, comparative Bible study tool.  The nice thing about e-sword is that it provides additional resources as well (either for free or for purchase).  But Great Treasures may become my new go-to option.  There are more robust options if you want to pay a few hundred dollars, which I don’t.  As well, if you’re just interested in quick access to different translations, another browser-based option is the website www.biblegateway.com.  

Supersize Me

March 29, 2011

If you want to find an alternative tack to discouraging people from active religious participation, what might you do in a media-saturated, image-obsessed culture?

Allege that regular religious participation somehow contributes to or results in obesity.
I decided to try and research this a bit further.  Here is the apparent source article for the above link.  And here is a slightly expanded and more fascinating article on the subject.  The last article goes a bit deeper while containing all of the salient material from the other two, so I want to examine it.
I find it interesting that being “highly religious” means attending at least one religious event per week.   What is considered “average religious” if regular participation is considered the mark of the “highly” religious?
There’s also no mention of a definition for religion.  What religious affiliations were included in this study, and in what percentages?  Having grown up in a culture of pot lucks and other home-cooking church events, my immediate perception was that this study focused on Christians, but there’s nothing that seems to indicate that in any of the articles.  I think it was the quote on “associating good works and happiness with eating unhealthy foods” that might have triggered Christian associations for me.  While theologically skewed Christians are by no means the only religion in the world that focus on good works and happiness, they certainly are the most prominent religious group in this country.  
I think it’s interesting that the lead author cites a concern about premature deaths among groups identified as at risk for obesity – in this case religious folk.  Yet the article also cites that religious folk seem to live longer on average.  How do these two facts fit together?  
I think the speculation on gluttony as an acceptable sin is an interesting one.  It would seem to say that there is an intentionality behind eating trends among the highly religious.  Sort of a matter of I’m not allowed to do anything else I want to do, so I’m definitely having seconds on the fried chicken and butter pecan pie.  I think that most religious folk would take exception to such a simplistic assertion, though I have to admit it’s eerily attractive….
I’ll withhold comment on the Bod 4 God book referenced in the article, since I’m not directly familiar with the book.  However, I tend to see these sorts of things as wielding a clumsy legalism as a means of guilting people into making changes in their lifestyle.  I’m all for being healthy-minded in every aspect of our lives, but distrust the use of theology (with the associated consumerism of books, workbooks, diet journals, DVDs, etc.).  
I’m all for being healthy.  And whenever people get together for any reason, I hope that this will be something that they are aware of.  There are many simple things that can be done to encourage healthy snacking and eating without turning this into some sort of full-fledged campaign.  If being highly religious means attending one church event a week, I’d hate to waste that small amount of time on promoting healthy eating instead of talking about the God who created us and sustains us.  

Feeling Lonely?

March 28, 2011

Of course this is coming.  Since people have become so used to online avatars that they control all the aspects of, it’s only reasonable that even in the realm of quasi-realistic online avatarism, Facebook, people would want to create not just a carefully filtered online persona of themselves, but in certain cases, of someone they want people to believe they are in a relationship with.

Yep.  A company is preparing to launch that will take customer input regarding the ideal qualities their boyfriend or girlfriend would possess (if they had a boyfriend or girlfriend), and this company will generate this person and create a Facebook account for them.  Then the customer will be able to friend them, indicate a relationship status, and then interact with them as they do anyone else on Facebook (presumably the customer controls the responses as well?).  I would imagine that at for a premium fee, a company of this sort would even offer to provide photo editing services, so that both the pretend boy/girlfriend as well as the customer could be posting photos of the themselves.  Together.
If porn is the abstraction and virtualization of sexuality, custom-made to order to whatever tastes the consumer has, then this would seem to be the abstraction and virtualization of relationship.  The net results in both would seem to be the same – a wider and wider wedge driven between the idealized nature of virtual intimacy (physical and emotional) and the reality of intimacy with another human being (physical and emotional).  If anyone imagines that this can possibly spell anything good in the long term for people’s continuing difficulties in adapting themselves to the real world, you’ve got to be living pretty deeply in fantasy yourself.  Dictating and demanding that every aspect of another person be exactly as you’d like them to be is creating a fantasy world that isn’t easy to step away from should you actually meet another human being that you’d like to be in a relationship with.
And this service would seem to create another problem – if you’re already in the ideal relationship with someone doesn’t exist, how do you actually meet the person you’d like to have a real relationship with?   Even if you happen to meet that person and they express mutual interest, I feel sorta bad for them.  They’re competing against a standard that is impossible to measure up against.   That’s gotta be pretty lonely – for everyone involved.

Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam

March 28, 2011

For whatever reason, my blog is attracting a fair amount of spam in the form of bogus comments aimed at embedding web site addresses on my site.  I’m not sure why.  I’m deleting about a half-dozen of these each day – a noticeable increase from the few a week I’ve averaged over the past couple of years.  I wish I understood what the trigger was for them…I love comments, but it’s annoying to get my hopes up only to find out that it’s spam!

And Now For Something Completely Different

March 26, 2011

There’s an old adage that goes There three kinds of lies:  lies, damned lies, and statistics.  The truth of the matter is that numbers are rarely as objective and accurate as we have been taught to trust that they are.  Numbers can mean a lot of different things depending on which numbers you’re looking at and how you want to talk about them.

Case in point for the sad ‘fact’ that Christians divorce at a rate rather similar to the general population.  Christians and other religious folks have divorce rates of around 42%, while the divorce rate for non-religious folks is right about 50%.  However reviews of these popularly touted statistics turned up an interesting anomaly – the numbers vary depending on how you define Christian.  
When the numbers are recrunched to be specific to Christians who regularly attend worship, then the numbers change, with divorce rates running more at 38%.  It’s not a huge drop, but it’s definitely farther off of the average of 50% for non-religious folks.  Furthermore, people who claim to be evangelical Christians but never attend church have a divorce rate closer to 60%.  A brief diagnosis of the facts is here.  

How’s That for Love?

March 24, 2011

When asked to explain why my denomination seeks to prevent some people from joining in Holy Communion when so many other church bodies have no problem with inviting everyone to participate, I take them to the second half of 1 Corinthians 11.  

In this passage, Paul gives the church in Corinth a pretty good dressing down.  The early church tradition of having a literal meal in conjunction with worship has gotten completely out of hand.  People are confusing where the social meal ends and Communion begins.  People are eating too much of the communion bread and drinking too much of the communion wine.  There isn’t enough to go around, and some folks don’t get any while others are fat and drunk.  
Paul goes on to take the church to task for failing to distinguish the uniqueness of the bread and wine of Communion.  In other words, the bread and wine in communion are unlike any other meal we ever eat.  How does Paul go about showing this?  He quotes Jesus’ words at the Last Supper – the same words that I say every time we have Communion, and that are known as the Words of Institution.  These are not magical words that transform the bread and wine into flesh and blood.  It’s not my job (or ability!) to do that, nor is that what we say is happening.  Rather, the words demarcate which bread and which wine are dedicated to God’s use for this meal that He provides to us.  Yes, it’s the only bread and wine on the altar, so there’s no risk of confusing it with the dinner rolls.  However, the words still perform the function of telling everyone present that this bread and this wine are to be treated differently – the Lord is going to be using them, and that makes them extraordinary.
As an aside, this is why when there is leftover wine and bread, we don’t just throw it in the trash or dump it down the drain. We treat the consecrated bread and wine differently.  Why?  Because it is different.  God was using it to feed us.  
Paul isn’t done yet, though.  He continues on in verse 29 to say “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.”  That’s kind of scary enough.  But he then goes on to claim that this very issue – not discerning properly the special nature of this sacramental meal – can be a contributing factor to sickness, even death.  “That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.”  That’s a pretty strong statement.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard a pastor preach on that text.  I don’t think that growing up I ever heard this ever talked about.  And yet Paul is linking our participation in the Lord’s Supper to possible physical ailments and death!  
What do we make of this?  As near as I can tell, we try not to take it to be more than it is.  The Lord’s Supper and our discernment in receiving it is serious stuff.  Beautiful stuff, but serious as well.  If there could be serious ramifications to how we participate in it, it’s better to risk offending someone than tell them to come on up and join in the Feast without any regard for what that person believes or thinks.  It’s not our Feast to make those decisions with.  This is the Lord’s supper, and He sets the ground rules, not us.  Showing love in this respect (according to our denominational theology) is to ask the visitor or stranger in worship to either talk beforehand with the pastor or an Elder, or else abstain from the meal.  Partially as a way for the congregation to show love to them, but also as a way for them to show love to the congregation that they are part of for that short time.
More on this next time.

More Communion

March 22, 2011

When people express concern to me about close(d) Communion, they seem to regularly talk in terms of the perception or feelings of visitors who would be excluded.  The idea being roughly that if Christians are loving and friendly, we aren’t going to exclude someone who visits from participating in our worship fully;  that a visitor would be shocked if they were told that they couldn’t participate in something.

I think there’s some truth to this – sometimes a visitor will be offended or shocked that they aren’t allowed to participate in all aspects of worship.  But I tend to think that those individuals who will be shocked and offended will be other Christians – brothers and sisters in Christ visiting from other denominational traditions for whatever reason.  People who are accustomed to receiving Communion in their own congregation and who desire to partake of it wherever they happen to be worshiping.  
That’s understandable, to a certain degree.  And there’s really no way of making this any better.  Someone who worships repeatedly or is interested in becoming part of a new congregation/denomination should be instructed in what’s going on and why they aren’t initially allowed to participate.  There is time for dialogue and discussion on the issue, so they know why they are asked to wait before partaking.  Asking visitors to not participate in Holy Communion is not saying that they aren’t Christian, but rather acknowledging the fact that there’s a good chance that their understanding of this event (since some other Protestant traditions don’t even acknowledge it as a Sacrament) and what happens in it is different than our own.  A one-time visitor isn’t likely to have this communicated to them, and may go away offended.  But my prayer is that repeat visitors will give me the chance to talk about it with them.  
I don’t think that most non-Christians, or people without a church background or experience are going to be offended.  I assume that if I participate in something new or different with a group of people I don’t know well or normally associate with, that it may not be appropriate for me to do everything that they are doing at the event.  I wouldn’t assume that as a visitor to a lodge meeting of some sort, that I would be able to participate in a ceremony or rite reserved only for members of that lodge, individuals who were known to each other and who understood what was happening and why.  
This highlights a distinction that is often drawn between Christian worship and other activities and meetings of other organizations.  The assumption by many is that Christian worship is an open and fully participative event.  That there are no distinctions between lifelong members and first-time visitors.  That anybody who happens to be around on a Sunday morning for whatever reason is welcome to participate equally and fully with everyone else.  Christianity is not a club, in other words.  And while this is true, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a distinction between someone who is on the same page theologically and someone who may not be.  
Christianity is not exclusive in the sense that there are people who are refused entrance into a particular body of believers/congregation.  Everyone is welcome, and the goal is that more and more and more people will become a part of the congregation.  But there’s also the understanding that people new to the congregation and the faith tradition need to be prepared for entry into it.  That there is a difference between attending and participating.  That everyone is welcome to attend – to hear the Word of God and witness Christian worship in action  – but that not everyone should be participating immediately.
In the ancient Church, those wishing to become part of the faith underwent an extensive training and preparation period of two or three years.  They received instruction in the faith, instruction in the Sacraments and other aspects of worship and life in the congregational body.  They publicly confessed their faith in various ways and at various times.  They were expected to demonstrate their commitment and devotion to the faith through a series of rituals.  And finally,  after a 24-hour vigil, they were baptized on Easter morning.  Such beauty and symbolism and meaning!  But it wasn’t what you’d necessarily call easy.  Or seeker sensitive.  At least not by our current interpretations of these concepts.
Christianity and Christian worship welcomes everyone.  I’m not convinced that worship is the first place to bring someone who has never had any contact with Christianity or church, but if they come, they’re going to see and hear what Christians do and believe.  The Word of God and the Holy Spirit will be there and working in their hearts and minds (whether they realize it or not).  Just because they are expected to observe Holy Communion doesn’t mean they aren’t loved.  In fact, Scripturally, our denomination argues that it is precisely in their initial exclusion from Holy Communion (always with an eye towards their eventual inclusion!), that we demonstrate the seriousness of our love for them.
And that’s a segue to the next entry on this topic.  Stay tuned.

Historical Insights on Communion

March 18, 2011

I credit an overall lack of historical awareness as a key issue for Americans in many facets of thinking through complicated issues.  If all we have to go on is what has happened in our own lifetimes or a few decades prior, we’re shortchanging ourselves considerably at the least, and at worst, we’re chasing down paths that seem new and novel but really aren’t.  

Living as we do in a time of comparative peace, tranquility, and prosperity tends to lend a generous nature to the position that many denominations and individual Christians take regarding Holy Communion.  Why not let others take part in this, even if we aren’t sure what their theological understanding is or even whether or not they consider themselves Christian?  I suspect more and more that this understanding is really only possible when we haven’t had to suffer in any way for our participation in Holy Communion.  
Suffering directly because of your faith used to be more of an issue than it is today.  In the first few centuries after the death & resurrection of Jesus Christ, persecution was common.  First from the Jewish community as it became more and more clear that these early Christians were not going to keep quiet about their unorthodox views and experiences.  Later, this translated into persecution by Roman officials.  Rome was rather systematic in attempting to deal with the many religions of it’s various conquered provinces.  It respected the right of a conquered people to continue to worship their own gods.  But it wanted to keep track of this as well.  Existing religions were fine.  New religions?  Not so much.  So early on Jewish opponents of Christians used this as a means of getting Rome to help them in trying to stamp out Christianity.  Judaism was a legitimate religion under the Romans, but the Jews denied that Christians were a form of Judaism (a branch that believes the Messiah has come), but were actually a new religion.  
Many Christians suffered for their faith.  Various emperors persecuted Christians with lesser or greater vigor.   People were tortured in an effort to get them to offer sacrifices to Roman gods or denounce their savior.  People were executed.  Mothers, fathers, children, friends – killed for trusting that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.  
Some – perhaps many – Christians caved in to torture or the threat of torture and execution.  They signed documents stating they had offered the required pagan sacrifices, or bribed officials to fake such documents.  They gave up sacred scriptures to be burned.  They informed on their fellow-believers.  They earned for themselves various monikers depending on how they compromised their faith – apostates who completely renounced the faith and never returned to it; sacrificati who offered sacrifices to pagan gods under threat of punishment; and libellatici, who received writs indicating that they had passed certain tests of faithfulness to pagan gods, but didn’t actually offer sacrifices to them.  
When persecutions faded, many of these Lapsi – lapsed Christians – sought to be re-accepted into Christian communities.  This caused a great deal of controversy.  What was to be made of someone who had, under threat of torture or execution, renounced the One, True God and professed faith in the false gods of Rome?  Could such a person be accepted back into the church?  Could such a person receive forgiveness from God?  
Understandably, those people who had endured torture or financial ruin or the death of a loved one because of the faith were not overly eager to welcome back their brothers and sisters in faith who had escaped such serious repercussions by denying the faith.  Some, like the Novatianists, insisted that this was not possible, and when the church at large ruled that their stance was too extreme, they removed themselves from the church and created their own congregations.  
All of which is a lot of history which explains why for a very, very long time – the vast and overwhelming majority of Christian history – the Sacraments of the faith were treated as the privilege only of those who were known to be of the same faith.  Traditional liturgy (such as you find in Roman Catholic or conservative Lutheran circles) witnesses to this – the Service of the Word comes first, and was open to everyone.  Next came the Service of the Holy Communion.  It was once customary for Catholic churches to ask everyone who was not a Catholic to leave the church.  The Service of Holy Communion was then offered to the faithful who remained.  It’s not that the Catholics didn’t love the non-Catholics – I’m sure they did.  But they understood that something that people had given their lives and their livelihoods to remain faithful to was something appropriate only for those who confessed the same faith.  
I don’t think I ever heard this sort of defense of close(d) communion in seminary.  They focused exclusively on the theological grounds for the practice, and there are definitely theological and Scriptural grounds.  But in terms of just common sense, close(d) communion makes a lot of sense in that people were willing to die rather than to betray it.  People who held it in such high regard that they were willing to have their tongues cut out or their eyes cut out or their property confiscated – the memory of those people (and people today in other parts of the world who suffer similarly for their faith) demands that we not treat it lightly, that we understand the immensity of what is happening through the elements of bread and wine.  
To offer this to someone who isn’t even a Christian, just on the grounds that we don’t wish to hurt their feelings?  Doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Certainly if it was such a small thing, people wouldn’t have needed to die for it.  But it isn’t a small thing.  And people died for it.  It has always stood at the centerpiece of Christian worship and identity (or at least until some of the post-Reformers of the past few hundred years).   That ought to give us pause in how we approach it.  It isn’t an airtight argument – there are lots of things people suffer and die for that aren’t worth it.  But it’s a good reminder of how seriously our predecessors in the faith understood Holy Communion to be.

Curious

March 17, 2011

I was just noticing that for some odd reason, I had more visits to this blog on Saturday than I normally do.  A lot more visits.  Close to 200, in fact.  That’s kind of strange, considering that normally between 20 and 60 folks visit per day.  I wonder what they were looking at, and why?  

Curiouser and curiouser…