Archive for November, 2011

Do You See What I See?

November 30, 2011

Thanks to technology, hopefully not.

Would you invest in contact lenses that were mini-computers capable of displaying e-mail or the Internet?  Would you want someone else to?  What if that person were driving a car?  
I’m wrapping up a semester of teaching Technology & Ethics.  One of the issues that I bring up is that technologists don’t control how their inventions are used.  As such, sometimes, the only ethical option may be not to participate in developing a technology that could be seriously misused or abused.  The problem with this from a practical standpoint is that just because you don’t work on the project doesn’t mean the technology isn’t going to be developed.  It is possible that you yourself may have to face financial or professional setbacks because of the ethical standards you hold, while not ultimately preventing something from being created.  Ethics can hurt.
This article only mentions the possible difficulties with the technology – what are the possible adverse affects on our biology, how might we be physically injured directly from the technology.  It doesn’t deal with any other type of harm.  Such as the harm of potentially millions of drivers reading an e-mail while they *think* they’re paying attention to the road.  Or the harm of potentially exposing people to media for literally every waking moment.  Neither of which are uses I’m sure the technologists envision – but that doesn’t mean it won’t be how their work is utilized.
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Next Year, in Jerusalem

November 27, 2011

Literally.

I’m looking at participating in a tour of the Holy Land in November of 2012.  If people are interested in finding out more about this, please let me know.  Costs will be rather fluid at this point, though the outfit organizing the tour estimates that $3800 should cover everything (other than lunches and souvenirs) including round trip airfare from LAX.  
More details to be forthcoming – but it would be great to travel with some of you and experience firsthand some of the names and places in the Bible!

Disproving God – 1

November 23, 2011

I’ve started on the next section where Dawkins purports to quickly & easily dismiss all of the so-called ‘proofs’ of God’s necessity/existence. I was interested to start this, since I’m interested in apologetics and curious how one of the most vocal critics of Christianity handles the traditional arguments for the necessity of a god.

He tackles Aquinas’ various related arguments against infinite regressiveness first. Essentially, Aquinas argues that since nothing in our universe is the cause of itself, something has to exist as the cause of everything else, and this we call God. To put it another way, we live in a causal universe where everything that happens does so only because it was caused directly or indirectly by another entity or action. Like a row of dominoes, one domino falls only when prompted to by another domino. But since no domino in the universe seems to have a self-impelled property for causation – so that it does what it does without any prompting, there must exist something outside of the created order responsible for setting things in motion.

This isn’t an argument for a deistic sort of watch-winder God who starts off the Big Bang and walks away. While one could go that direction with this sort of argument, it’s obviously not where Biblical Christianity goes. Just sayin’.

I was stunned at Dawkin’s refutation. Not because it was so brilliant, but because it was so non-existent. He basically says (doesn’t even argue) that regression doesn’t need a God at the beginning of it. He argues that a Big Bang type of event is just as good an answer, even though nothing in scientific inquiry appears to demonstrate matter just ‘appearing’. And then he resorts to a red herring – an informal logical fallacy that shifts the focus of the argument into another arena from where it began. He moves very quickly to questioning/mocking the concept of an omniscient and omnipotent God, arguing that if God knows everything including what He will do in the future, then He is incapable of changing his mind and therefore is not omnipotent.

Firstly, this is not directly relevant to Aquinas’ proof. Dawkins is skirting the issue by playing to the friendly readers. Secondly, he is attempting to disprove God by mischaracterizing him – something he’s done already in reference to Bertrand Russell’s celestial teapot analogy. Dawkins is asserting that God is subject to the experience of linear time in the same way that we are. This is hugely misleading. If God reveals himself to be eternal – without beginning or end, he seems to logically stand outside of time as a progressive element that we experience. In other words, God created time, He is not subject to it the way you and I are. While the poem is pithy and cute, it’s arguing against a God that is not the God described in the Bible. Dawkins acts as though it is, which either uncovers his massive ignorance of the very thing he’s so dead set against, or it’s deliberate because he doesn’t have a better argument. Either way, I was underwhelmed. Woohoo!

Black Thursday?

November 19, 2011

I think it’s rather ironic that one of the few bones of contention about where to draw the line to protect families is what time the stores should open for the biggest shopping day of the year – Black Friday.

With retailers scrambling after fewer consumer dollars, some of the big retail chains have said they will open up at midnight instead of waiting until 4:00 am Friday morning.  This means that for people committed to braving the crowds to get the best deals, they’ll need to be waiting in line by Thursday afternoon, cutting in to family time together on Thanksgiving.  It also means store employees won’t have as much of a holiday as they might have in years past.  
The line on holiday hours has been pushed for years.  It’s going to keep being pushed as long as we keep chasing the carrots of lower prices that are held out for us.  If people are really as upset about this as some claim to be, I hope they voice it with their wallets.

NIMBY

November 18, 2011

Not in my backyard.  NIMBY.

This article was shared on Facebook with an invitation to comments.  I think there’s a lot to comment on – well beyond the scope of what most people want/expect in a FB response, so I’m responding here.  Read the article, then read the rest of this.  I’ll wait for you.
All done?
The basic premise is that the cause of the Occupy Wall Street movement is somehow linked to the cause of the Church.  This is a big assertion, considering how vague the various demands coming from OWS seem to be.  I have yet to hear any definitive statement for the movement.  They are about change, but what that change needs to be and how it should be arrived at seem to be a matter of personal opinion, and there are plenty of opinions amongst the “99ers”.  Without a clear statement of purpose, how can Jim Wallis assert that there is a common cause?  There might well be a common cause, but whether OWS would see it as such or not is another issue.
He makes the assertion that the “growing inequality in our society” is a very “religious and Biblical issue”.  What does he mean by this?  The Bible does not assert that we are to be economically equal.  The Bible does condemn those who oppress others and who achieve their gain by exploiting or oppressing others, through unjust means, or who lose their concern and love for neighbor in the process.  Biblically, the issue is not inequality, the issue is how that inequality comes about.  Inasmuch as OWS wants to address the inequalities in our economic system, I’m all for it.  But I don’t really think that’s the exclusive interest of may OWS folks.
Wallis suggests that churches should invite the protesters to stay on their campuses when they are kicked out of public venues.  I’m not sure what this accomplishes.  The point of the protest is to be in public space where they have to be dealt with and heard to some extent.  The issue is to push the bounds of civil disobedience in order to demand confrontation on the issues.  Churches inviting OWS to camp out simply become centers for squatters of various stripes.  At best, the police don’t have to bother with the OWS folks because they are out of the way and no longer a nuisance.  At worst, the congregation becomes liable for all sorts of infractions of usage permits, etc.  
Wallis makes the assertion that the issues of OWS are “gospel issues, and are therefore the business of the churches.”  I disagree.
Until there is a definitive message and demand from OWS, I have nothing to determine whether their issues are issues that the church should be getting involved with.  Until I know what their demands are, it would be reckless foolishness to align myself with them.  You can’t align yourself with someone who makes no stance.  You can stand next to them, but you may in fact be worlds apart.
The Gospel is not an economic issue.  The Gospel is that the world and every single person in it is broken and cannot fix themselves.  The Gospel is that the solution to this broken, sinful, self-centered rejection of God is for God to send his Son to be one of us, to be perfectly obedient, to suffer and die innocently, and to be raised again as the promise of our reconciliation with God.  This is the Gospel – that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  
This is not the issue that OWS is dealing with.  OWS is not proclaiming Christ crucified, which is the primary duty of the Church.  
The Church should also be concerned about people – loving our neighbor as ourselves as a response to loving God.  But the church’s job is to proclaim ultimately that we will continue to use and abuse each other until we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.  And that even then, perfect harmony between all humankind will not occur until Jesus returns in glory.  The Church still has a role for the voice of the downtrodden, but I’m less sure our voice is to used to scream for political change.  I tend to suspect our voice is to be used in speaking and ministering directly to those in need.  But that’s a lot harder, so I can understand why screaming is preferred.
I think that inviting people for food and discussion is a good thing.  Sharing a meal together is a wonderful idea that congregations should take seriously.  Inviting a group of disassociated people to camp on your property for an indefinite period of time is not what I would consider a good thing.  
Churches need to be welcoming places to all manner of people.  In that respect, welcoming the OWS protesters shouldn’t be anything new or different.  We should be just as willing to invite the homeless, the ex-convicts, and other marginalized elements of our society.  I can’t help but feel that in highlighting the OWS participants as the target of hospitality, Wallis has other goals and agendas in mind beyond sharing the love of Christ with our neighbor.  

If It’s Broken, Don’t Fix It

November 16, 2011

Yesterday I joined about 20 other area religious leaders for a meeting with the school superintendent for our county.  At his invitation, we were gathered for lunch and to discuss how the school district and religious leaders might work more closely together for the benefit of the county’s children.  

It went as many of these sorts of meetings go.  Very congenial, with lots of pleasant compliments and thank-yous back and forth for inviting and attending and sharing and listening.  All of which are important things, to be sure.  I believe the Superintendent cares about the children of the county, and I believe he knows that the religious leaders of the county care as well.  Coordinating our efforts to some degree makes a lot of sense – particularly in light of continued shrinking education budgets.
However, after two hours of conversational and food-based mastication, there wasn’t much to show for the meeting.  E-mail addresses were exchanged.  The attendees will be put on the school district’s mailing list so we know what is going on in the district.  We were encouraged to send our information to the Superintendent’s office so that they know what we’re doing.
There were plenty of inquiries about how we might reach the children that the school district knows need help, but who the school district does not have the expertise or the resources to help.  Expertise and resources that many of the area religious institutions do have.  But of course there’s the line of separation of church and state that needs to be observed.  Everyone there was more than willing to acknowledge that.  The Superintendent was well-spoken about wanting to find ways to work with us that are permissible.
But a few major roadblocks stand in the way.  The district is forbidden from disseminating information regarding events and activities outside of a very narrow predefined nature.  No outside groups are allowed to advertise events or services in the schools.  While organizations of any kind can rent space in a school for an event or activity, they are not allowed to advertise in any way to the school that the event is going on.  
We lamented the fact that kids are under such pressure these days – academically, personally, socially, sexually, technologically.  We all expressed a desire to assist with this, but there was no indication that this much-needed help would be allowed, or that the district was interested in even fighting for it to be allowed.  We gathered together to eat a lunch to talk about how broken things are, and ultimately how the best we can hope for is to prop up the broken system, because actually fixing the problems that our children face is not an option.  
That’s mildly frustrating.
The Superintendent reiterated several times that he hoped we would communicate to teachers and administrators if we had specific information about children in our congregations and their classrooms, information about life issues and other events that might help teachers and administers better respond to the children.  But other than vague assurances of the desire to work together, no real options were made available.    
The Superintendent touted his insistence that teachers who fail to perform and fail to pursue training and education to help them perform better will not be retained in the district, regardless of union pressures.  But what’s needed is exactly that same sort of bravado in dealing with the system as a whole.  At what point – if ever – are we going to admit that the secular onslaught in the past 50 years has been destructive in education, not beneficial?  And when will religious organizations be publicly acknowledged as the resources and partners that we are and can be, rather than as less-than-honorable institutions out to make a quick buck or somehow brainwash someone into a profession of faith?  
The food was good.  The people were good.  But the conversation was disappointing, and until the system starts seeing the need for change, or until people outside the system begin demanding that it change – it isn’t going to.  And children are going to continue to suffer despite everyone wishing they could help.

Observing Memorials

November 15, 2011

It’s been a busy few weeks for death, though I suppose that describes most weeks rather than just my particular last few.  I conducted a memorial service this week for a member of the congregation, and I attended a memorial service this afternoon for the father of a close friend & associate.  And in mostly unrelated news, the pastor who confirmed me passed away yesterday, but I won’t be doing or watching his memorial service.  

Going to other memorial services is always a mixed experience now.  There’s empathy for the family and friends who are grieving.  There’s a certain level of professional curiosity – how is the pastor going to conduct the service?  What will the emphasis be?  Have I been doing it wrong all these years?
It seems as though a Christian memorial service can have one of two foci – either the person who is deceased or God.  It’s either a time for us to remember and share our relationship with that person and what their faith has meant in our lives, or it’s an opportunity to give praise and glory to the God who created, redeemed, and has sanctified our brother or sister in Christ.  
I opt for the latter.  I treat Christian memorial services as times for the community of faith to gather around the friends and family of the deceased and affirm the faith of the departed.  This means to acknowledge that the deceased was a person of faith, that they trusted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, and it then means explicating what that faith means not just for them, but for those of us assembled.  The Gospel has to be proclaimed.  Jesus Christ as the way of reconciliation with God the Father must be the central focus.  
I find that this focus makes people preparing for their own death more comfortable.  Most folks don’t want a big fuss made about them.  I’ve ministered to some people who have refused the idea of a memorial service because it seems self-serving (even though they’re going to be dead at the time).  When I assure them that they are the reason for the gathering, but not the focus of the gathering, it seems to help them relax a bit.  The service has a purpose, and in my way of handling it, the purpose is not the glorification of a dead person (however good and wonderful they might have been), but the glorification of the God that they are now at peace with.
Others opt for the alternative though, focusing on the individual.  It’s a touching time, when personal testimonies make up the bulk of a service.  It never fails to bring the tears and the laughter, the emotional catharsis that we all crave as a release from the feelings of grief and loss.  But it always seems so awkward.  The picture that is painted of the deceased is invariably lopsided.  Whatever flaws and shortcomings they had are either ignored or treated as cute or lovable.  Whatever their good traits were seem exploded to monumental proportions.  It makes me itchy, and perhaps that’s just because I’d hate for anyone to be so mistaken about who I am after I die.  Maybe for other folks, it isn’t a mistake.  
It’s not that the Gospel can’t come through in this person-focused service.  But it’s often obscured.  Reference invariably is made to the person’s faith, but it’s rarely explained as to what that faith specifically was, and how that faith can and should be the faith of every person listening to the memories and testimonies.  It can too easily remain as yet another beautiful aspect of the deceased’s personality, without ever coming across as a vital, life-giving necessity that can be the joy of every person sitting there.  
Perhaps there’s a happy medium to be had.  I haven’t seen it yet, but perhaps it exists.  
Be that as it may, when I die, the preacher damn well better focus on the Gospel and not on me.  Not because it will matter to me at that point, but because it will matter a very great deal to whomever happens to be gathered to send me off.

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

November 15, 2011

Many years ago, I remember dimly an exchange with my pastor (and eventual father-in-law) about Advent services at our little campus ministry in the desert.

Me:  “Why aren’t we singing Christmas songs?  It’s December!”
Him:  “Because it’s not Christmas yet.”
Me:  “Well that’s stupid.”
I may be ad libbing the last part, but if I didn’t actually say it, I’m sure I was thinking it.  Advent and Christmas are all sort of rolled together in a big gooey ball.  At least that’s how I used to look at it.  If it’s December, you’d best be singing Christmas songs in worship.  We only get to sing them for a few weeks each year, so don’t be stingy about it.  Nobody else is.
I always chuckle appreciatively at the exasperated comments of friends on Facebook and other places about how early Christmas arrives in the rest of our culture.  Halloween isn’t over yet and there are the Christmas songs beginning to be interspersed over the in-store speakers.  In between the black and orange crepe paper are glittering green and red things.  Isn’t it odd that celebrations of death and life should be bumped up against one another so unceremoniously?
Not really.
I mean, it’s annoying, to be certain.  It’s a growing demonstration of just how necessary it is in our culture that we constantly be buying something, or else everything grinds to a halt.  But death and life are ever mushed up against one another.  Maybe that’s part of what annoys us about art (or advertising) imitating life.
Advent is not a joyful time – not traditionally, at least.  It was a time of penitence.  A time of reflection on our lives and a recognition that we aren’t the people that we ought to be.  In that respect, the first season of a liturgical church year mirrors somewhat many of the thoughts that strike people around the beginning of the calendar year.  But unlike New Year’s Day, Advent doesn’t call us to more bold promises of changed behavior, resolutions of rightness.  It calls us to remember that we are incapable of these in any meaningful sense.  Whether we lose a few pounds, whether we treat people more kindly or dress differently makes no eternal difference.  At best we tweak our relationship with the people around us.  We are incapable, Advent reminds us, of tweaking our relationship with God.  We are, in fact, left to our own devices, dead before God.  Dead in our brokenness and sinfulness.  
Put that in your stocking and ho-ho-ho it.  
Four weeks of penitence, of repentance, of denying self through fasting from food, all of which was intended to lead us into a greater awareness of just how great our need for a Savior is.  Ever wonder why the third Sunday in Advent has a pink candle in the Advent wreath rather than a purple one?  It’s a sign of hope – excitement that the rigors of Advent are nearly over and the celebration of Christmas is almost here.  Hang in there, God has heard our prayers!  He’s going to answer them – soon!  
We’ve lost much of that sense of Advent though.  For many of us, it’s a gauntlet of friends and family and shopping and traditions and obligations that weighs us down in a much different way.  We’re not focused internally on our relationship with our God – He’s pushed to the periphery while we deal with the people around us, tweaking our relationships.  For others, Advent becomes a time of sorrow because of their current circumstances.  Rather than focusing on the God we love, they are crushed and pressed into thinking of their own loss and pain.  
We stumble into Christmas morning bleary-eyed.  Relieved in some ways that we can finally relax.  Christmas is here.  The shopping and wrapping and hand-wringing over finances is over.  The dinner parties and gatherings and carolings and bakings are finished.  No wonder we lament the early arrival of Christmas music each year in the stores – it’s a cruel trick, because we have at least two months to go before we can sing with any true meaning Joy to the World!
We lament the early arrival of Christmas music in the stores but demand it in our sanctuaries.  The world starts celebrating Christmas three months early, while in churches we celebrate it for two weeks after the rest of the world has put Christmas in the 50% off clearance bins.  We’re topsy turvy in what we want to experience and what we need to experience.  We want to focus only on the arrival, forgetting what precipitated it.  
Hopefully my congregation will be understanding – and hopefully I’ll be good at communicating – why we hold off full-force on the Christmas songs until Christmas Day.  I doubt they’ll be overly convinced, but hopefully they’ll exercise more tact in the discussion than I did with my pastor years ago.  That would certainly help me feel that It’s a Wonderful Life.  
(Which, incidentally, I’ve still never seen all the way through!)

I Can Only Imagine

November 11, 2011

We live in an interesting time when the scattered, random thoughts that we all sift through daily can be freely shared instantly with literally everyone we know.  Facebook status updates, Tweets – Lord only knows what’s hip and popular now that I don’t even know about – all of these not only invite us to share every little up and down in our life, they almost compel us to.  The fear of being silent is too great for too many, I suspect.  And while there’s rich irony in a pastor lamenting talking too much, there’s truth as well.

Daily scans of my Facebook friends never fails to yield at least one commiseration about the day, the week, the month.  I know I can count on certain people to complain weekly – if even in pithy and humorous ways – their current struggle to Just Get By.  I could probably set my clock by some of the comments, particularly on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
These are, by and large, successful people.  Their lives are filled with careers and children and the everyday issues of living.  Few if any of them truly suffer in the deepest sense of the word – at least based on external observation.  Yes, it’s hard to get up in the morning.  Yes, there are some work weeks that seem to drag on forever.  Yes, dealing with people is sometimes not the glamorous work it’s laid out to be.  We all have these moments.  We all have these fleeting thoughts when we briefly lament the harriedness of our life or day and yearn for the iconic deserted island where we can sip on a drink and listen to the tide wash in and out without any demands on us.
It isn’t that we don’t all have these thoughts from time to time.  It’s that we are able and almost compelled to share them with everyone we know.  This creates a climate in which our little struggles become highlighted, reinforced, rewarded with Facebook Likes and chipper comments of commiseration.  We begin to celebrate our exhaustion and our moments of weakness and desire for something different.  These moments cease to be small hurdles to be quietly resisted and set aside so that we can get on with the hallowed task of living.  They become enshrined as the epitome of our existence, the hallmark of our reality.  We begin to observe and celebrate not the moments where we are at our best, but the moments where we feel our weakest.
And, again, there are people who truly suffer.  But by and large my artificially expanded and maintained social network doesn’t have a lot of these folks in it.  Yet still they complain.  Regularly.  There are days when I’m tempted to join in.  
Veterans Day is a bit of a reality check for me.  Blessed to have been placed at a point in history between major armed conflicts, I was never drafted into military service nor did I volunteer for it.  It remained an option for me, one that I never chose to pursue.  But I consider people who didn’t have that option, or who selected that option intentionally, and it’s humbling in its perspective-giving.  
The thought of my grandfathers serving in the Pacific and European Theaters of World War II is amazing to me.  I can’t wrap my head around it.  Nor can I adequately understand the sacrifice of the men and women who serve in our armed forces today.  Who at barely 20 years of age encounter foreign cultures and harsh climates, language barriers and social taboos – as well as the active, deadly intent of all manner of enemy.  Who are shot at, bombed, ambushed, isolated, threatened – and yet who persevere.  Who struggle through bad days when they lose a comrade in arms to an IED or a sniper.  Who leave behind spouses and children as well as education and career tracks.  Who deal with more in a day than I have had to deal with in the last year – by pretty much any metric you want to apply.
Most of the veterans I know volunteered for service, but that doesn’t make the magnitude of their service any less impressive.  What it does do is place my days in perspective.  When I’m tired, when I’m feeling overwhelmed, when I’m feeling unmotivated.  What a luxury to be able to reflect on these emotional and physical states!  What richness that so many of us are so able to reflect so deeply on the character and nature of our tiredness, and come up with new and witty ways of sharing it with the rest of the world.
Please feel free to remind me of this post should I ever need to lament on a regular basis how crazy my weeks are, or how tired I make myself, or how badly I need a vacation.  It’s not the message I want to be known for.  It’s not how I want to define my own life.  And I pray it’s not how others characterize their own.  Be thankful & grateful for whatever exhaustion and inconvenience you’re dealing with.  Odds are more than good that your rough day is pretty mild compared to the day that lots and lots and lots of other people are dealing with.  
Put that in your iPhone and Tweet it.  

Bored

November 10, 2011

Blogging motivation is low these days, as you may have noticed.  It seems as though the headlines fixate on one crisis after another.  Most of these are things I’ve dealt with at one point or another over the last five years or so, and sometimes beating the proverbial dead horse doesn’t seem very appealing.  

I began this blog wanting to write about the intersections of community and culture and Christianity.  That’s still what I want to do – but the headlines don’t seem to generate much of interest in that respect – or at least much new.  The things that are on my mind of late seem to be more internally focused – issues of church polity and organization and the specific nuances of how to minister in a rapidly shifting culture.  That seems a narrower focus than what I originally desired.  I don’t want this to be a blog that only could be of use to those in the church already.  
So, what’s on your minds these days?  What are you dealing with, interested in, worried about, or thankful for?  Maybe through your sharing, I’ll get a renewed sense of direction, or at least a few things to write specifically about!