Archive for March, 2012

Moderately Happier

March 28, 2012

That’s the basic finding of a recent study comparing the average number of positive emotions on a daily basis between actively religious and non/moderately religious people.  People that attend worship regularly are moderately happier than those who don’t.  

Not surprisingly, this article takes a rather practical approach to the whole topic.  The one person quoted in the article (a graduate student in psychology, no less!!!) expresses his surprise that religion might play a “useful function” in society.  I think his quote is in relation to another study that found that religious folks are more self-disciplined across the board in whatever they’re working on than non-religious folks.  It’s not just a pleasant personalized fantasy, the equivalent of an imaginary night-light that makes the darkness of death less unpleasant.  It can be used to make us more productive.  How comforting!
Nice to know I haven’t been just wasting time all these years!  Or perhaps more accurately, my various employers over the years should be glad to know I wasn’t just wasting time!

When Ordinary Isn’t Average

March 22, 2012

I like to think of myself as average.  A run of the mill kind of guy.  Slightly smarter, wittier, and more cultured than everyone else, of course.  But not to the extent that anyone could hold it against me.  Because everyone feels that way, right?  In between bouts of devastating self-doubt?  I know that can’t just be me.  Sure.  Average. 


Yet in a statistical sense, this is nonsense.  The things I take for granted as ordinary – homeschooling our children, not having television access in our home, trying to minimize how much we eat out as a family, trying to cook more healthy and organically, etc. are not ordinary or average.  
I live in a bubble.
I find this distasteful.
The fact that I used the word distasteful further demonstrates my bubbleness.
I found this little quiz interesting, if not entirely surprising.  The author has been generating a buzz for nearly 20 years with somewhat controversial assertions, some of which make a lot of sense and yet have troubling implications in a culture that insists we must all be the same while increasingly cultivating an arena of intellectual elitism.  
The quiz demonstrates how many of us live in culture bubbles, isolated from much of the rest of the population of the United States in our habits, regardless of whether we consider ourselves ordinary or not.  Depending on how one writes the questions though, the greater truth is that we all live in bubbles.  Like tends to gravitate to like in one way or another.  
It also could (and probably should) be argued that the subset of people taking an online quiz at the PBS web site from an economist and social commentator are likely going to be somewhat skewed in terms of results.  In other words, my hypothesis is that many of the people who take the test will find that they are more or less in a bubble.  Together.  With me.  But a small bubble compared to overall population statistics. 
Or is that just my effort to see my particular results as ordinary once again?

Taste Test What?!?

March 22, 2012

A tip of the hat to the always thought-provoking and eloquent Gene Veith for bringing this to my attention (as I’m not sure where else you might hear about it).  

Pepsi uses fetal cells from aborted fetuses in the process for tasting and developing flavor enhancers.  
Please note that fetal cells are not being used in the drinks themselves, but rather as part of a chemical process of determining what flavor enhancers are present or working the way they are intended.  This may seem barbaric enough, but the government stance that this is a perfectly ordinary business issue seems rather barbaric as well.  Let me see…we’re going to require every person in the US to pay for abortions to be covered for whomever wants them, and then the bits and pieces of those aborted babies are fair game for use in product testing.  Hmmmm.  That just stinks all the way around.
Pepsi is denying the allegations, but it appears to be a matter of careful wordsmithing.  Pepsi would be hard pressed to deny a business relationship with the firm that is alleged to be utilizing the fetal cells, Senomyx, particularly given press releases like this one.    But what Pepsico is denying is not what is being alleged.  Pepsico denies that it has or will in any way “conduct or fund research, including research performed by third parties” utilizing any human tissues.  But the allegations aren’t that it is funding research, but rather that Senomyx is actually already using fetal tissues as part of an existing product testing process.  It doesn’t sound like research per se to me, but an already established procedure.  Semantically that indicates a difference to me in what Pepsico is denying vs. what is being criticized.  It seems a fancy shuffling of words and terms calculated to minimize the negative impact of what is, no matter how you look at it, a pretty tasteless situation.
The larger question in my mind becomes what else are these fetal tissues being used for?  If some of them are finding their way into corporate research labs, how are they getting there?  What provisions in the laws that dictate how fetal remains are to be disposed of allow for these remains to be used in industry?  Is there a form that parents sign when they get an abortion that says they are willing to have the remains go for medical or other research?  Do they know this is even a possibility?
Seems like a lot more investigation might turn up other possible uses that would turn our stomachs.

What Is Normal?

March 17, 2012

Seems like a simple question, until we have to describe it to someone else.  

Normal is like me!
Not necessarily so by a long shot, depending on who you are!  But the fact remains that in our American culture the definition of normality has been made the responsibility of a select group of professionals in a profession that really didn’t exist 200 years ago – psychiatry.  Now psychiatrists are responsible for generating a compendium of defined mental illnesses, which is in turn used to diagnose people and prescribe treatments for them.  At some level that I’m not familiar with, I’m sure this all gets linked in to money via insurance companies and what they will or won’t pay for treatment or medication for.
The compendium is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – the DSM for short.  The fifth edition of this volume comes out next year.  Changes in this manual may seem to be relegated to a very small subgroup of professional psychiatrists, sort of an in-house guide that doesn’t really impact the larger world.  
Unfortunately that’s not the case.  Perhaps the most famous impact of a change to a volume that few people outside the world of psychiatry and medicine have ever heard about came in 1973, when homosexuality was removed as a diagnosed mental illness from the second edition of the DSM.  
Now a movement is on by some in the arena of psychiatry to classify grief and mourning as mental health problems.  Using a variety of possible terms and definitions, grief could be categorized as a form of mental illness if it has not abated in as little as two weeks after a traumatic event, such as the death of a spouse.  This despite no small amount of data that suggests that mourning and it’s effects are ‘normal’ as long as two years after the death of a spouse.
If this new classification is ratified, then people experiencing grief could be diagnosed as having a disorder, and they would have easier access to (and insurance payment for) anti-depressants and other products that aim to dull the effects of grief.  Grief would become even more of a social stigma than it already is.  Those dealing with grief would now also be dealing with even greater levels of guilt associated with that grief.  The cumulative effect seems terrible on our culture, with only the drug companies apparently benefiting from this sort of move.  
How long should it take you to get over a traumatic event?  Is it appropriate for a small group of a highly specialized profession to make this sort of massive decision, and on what basis?  No, this sort of thing isn’t unusual – our lives are remarkably regulated by small groups of specialized ‘experts’ in literally every arena from what we eat (and how it is labeled) to how we act.  Perhaps this recent move in a long line of human regulation will give us a moment to pause and reflect on whether or not this is such a wise thing.  
Just don’t pause too long – you may be diagnosed with a mental illness.

Score This!

March 16, 2012

An example of the US Citizenship test, courtesy of the Christian Science Monitor.  I scored 91/96.  I missed one question that careful reading of the answers would have avoided.  The other four were honest misses.  You have to score at least 58 to qualify for citizenship.

How do you score?

A Noble Task

March 15, 2012

One of my very first seminary courses was an introduction to the ministry.  The very first lecture in that class was a pep talk of sorts.  The professor elaborated on 1 Timothy 3:1 – “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.”  Particularly, his lecture focused on the end of that verse, elaborating and fleshing out what this noble task looks like.  Particularly, he stressed that pastors enjoy a privileged role in the lives of their congregants.  That they are privy to moments of joy and despair.  They function as a sort of extended family member, with many of the rights and privileges – and duties – thereof.  Very few people outside of a family are treated this way.  

I remember agreeing that this is the case, while simultaneously lamenting the fact that it is so.  I believed then – as I believe now – that although pastors naturally inherit this role, it is a role that should be open to other members of the body of Christ.  The pastoral office entitles pastors to being part of a family’s inner circle, but in principle and practice that role of inner-circle member could – and undoubtedly should – be opened to others in the the community of faith.  In other words, it isn’t necessarily something specific to the pastoral office that provides this sort of intimate relationship with others, but rather it’s a privilege that has come to be associated almost exclusively with the pastoral office.  Pastors are often the ones who foster that sort of association, for better or worse.
Yesterday I entered into the grief of a family mourning their mother, who had passed away just minutes before I stopped in.  Later in the day I conveyed this information to the deceased’s husband, who for a variety of complicated reasons was not privy to the information sooner.  In the past week or so I have also been privileged to meet with mothers with newborn babies, and to meet with family members in the midst of family crisis.  I’ve accompanied people to the ER for admitting.  I’ve listened and prayed for people dealing with severe depression and other emotional issues.  
It is a privileged task.  Not one that I have any exclusive right to undertake, but one that my vocation hands to me automatically.  I see part of my role in building up the body of Christ as encouraging others to hand this right to other members of the congregation that they know and love, and to receive this right from others.  It can be an intimidating thing.
Which is partly why I found this blog entry from a first year medical student interesting this morning.  I commend this student for her undertaking to meet with a patient outside of the normal parameters of a doctor-patient relationship.  It’s a positive step that I hope she’ll repeat, although she seems to give ample reason to believe she won’t.   But it also highlights a key difference between Christian community in a person’s life, and the role of other people privileged for various reasons to be privy to the intimate details of someone’s life.
I don’t enter into the specifics of a person’s life in order to fix them.  I enter into the specifics of people’s lives as a witness to a hope and a faith and a trust.  It may be one that they fully share, in which case I encourage, remind, support, and otherwise accompany that person in their issues as people of faith.  Other times they may not fully share the hope and faith and trust I bear witness to, in which case my role might be to explain, advocate, teach, model, and otherwise seek to convey the Good News in a way that facilitates the Holy Spirit’s work in their heart and mind.  
I don’t enter into lives to study.  To make reports on.  As this young student aptly notes, entering into people’s lives requires some level of experience, whether internally or externally, in addressing the issues at play.  I have to be comfortable in my own skin – and with the idea of one day no longer being in my own skin –  in order to give comfort to others.  I don’t have to have all the answers – and rarely do I have any answers of my own! – but I need to be able to face whatever they are struggling with without flinching, willing to stand with them, suffer and rejoice with them, not simply observe them for my own purposes.  
Pastors – and Christian community – don’t have a purpose in standing with one another in the midst of sorrow or grief, other than as a means of helping and encouraging and supporting.  There is no hidden agenda other than seeking to love that other person with the love of Christ as imperfectly dwelling within us and conveyed through us.  We seek through the ministry of presence, through a touch, through a prepared meal or simply sitting quietly with someone to point to the love of Christ that we ourselves have received and must rely completely on.  
I encourage this future doctor to continue meeting with patients as people, not just as problems to be solved.  Doing so will certainly stretch her, force her to come to grips with the realities of life and death as well as defining what it is she is offering to others through her skills, and why she is offering it.  It’s something I pray that more Christians will be encouraged to do with one another as well.  Not because it’s easy, but because it is a noble task and a sacred gift.

Happy Happy Joy Joy

March 14, 2012

First off, and not directly related to the rest of this point, let me reiterate my growing hatred of Facebook.  A friend posted a link to the article this blog is actually about.  When I went back to comment on the link he posted, I couldn’t find the entry he had made on it.  Despite having just clicked on it ten minutes earlier.  Grrrrrrrr.

In any event, read this essay, quickly, in case it disappears too.  It’s somewhat of an abstract of several surveys on young adults and marriage.  If you don’t have the patience to read the whole article (which you really should if you’re a young adult, related to a young adult, or know a young adult), the upshot of it is that personal happiness is sort of the overriding goal of the respondents.  Marriage is desirable inasmuch as it fosters and contributes to their personal happiness.  If that happiness begins to tarnish, it’s evidence that the marriage isn’t valid, and that they were probably mistaken in their earlier feelings of love and commitment to their spouse.  
My concern with the essay comes from the conclusions it draws.  The last five paragraphs attempt to deal with ways that we could make an impact on the ideas of marriage that young adults have.  The problem is that none of them deal with the major issue – that marriage has become primarily a mechanism for providing personal happiness, rather than a partnership of give and take where there will be times of greater and lesser happiness and satisfaction that are to be expected and weathered rather than bailed out on.  
Their first recommendation is that we stop telling young adults (who are likely cohabitating and are increasingly likely to have children, even though their cohabitating as opposed to marrying is a sign they aren’t yet convinced the other person is the right person to marry) to just get married.  Acting as though the legal act of marriage carries any significant weight in terms of behavior modification and expectation modification is flawed logic.  
I tend to agree with this at one level.  But it begs the question.  What is marriage if it is not the sharing of oneself financially, physically, emotionally, and (whether intended or not) procreation?  The article highlights that these functions are somehow separated from an idealized concept of marriage, rather than being linked inextricably with it.  While acting as though legal marriage will have any sort of real effect on a cohabitating couple with children may be flawed, it may be less flawed if we try to disabuse some of the odd concepts that people have of what marriage actually is.  In other words, if we begin linking marriage expectations to objective actions (sexuality & fidelity, procreation) rather than to subjective feelings (happiness), we could go a long way in demonstrating that what is being defined these days as just part of the process of searching for the right spouse (living together, sexual activity & intended or unintended procreation) is actually marriage.  Regardless of how we feel about it.  
Their next recommendation is to talk about marriage as the way of safeguarding things that young adults truly value and desire – stability, family, love.  Much agreed.  But only if we are also working to disabuse the notion that love is only an emotion, rather than an act of the will as well.  According to case studies the authors themselves cite, young adults feel that if they no longer have the feeling of love (whatever that means), then it’s evidence that they never really were in love to begin with, and therefore they are justified in dissolving the marriage in order to find that love with another person. 
Up until the last 40 years or so, the unrealistic portrayals of love in film, books, television, etc. were mitigated to a great extent by actual examples of love.  Parents who remained married, bickered and fought without ever rejecting their marriage vows.  Congregations filled with people who have been married for 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, even 70 years.  Living testimonies (and hopefully honest testimonies) to the enduring nature of the commitment of love between two people as opposed to the feeling of love.  
Kids don’t have these examples any longer.  Many kids don’t have two parents in their home.  Many more don’t have the same two parents who conceived them in the same home.  Congregations are often devoid of other parental role models – people the age of a child’s parents who serve as another example and testimony of marriage & fidelity.  And increasingly, congregations are devoid of the next generation back – a child’s grandparents – who further model that sort of commitment.  Kids have fewer friends who have parents who are married and are their actual birth parents (or adoptive parents).  
If we don’t have places where the reality of married life is demonstrated against the fantasy of media, are we surprised that younger people have a skewed sense of reality?  
Their final recommendation is to emphasize the binding nature of marriage and the importance of personal honor in making that sort of commitment.  While I think this is definitely on the right track, it also won’t work well without other groundwork.  The reason more young people choose to live together and delay marriage is because they want their vow to stand and last when they finally make it.  The problem is that they seem to think that there will be this magical moment when this is the case – when their vow will somehow of it’s own volition stand and last, despite the fact that they are still viewing that vow as a means of personal happiness and fulfillment that they are free to invalidate whenever they don’t feel that the happiness is adequate or the fulfillment as deep as they once measured it.  
Young adults do want to be people of their word.  But they have to be taught what that means.  That living by your word may well require a great deal of unhappiness from time to time.  It certainly entails focusing on more than just your own personal happiness, and rather seeing yourself as part of something greater and stronger and more fulfilling – a marriage and perhaps a family of your own.  
We need to be able to speak honestly about struggles, rather than strive to pay homage to the Cult of Happiness that demands we sacrifice everyone and everything to some vaguely defined sense of personal happiness.  That is something that has to start in the home and be reinforced elsewhere – in the extended family and in congregations and other social institutions.  In other words, it’s not just about ‘fixing’ young adults.  It’s about taking a good hard look at ourselves.  

Rules vs. Readers

March 13, 2012

Since I apparently have nothing original to contribute to the blogosphere today, I’ll contribute this link to someone who does.  Rev. Kloha is a professor at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, and I was privileged to be insulted intellectually by him on many occasions in several courses.  

I like what he does in this article.  He reminds us that being too quick – on either end of the spectrum – to assume that a meaning is obvious in Scripture is probably dangerous or at least misinformed.  Who we are as readers can have just as much importance as what the words we are reading say.  In fact, our identity as readers to a certain extent forms what meanings those words are capable of having in the first place.  Painful stuff to think about, to be sure, but important.  

Meanwhile, In Great Britain….

March 13, 2012

Time to update your jewelry choices.

Local Context in a Broadband World

March 11, 2012
Have you heard about the latest viral news story on the Internet?  An 85-year old reporter has caught people’s attention across the country and world because she wrote a nice review about the newest restaurant in her small town – an Olive Garden.  Foodies, critics, and anybody with a few minutes to spare is weighing in – many critical of her for bothering to review a chain restaurant, let alone to review it favorably.  

When people find out what my professional vocation is, they wonder whether our church has a web site and if so, if my sermons are uploaded there for people to listen to.  Yes, we do have a web site.  But no, my sermons are not up there.  For precisely the reason that the story I mentioned above has generated so much interest.  Context.  Or lack thereof.

There is an assumption by many (pastors included) that sermons are a form of media akin to any other media, and that therefore they should be disseminated to the widest possible audiences via YouTube or through their congregational web site.  While I respect those who choose to do this, I don’t agree that sermons are just another form of media, or more accurately, that they are an interchangeable form of media.
Media is produced for an audience.  Producing the right (or wrong) media for the wrong audience is problematic, to say the least.  At the very least, it won’t do what you hope it will, or nobody will pay any attention to it.  Lord knows there are plenty of audio and video clips of sermons!  But at the very worst, what will happen to it is something akin to what happened to the restaurant review above.
It will be taken woefully out of context, dangerously so, and may end up being more harmful than helpful.  
The reporter mentioned above did what she was supposed to – she wrote an honest review of a noteworthy new eating establishment in her town.  Her review was intended for the residents of her town.  People with similar tastes, most likely.  But at the very least, people who understood why she was bothering to write about it.  They knew the context.  They were the context, and she wrote with that in mind.  
Obviously, when people outside her intended audience listen in, they’re going to get different ideas.  They don’t know her context.  They lift her comments out of their intended context, import them into their own, and then laugh at them.  Are they right for doing so?  Probably not.  But they are being human.  
When I write a sermon, I write it with my congregation in mind.  The process involves trying my best to understand both the Biblical texts I am working with as well as the people who will be listening to my message.  As such, I’ll say things in a sermon that I might not choose to say here.  Not because they aren’t true in both places, but because context matters.  What I publish here is intended to make sense to a broad spectrum of people.  It might not, but at least I hope it will.  My sermons however are written for a much narrower spectrum of people.  
I think it’s possible – perhaps even desirable – to write and film sermons that are intended for the Internet audience at large.  But they’ll be different sermons – and different filming techniques, most likely – than the sermons I deliver to my congregation.  
If you want to hear me preach, come visit.  You’ll understand better not only what I said, but why I chose to say it the way I did.  And you’ll get the chance to let me know if you thought I was on target or not!