Archive for August, 2012

How Could He?

August 31, 2012

From time to time you run into someone who claims that they could never believe in a God that allows people to die of starvation every day.  Men, women, children – people who simply don’t have enough to eat when God could so easily provide them with food.

Articles like this one are a good reminder in discussions like these that before we blame God for something, we need to take a good look at ourselves and our fellow men and women before laying the blame on God.  Sinfulness is pervasive, and it doesn’t care who dies in the process, so long as the Self is served and kept happy.  
There are those who might attempt to extend the argument – that God shouldn’t allow such people to deprive millions of others of food for their own personal enrichment.  They change the argument from God being the cause of starvation because of a lack of food, to God being the cause of starvation because He permits evil people to deprive others of food.
Very quickly – immediately, in fact – you get a God who is responsible for undoing a great portion of what we do every day.  This argument assumes that most people are good and it’s just the bad people that need to be restrained.  But where do you draw the line?  What level of evil justifies God intervening directly to prevent it and what doesn’t?  Theft and murder are pretty easy.  What about lying?  What about gossip and slander?  Pretty soon, our every thought and action is subject to God’s countermanding.  
Which is in fact, what the Bible describes.  Not a humanity that is for the most part good and just occasionally needs a kick in the butt, but a humanity that is by and large self-focused and broken and sinful.  In thought, word and deed.  By what we have done and by what we have left undone.  It isn’t a matter of just needing a hand getting rid of some bad apples.  We are all bad apples, and either the whole lot gets thrown out or something has to be done to restore the goodness to the apples.  
This is the Gospel, the entire point of the Bible.  This is what God has done in Jesus Christ.  Taken all of us – bad apples every one whether just slightly blemished or rotted through and through – and restored our health, transformed us into good apples.  Not based on us (what can an apple do to fix itself?), but because of Him.  
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Mormons 2

August 30, 2012

We met again today – the two young ‘Elders’ and I.  We were joined by a different gentleman this time, who again looked several years older than I.  Since LDS churches utilize volunteers for almost all local functions, I’m assuming that whomever is available to sit in on the sessions does so.  

I’ll say this for the Mormons – their commitment to evangelism is fantastic.  Young men and women are charged with saving up for their mission trips, which I believe are 2-year commitments following their graduation from high school.  They pay for the trip, but they do not decide where they go.  They are assigned a location to begin.  At any time, they can receive new directions about where to go.  One of the Elders told me that if they are moved from one area to another, they usually get the call on Monday and have to leave the next day!  One of my Elders is from Salt Lake City, and the other from Austin.  
Today we really began to dig into Mormon theology, focused around the topic of our lives.  They quoted Jeremiah 1:5 as evidence that we have a pre-earthly, pre-mortal existence.  In other words, we are created as purely spiritual beings in what they call a pre-mortal life.  We exist with Heavenly Father (their typical term for him, as opposed to God the Father) and Jesus.  We are taught everything we need to know about how to live correctly.  But during this time, we realized that Heavenly Father had a physical body and we did not.  He also was much wiser than we were, and we wanted to be like him.  So a plan was devised whereby we would receive physical bodies and gain the wisdom and experience that would make us like Heavenly Father.  
Heavenly Father would create a physical realm – the earth – where his spiritual children could receive physical bodies.  In the transition from purely spiritual to spiritual and physical, they would lose their memory of their pre-mortal life and all that they had learned from Heavenly Father.  They would retain some sense of elemental right and wrong.  Their goal would be to find their way back to Heavenly Father, ultimately through Jesus, the Son of God (they didn’t distinguish if this title for Jesus meant something substantively different compared to the rest of God’s ‘sons’ or daughters).  Adam and Eve were the first of Heavenly Father’s children to receive mortal bodies.  
But before this all went into effect, about 1/3 of the spiritual children of God refused to participate in this plan.  Satan led this rebellion, and he and his followers were cast out of the pre-mortal life.  They did not receive physical bodies but remained purely spiritual – and very unhappy.  
Once in the physical realm, Adam and Eve were given two commands, and the Elders referred me to Genesis 1:28 and 2:15-17 for this.  The two commands were to procreate and to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  However, this posed a conundrum in LDS theology.  Clearly, Adam and Eve were supposed to procreate, but they didn’t know how.  They were innocent and lacked the understanding necessary to fulfill this command.  Therefore, they had to eat from the tree in order to fulfill this first command.  
So here is the first major rational difficult with Mormonism.  God commands Adam and Eve to do two mutually incompatible  things.  They can only obey one of the commands – not to eat from the forbidden tree – but in doing so they can’t fulfill the first command to procreate.  It’s completely impossible for them to fulfill the command to procreate unless they specifically violate the prohibition about the tree.  It is only by violating the second command that they can fulfill the first command.  
When I pressed them on this, they didn’t have an explanation.  They were in agreement that eating the fruit was a good thing.  In Mormon theology (at least as presented here), the Fall is a good thing because through it we gain the wisdom and experience to be like God.  Rather than the Fall being an unqualified bad thing as in historical Biblical Christianity, in Mormonism the Fall is a good thing.  In fact, Satan as the tempting serpent is really not deceiving Eve at all.  He is revealing the actual truth of the matter – we can become like God if we rebel against him.  The Law is only there to hold us back, and it’s up to us to recognize this and discard the Law in order to become godlike. 
Ultimately, what they are describing is a form of dualism, and they quote from 2 Nephi 2 to support this idea.  Only in the presence of sin can righteousness be defined.  In other words, without a devil, you can’t really have a God.  I asked them about this – if Adam and Eve required opposition and struggle to fully realize their full potential, who is it that stands in opposition to God, thus defining him and providing him with his full potential?  This confused them, but eventually they presumed that Satan must be the opposition to God.  Now, in the pamphlet they had given me, Satan is clearly presented as a created being, essentially no different from you and I other than that he didn’t receive a physical body because of his rebellion.  If righteousness can only be properly defined in contrast to sin or evil, then clearly Satan doesn’t fulfill the role of providing God the needed opposition.  My leaders couldn’t really understand that concept.   
So my head was reeling from this conundrum – that a good God would only make it possible for us to please him by sinning against him.  And it’s clear in LDS theology that eating the fruit – although entirely a benefit to humanity – was still technically a sin.  A sin punished by mortal death and spiritual separation from Heavenly Father.  Quite the paradox indeed!  
Orthodox Christianity has to admit that God the Father planned creation, knowing that humanity would choose to rebel (though not forcing it to).  We can’t wrap our heads around why He would go ahead and choose to create the universe in the way that He did, knowing that we would Fall.  And to be sure, that’s a huge area of ignorance.  But we affirm that we didn’t have to sin.  We could have remained pure and perfect and obedient and able to fulfill everything that God had directed Adam and Eve towards in Genesis 1.  The Bible doesn’t set us up for failure – requiring us to sin in order to be faithful.  Mormonism does.
There was brief talk of Jesus at this point, about his death being an atonement for our sinfulness.  But the main emphasis was on his resurrection, but not in the way you might expect.  What was conveyed about the importance of the resurrection was the fact that Jesus received a glorified physical body.  This is evidence that we will also have glorified, perfected physical bodies after we die.  Resurrection is a gift that everyone receives, according to Mormonism – even those who reject Mormonism.
So we exist in a spiritual, pre-mortal state, then we enter the mortal, physical earthly life, then we die.  Our bodies disintegrate, but our spirits remain, and Mormonism teaches that our spirits go to one of two areas of the post-earth spirit world.  Those who were brought to faith in Mormonism in earthly life go to Paradise.  Those who did not embrace Mormonism or who lived lives inconsistent with Mormon teachings while professing to be Mormons go to a spiritual prison.  There, they receive missionaries from Paradise who seek to enlighten them and bring them to acceptance of Jesus as their Savior.  They referred to Luke 23 at this point.  Jesus promises the thief on the cros
s that they will be together in paradise.  Yet the thief clearly was not ready for this as he had lived a bad life.  The explanation is that the thief went to spiritual prison, received Christ there, and then could move to Paradise.  Thus, the spirits of the dead can move from prison to Paradise, and indeed in LDS theology the assumption is that most if not everyone will make this move.
The spirit-world after death is a second chance for people to accept Jesus.  At some point however, there will be Judgment Day.  At this point, there are basically three options – three heavens – that people can be assigned to based on their lives and faith.  The best of the best can go to Celestial heaven to dwell in the presence of Heavenly Father and Jesus.  Those who weren’t quite the best  but better than most (didn’t believe in Jesus but were still good people) go to Terrestrial heaven.  Finally, those  who really weren’t all that good people go to Telestial heaven.  All the heavens are really awesome places, but of course Celestial is the best and Terrestrial is the next best and Telestial is the least best (but still really, really, really awesome!).  
I pressed them on the issue of hell and at first they were confused and said that nobody went to hell – there were just slight differences of degree in terms of the three heavens.  When I asked about Satan, they appeared confused again, but then recalled that Satan and his followers dwelled in Outer Darkness – not one of the three heavens.  Those who steadfastly  refused Jesus and the truth of Mormonism even in the spirit world would join Satan in Outer Darkness, but they were all pretty well agreed that there would be very few people in that situation.
So presented today was a picture of a pre-earth spiritual life, an earthly spiritual & physical life, a post-physical death life in a spirit world, and then the final assignment to one of three possible heavens.  Faith in Jesus is critical, but also our actions in this world have eternal ramifications.  Jesus saves us, but we still inherit the relative debits or credits of our actions.  
I left the session marveling at the logical inconsistencies in their theology.  That only in disobedience can we actually be obedient.  That evil is necessary and therefore good, after a fashion.  I understand that Biblical Christianity is confusing to many people because there are a great many questions to which our only answer is ‘We don’t know’.  Yet to the best of my knowledge, Christianity is internally consistent.  In other words, it doesn’t set us up for failure.  Failure is possible and now unavoidable, but that wasn’t because God created the universe in a way where failure was a prerequisite.  Knowing that we would Fall is not the same as demanding it or setting it up so that we really had no other option.  
But I also wonder what I’m blind to because of being brought up in the Church.  What things do I profess in faith thinking that they make rational sense (to the extent that we are able to apply our rationality), without contradicting themselves.  Am I missing something?  Are there contradictions in the Bible (and here I’m talking about real theological contradictions, not the alleged issues of misprints or other minor discrepancies)?  Can you think of any?  
Next meeting is Saturday – woohoo!

Mormons 1

August 29, 2012

I sat down today with the Mormon missionaries who visited our house a few days ago.  The two young ‘Elders’ were joined by a man who was probably in his mid-50’s.  The Elders led the meeting, but they involved him in the discussion and he offered his perspectives occasionally.  We met at the Mormon meetinghouse in our town.  A ward is a unit of organization in Latter Day Saint (LDS) parlance.  Multiple wards are organized into stakes.  

We met in a small classroom – one of at least a dozen such classrooms in the building.  Education and training is clearly a core value of Mormonism, at least based on how they allocate their building space.  
They began their discussion with me by focusing on the importance of the ‘fact’ that there is a prophet on earth, conveying the Word of God to the people just as in Biblical times.  They asked if I knew what a prophet was, and I told them I did.  A disclaimer – I haven’t told them that I’m a pastor.  They haven’t asked.  I’ve told them that I do a variety of things, including being an adjunct instructor for a university (which is true!).  I’ve indicated that I have a decent understanding of the Bible, and that I believe the Bible and therefore want to make sure that the Book of Mormon – the primary LDS scripture – conforms to the Bible and doesn’t contradict it.  My intent in not disclosing my primary vocation is two-fold:  I want to hear as much of what they might say to any prospective disciple as possible, and in the process I pray to have the opportunity to ask questions that lead them to question what they are trying to teach me.  I don’t feel that this is dishonest, since I am critically and faithfully evaluating their teachings – something they have asked me to do – and they were the ones who approached me and asked for the opportunity to talk.  
They explained that prophets were sent after periods of apostasy, and that each prophet represents a new ‘dispensation’.  They didn’t define either of these terms, and I’ve not pushed them for better definitions yet.
They then transitioned to talking about Jesus – the greatest of the prophets and yet more than a prophet, the Son of God.  The previous prophets pointed to Jesus’ coming.  He set up the Church and gave us his law, testified to with miracles.  They quoted John 3:16 here to describe the roll of Jesus.
They talked about Jesus calling 12 disciples who were essentially prophets with a small ‘P’.  They could teach what he told them, but they were not full Prophets in the sense of a new dispensation.  So long as they were alive, Jesus was truly presented and taught to the people.  But once the disciples had been killed off, people began to lapse into apostasy.  The memory of Jesus and what He said and did began to falter.  One of the key roles of the disciples had been to properly (with authority) baptize people into the Church.  Apparently this priestly authority, passed along by the laying on of hands by a proper authority, was never continued after the disciples.  
However, today, any 12-year old boy can become a properly recognized priest of Jesus Christ by the laying on of hands.  This brings them into a priesthood of service (they haven’t named this priesthood yet, or distinguished it from the other priesthood in Mormonism, but I trust they’ll get to this eventually).  They are taught about the Gospel of Jesus Christ and are able to focus on serving others.  
So, the disciples died and so began The Great Apostasy.  It also happened to be the longest one, dragging on for roughly 1800 years before Joseph Smith received divine revelation to restore the true authority of the Church.  They quoted James 1:5 here to support how Smith went about this.  Smith was told not to join any church, but rather began to receive divine revelation.  The result of this was the Book of Mormon, which acts in counterpart to the Bible, forming another testament of Jesus Christ.  The Book of Mormon begins with a family in Jerusalem fleeing to the New World (yes, the Americas), and then describes God’s interactions with the peoples of the New World, culminating in Jesus coming to the New World.  
They then indicated the logical path to proceed in our discussions.  I would be given a Book of Mormon and asked to read it and pray about the truth of it.  I was assured that the power of the Holy Ghost would direct me as to its truth through a literal warm feeling in my heart.  
At this point the older gentleman began speaking about how blessed we are to have both testaments of Jesus Christ (the Bible and the Book of Mormon).  He began to talk about how sketchy the Bible is in many respects because it wasn’t written down until 1000 years after Jesus (hugely inaccurate – I assume he is just ignorant and not actively trying to lie about this.  In my experience, while Mormons quickly affirm the equal validity of the Bible, they are just as ignorant about it as many Christians).  But now, because of Joseph Smith, we have two separate testaments to Jesus Christ to guide us.  
They then asked if I would be willing to be baptized on October 6.  I told them that would depend entirely on how our discussions went, but that if indeed the Holy Ghost convinced me that Mormonism was true, then I would be willing to take this next step.  I asked them if it mattered that I was already baptized.  They indicated that while being baptized by another church was a good step in the right direction, it didn’t ultimately count because it wasn’t done with the proper priestly authority.  That authority resides only in the LDS church.  They loosely referred to Ephesians 4:4-6 at this point.  
Today laid the basic groundwork, but was heavy on generalized teaching rather than specifics.  Jesus was talked about but his importance was not really defined.  The major issue was to highlight the LDS church as the only one true church, the only one with divine authority, and the only one through which the prophetic voice was still at work.  In addition to a hardback copy of the Book of Mormon, I received a pamphlet to read through as homework for our next meeting.
They took me on a tour of their meetinghouse afterwards.  Illustrations on the hallway walls depicted key scenes out of the Bible (in the more public areas) and the Book of Mormon (as we journeyed further into the building).  They showed me the classroom where high school students gather every weekday morning at 6:00 AM before they start school, to receive instruction in the Mormon faith.  Their chapel looked much like any other church.  Decor was sparse throughout beyond the illustrations of Biblical and Book of Mormon events.  
We meet again tomorrow – woohoo!

Reading Ramblings – September 2, 2012

August 26, 2012

Technical difficulties this past Sunday morning kept me from completing my ramblings as per usual.  Here they are belatedly (though backdated to Sunday).

Date: September 2, 2012,
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; Psalm 119:129-136; Ephesians 6:10-20; Mark
7:14-23

Contextual
Notes:
We remain in the longest season of the Church
Year, the non-festival season of Ordinary Time. Except for a few
other festival Sundays, Ordinary Time will continue until the
beginning of Advent. This time of the liturgical year focuses us on
the work of the Holy Spirit and the Church in light of the
resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. The readings will not
always neatly line up together to form a common theme, but the Gospel
and the Old Testament readings will normally support one another.

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9:
We are called not just to obedience, but to remembrance of whom we
are obedient to and for what reasons. The benefits of obedience are
not without a source. The people of God didn’t take the Promised
Land for themselves because of their moral superiority, but because
their God gave it to them in spite of their disobedience. This is to
be the focus, the good giving God. We are always to focus on our God
and not on our own behavior, even as we are called to be obedient and
conform our behavior with the way He intends for us to live. We
benefit from this obedience – but those benefits are not to be the
focus or the cause of our obedience. We are obedient because we have
a God who has created us, who has revealed to us the best way to
live, and who ultimately saves us from our inability to live this
way. Certainly this is worthy not only of praise, not only of
obedience, but of passing down the identity and story of this God
from generation to generation!

Psalm 119:129-136: God
and his Word are extolled for their worthiness. Psalm 119 is a
massive Psalm, an elaborate acrostic where each section begins with
the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This section comes under the
Hebrew letter ‘Pe’. Each section in turn dwells on the beauty of
God’s revealed Word. They are to be obeyed because they are
wonderful – not because of the benefits they bestow, although those
are likely to come. Light and understanding are the benefits of
God’s Word, even if the world around us insists on living in the
darkness of its own understanding and law. We require the sustaining
power of God in his Word. It is the source of our hope in the midst
of despair.

Ephesians 6:10-20:
What a famous passage! What beautiful imagery! Although most of
us are not as readily familiar with body armor as a first century
occupied-national might be, most of us have some idea of the purpose
and effectiveness of body armor. Both metaphorically and
practically, we understand that it offers protection but is not
inpenetrable.

I’m going to argue an alternate position on this passage.
This passage is routinely cited to spur Christians on in Godly
living, and that is good. It is also routinely used to stir up
Christians for spiritual warfare, as though somehow we were carrying
the fight to Satan’s allies and subjects. As though you and I as
flesh and blood were somehow battling the spiritual powers around us
in the name of Christ. As though somehow we have been commissioned
in the Lord’s army and our purpose is to fight the battle on his
behalf.

I
disagree. I see in this passage the grace and mercy of our Lord, who
has seen our great weakness and our exceeding vulnerability to the
spiritual powers around us. So He has provided us with armor to
protect us and keep us from these attacks. But our only duty in
wearing this armor and bearing this sword is to stand
firm
.
We are not advancing against the enemy, but rather are holding a
defensive line against him.

Note
how many times the term ‘stand
or variations of that word are used in these verses. We are
protected and therefore we do not flee from Satan, revealing our
weaker, less armored backside. Rather we stand firm with one
another, in the fashion of a Roman infantry flank, where the shield
of one soldier covered and protected the weapon arm of the man next
to him. Strength was in maintaining the defensive line, a literal
shield wall against which the attacks of enemies were thwarted and
broken. Roman soldiers were disciplined to stand firm together in
the face of enemy onslaught, rather than running in fear or seeking
to engage the enemy alone and without support and backup. Discipline
was the key to survival and eventually victory. So it is with the
Christian. We must stand together against the onslaught of Satan,
rather than allowing ourselves to be isolated and picked off one by
one. Our enemy has been defeated – it is not our job to defeat
him. It is rather our duty to stand firm against the remaining,
dwindling powers at his disposal, until the time that the victory
already won in Jesus Christ is fully and completely realized.

Mark 7:14-23:
Jesus
drives home the teaching he began in last week’s Gospel lesson, that
our assumptions about the nature of sin and obedience are clouded and
faulty. We are obsessed with the externals of obedience, forgetting
that obedience begins on the inside
rather than on the outside. If we take great pride in our external
obedience – in our active participation in the things we are
commanded, and our abstinence from the actions that are forbidden, we
are fooling ourselves if we think this means we are fulfilling the
law of God perfectly. Matthew 5 would be a good corollary to the
teachings in Mark 7. Sin is a matter of the heart and mind, not just
the body. We may fool those around us into thinking we are without
sin, but the motivations of our heart and mind are known to God, and
He cannot be fooled.

In
whole the readings point to the importance and value and beauty of
the Word of God which ought to be the rule and norm of our lives. We
often have a negative association with the Law, and sometimes speak
as if the Law no longer has any role in our lives – or that it one
day won’t. But the Law of God is nothing different than the
way God created all things (including us) to function properly
.
Does the Law seem constricting? You have just experienced the
effect of sin and rebellion in your life. We are at heart anarchists
always seeking our own will and leading and chafing under the
‘limitations’ of the Law. But the Law is neither arbitrary nor
restrictive. Rather, it purposes life to the fullest. The Law is
not something that we must deal with until our eventual freedom in
the return of Jesus Christ, for the return of Jesus Christ returns
our ability to keep the Law, not our separation from it! If we are
destined for a new heaven and a new earth, they will be so because
the Law of God will be restored to fullness, with each of us
participating in it fully rather than rebelling against it.

As
such, study of God’s Word today has practical implications for
eternity. We are not biding our time focusing on something that will
one day be rendered irrelevant – we are training ourselves to
appreciate that which we will fully embody one day – God’s Word.
When we begin to see the Law as something that does not condemn us in
Christ, but which we are being trained for conformity to, we grow
closer to becoming the perfect creations of our loving God &
Father.  

Mmmmm…Mormons!

August 25, 2012

It was a successful and busy day today.  A garage sale for Gena and I, our oldest at the beach with a friend & his family, our daughter at a friend’s birthday party – a pretty packed day.  Topped off by a door-bell ring a few minutes ago, getting me up from an almost-nap to find – Mormons!  Two freshly scrubbed young men (never mind the ‘Elder’ title) interested in talking.  Woohoo!

I thought their opening pitch was interesting – they wanted to talk about Jesus Christ, and about God the Father.  And they wanted to share the good news that God the Father is speaking today through a prophet here on earth.  Do I believe that God could speak to us still today through a prophet on earth?  Sure, why not?  God can do anything He wants, right?  I thought it was interesting that this was their opening pitch, and about how the reality of a prophet on earth is good news for families.  
Well, I’ll be talking with them Tuesday afternoon.  It’s been a while since I’ve sat down with some missionaries – I’m looking forward to it!

Little Miracles

August 24, 2012

So about a month ago someone relieved me of my computer bag that was in the back seat of my car.  I apparently forgot to lock the vehicle one night – go figure.  There was no computer in the bag, but rather my birth certificate, my newly received passport, and tax documents for the last two years.  Kind of a perfect storm of personal data that you never want to lose individually, let alone in one shot.  

I was convinced that it was a theft of convenience, and that whoever stole the bag was hoping to score some electronics they could either use themselves or hock for some quick cash.  I was convinced that whoever it was probably was not into identity theft and probably didn’t even have the contacts with those sorts of folks to sell the documents to.  I would have appreciated it greatly if, after discovering nothing of value in the bag, they had tossed it back into my driveway.  
They didn’t.
I’ve spent the last few weeks requesting a new birth certificate so I could apply for a new passport so I could go on my first trip to Israel in November as planned.  I filled out the forms including the one reporting my passport as stolen, and was ready to submit it all tomorrow or Saturday.  
This evening the doorbell rang, and two ladies asked if I was Paul and indicated that they had found my bag in some bushes on their property.  I went round to their house, less than a 1/4 mile away, and sure enough, there was my bag.  And my passport.  And the tax documents.  Everything in fact, except for the birth certificate.  The ladies explained – almost apologetically – that their gardener had been off for a few weeks with an injured back, so they hadn’t discovered the bag sooner.  Talk about elation!  It saved me the roughly $150 to file for a new passport, and provided a huge relief in terms of the issue of identity theft.  I am so grateful for little miracles!

Cross Cultural

August 22, 2012

My work (and my interests) call me into very different cultures within the geographical scope of my city and county.  While traditionally cross-cultural has been a term largely dealing with ethnic cultural differences, my cross cultural experiences are not determined on the basis of ethnicity.  Much attention has been placed on how America as a melting pot (traditionally) or a collection of independent cultural traditions (more recently) not only fosters cross cultural interactions it is almost synonymous with the idea.  What I hear less frequently is talk about cross cultural experiences that are not defined by ethnicity or differences in geographical heritage, but just very different groups of people that may share a common ethnicity and genealogical background.

Each week I work in the jail, teaching Christian basics to 18 or so men ranging in age from probably 18 to 60.  They span a diverse set of ethnic backgrounds, to be sure.  But my cross-cultural experience with them is not determined by their ethnicity, but by the jail culture.  They are part of it.  i am not.  Some of them are new to it but they are still more versed in the culture than I am.  Yet I am called to bring the Gospel to these people across the cultural boundary of incarceration that separates them from me.  Aiding me in this is the fact that most of these men are not solely part of jail culture.  They have participated in aspects of my non-incarcerated culture, whereas my participation in the jail culture is highly artificial and regulated compared to theirs.  We can communicate mostly because they share more of my culture and are therefore able to understand me.  I continue to learn their culture so that I can communicate more effectively.
But part of the human aspect of cross-cultural work is the desire for acceptance.  The desire for belonging.  It is this desire that keeps many people from engaging in cross-cultural experiences at all – the idea of feeling on the outside is terrifying and depressing.  It’s much more gratifying to remain ensconced in a culture where one’s place has been defined and that definition is an agreeable one.  To take on an undefined -or negatively defined – definition in a different culture is inherently unappealing.  Nobody likes to feel like the outsider.
Necessarily those moments of belonging are fleeting at best, at least initially.  I love moments in the jail where we can all laugh at something together because it is a moment of cross-cultural acceptance and unity.  Similar to those moments when I can see that someone has gotten the idea I’m trying to get across and is now processing it either internally or out loud in questions and discussion.  
One of my other cross cultural areas is the bar pool league I play in each week.  I started that two years ago, took a year off, and returned to it over the summer.  For me it’s too often a guilty pleasure.  I feel as though it can’t really be considered part of my job because I enjoy it – though it could easily be said to be missional!   Also, it takes time away from my family, and when more and more of my time is absorbed with work, time away from family is painful.  But I love pool, and it places me in the midst of people that I wouldn’t otherwise be spending time with most likely.  It seems like an ideal meeting place for my vocation and my hobby.  
That being said, it’s a cross-cultural experience.  It might not seem so initially though.  My team mates are all more or less caucasian American men, roughly my age or a bit younger.  We speak the same language, we all go to work each day.  Yet we’re very different – or at least appear to be so.  We are separated by educational levels, likely by economic levels, by the fact that many of them have been born and raised and still live in the same small town whereas I have moved around a little bit.  There are differences in terms of bar culture and what is considered appropriate and acceptable in terms of intoxication and other forms of relaxation.  We look as though we’d have more in common than I would with my congregants, many of whom are approaching twice my age.  Yet I’m more comfortable with the latter than the former.  We share more of the same value systems, beliefs, and cultural baggage.
I feel out of place with the guys in the pool league.  We’re friendly with one another.  There’s a shared respect.  But there’s always the feeling that I don’t really belong there.  Were it not for my skills in playing pool, I have no doubt that I would likely be the first one to be cut from the team if another person that they knew better wanted to join.  We spend several hours together every week, and yet even after months of shooting together, I still feel like an outsider.  Some of that is my introverted nature.  Much of it has to do with putting myself in another culture and having to endure the fish-out-of-water feeling for however long it takes to acclimate and be more deeply accepted.
Last night was a moment of elation and exception though – an evening where, for a few moments, I seemed to really be accepted as part of the ‘guys’.  We were playing our next-to-last match of the summer season.  We were playing the top rated team in our division, on their home turf.  Our team is strong – arguably the strongest it has been in years – but we’re not overly consistent.  We have dropped from second place to fifth in the division.  Personally I’ve dropped from being in the top 10 in our division to being in the top 20 (just barely!).  So to say the odds were against us last night was an understatement.
It was a tightly fought match.  Our team relies on raw shooting skills.  Theirs relies mainly on the ability to position the cue ball well – to deny their opponents solid shots and play ‘safe’.  They play a much more technically proficient game than we do, in part because on any given evening, one or more of our players is more than just a little buzzed.  Sometimes that has a calming, leveling effect on their play.  Sometimes not.  
I won my first two games, the first of which was the first game of the night and helped set a tone for our team.  The second came late in the second round and brought us back even after we had slipped a game behind.  I won not because I dominated my opponents but because they both made critical errors late in the game that I capitalized on for the win.
My last game of the evening was the second to last game of the night.  We were leading 7-6, and if I won my game, we won the evening.  I was playing a younger guy on their team who had a hot head and a cold, calculating eye.  He was very good at trying to deny his opponent a shot rather than take a riskier shot himself.  I should have beat him, but I wasn’t thinking clearly and missed on the second to last ball.  Then I fouled after he played a safety on me.  That put the score at 7-7.  
Our last guy was on the ropes for a fair part of the game, but he came up with a fantastic play at the end that threw their guy off his game.  We won – miraculously.  There was much celebration, to say the least.  Much whooping and hollering and back-slapping and near hugs and fist bumps and general exclamations of what an amazing evening it had been.  There was a celebratory round of shots at the bar next door (since the bar we were playing in only served beer), and then eventually the gradual goodbyes for the night.  For a few moments we were all together, sharing an experience that transcended our differences.  
It felt good.  Rea
lly
good.  I can understand how people can pursue that feeling of belonging even when it requires them to do and be things that are not healthy for them.  I can well understand the temptation to take a hit or hit the bottle more heavily and regularly, for the sake of blending in better and being accepted.  There are moments when my refusal to do so gets the glance that reminds me that I’m not one of them.  And yet I have to figure out how to maintain the right responses for me while not judging them for their responses, so that eventually, as I hopefully become more accepted as one of them, I have the ability to share more than just a few games of pool each week.  
I’m beginning to understand the tenacity that missionaries in foreign ethnic cultures must have.  The patience to build relationships.  To not push too hard, too quickly.  To seek ways of becoming more in tune with the culture.  Learning ways that they can be accepted without sacrificing who they are in the process, without being swallowed and consumed by the other culture.  It’s an amazing vocation they have been given.  
But I believe that it is a vocation that more of us can have.  Not by moving to a foreign culture, per se.  But by being willing to suffer the embarrassment and the awkwardness of not fitting in. By being willing to be with people and in environments that are different from ours.  Not with the goal of becoming someone different (at least not completely), but with the goal of sharing the love of Christ in that culture and environment.   It is slow work, many times, but not without moments of joy and transcendence.  

Her Said, Hymn Said

August 21, 2012

Any aspiring hymn writers in your life?  You might want to share this opportunity with them:

St. Ambrose Hymn Writing Contest.
You can use an existing hymn for the tune if you want, but the lyrics must be original.  

The Rest of the Story?

August 21, 2012

I’ll admit, I haven’t been following the news out of Russia with any particular effort.  I’ve seen the headlines about a punk rock group being repressed by the government over differences of opinion regarding freedom of speech.  But I haven’t read any further than that.  After all, is this sort of thing really surprising from Putin, given his background?  

Then I this interesting essay examining the issue behind the headlines.  Now I’m a little more curious.  Particularly, his analogy at the end is very convincing.  I’ve since done a little (well, 5 minutes worth) research trying to figure out what Pussy Riot actually did and said.  And I’m conflicted now. 
It would seem that regardless of their message, their approach was questionable at best.  Frankly, it was outright rude and insulting to the church and the people gathered there for worship or other religious-related activities.  It shows a total disregard for propriety and sacred space.  
But if their message was protesting the church’s close ties to Putin, a betrayal of the faith for political or religious expediency or gain, that becomes another issue.  Or does it?  When I was growing up, I had the impression (not sure if I got this on my own or from how it was presented to me at church) that Martin Luther had done a pretty brave and controversial thing, nailing his 95 Theses to the church door.  Later in life I learned it wasn’t such a controversial thing – it was the typical fashion of calling for discussion on a topic.  Luther knew the appropriate way to initiate conversation, even if what he wanted to talk about was quickly ruled as too inappropriate.
Which is hardly an analogy for the Pussy Riot situation.  Here we have people that are likely not self-described Christians (I can’t verify this, though their background data on Wikipedia [assuming it’s accurate] doesn’t lead me to think they are Christian) utilizing in a very inappropriate and rude way a worship venue.  If it had been a mosque or a synagogue, would the world have been so sympathetic?  Is their protest more political or religious?  Both equally?  So many unanswered questions.
But at least I’m a little more interested in trying to find some of the answers.

Reading Ramblings – August 26th, 2012

August 19, 2012

Date: August 26th, 2012,
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:
Isaiah 29:11-19; Psalm 14; Ephesians 5:22-33; Mark 7:1-13

Contextual
Notes:
We remain in the longest season of the Church
Year, the non-festival season of Ordinary Time. Except for a few
other festival Sundays, Ordinary Time will continue until the
beginning of Advent. This time of the liturgical year focuses us on
the work of the Holy Spirit and the Church in light of the
resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. The readings will not
always neatly line up together to form a common theme, but the Gospel
and the Old Testament readings will normally support one another.

We now move back to Mark for our
primary Gospel text for the remainder of the Church Year. In doing
so, we move on from the discourse related to the feeding of the 5000
that has occupied our attention for the past month. There are links
in the theme found in these verses with last week’s theme of
foolishness vs. wisdom.

Isaiah 29:11-19: These
verses sound appealing at first glance. We like the idea that the
wicked aren’t going to get away with hiding their evil deeds –
until we stop to think that we are included among the wicked, and
that God is addressing his own people through Isaiah! Then we need
to give pause to what it is really like to have what you firmly
‘know’ to be true, discovered to be completely erroneous. To be
shown that the way you think the world works is not at all the way it
works. The verses in today’s reading follow verses where the Lord
promises great fear and hardship in the form of being attacked by an
enemy army, but then promises that this threat will eventually be
dispelled completely. Not that the fear and hardship won’t be real,
but that God will deliver his people from it ultimately, to their
amazement and his glory. Assuming that the love of God means the
easy life is a dangerous misunderstanding of how committed our God is
to us, and what means He is willing to go to – or what abuses He is
willing to tolerate for the time being – in order that as many as
possible might be saved – to his glory!

Psalm 14: The
universality of foolishness – and the evil that comes from it –
are on display here. The fool claims there is no God, and then we
are told that there is no one who understands – in other words we
are all fools. We are all guilty at various times and in various
ways of acting as though there is no God, regardless of what we claim
with our lips. We are all prone to disingenuosness when it suits our
purposes. The solution to this situation is not a call for moral
reform, not the attempt to legislate proper behavior or demand right
understanding. These things are well beyond our abilities! If we as
individuals are so broken, how can we expect that our collective
efforts can ever be less than broken? The only solution is from God,
not from us. Salvation, deliverance. God issuing forth in power
from his holy city to restore the fortunes of his people and deliver
all people (including his own) from ignorance and evil is the only
way that things will be set right, is truly our only hope.

Ephesians 5:22-33:
Every pastor’s dream and nightmare passage! Guaranteed to throw at
least half the congregation into indignation! What foolishness to
preach such antiquated notions as submissiveness and love defined not
on our terms but on Christ’s! Haven’t we all grown a bit beyond such
notions? Aren’t we all much wiser than that now?

It
can’t be denied that this passage has undoubtedly been abused
publicly and privately for selfish motivations, and yet it stands as
part of the inspired Word of God. Are we offended? Are we
challenged? Are we incensed? How certain is our indignation? How
firm our footing in rejecting this? Or are we called to subvert the
wisdom of our age and seek to be taught by the timeless wisdom of
God? If we assume these verses call us to lives as the recipients or
dispensers of abuse or shame, we are grossly mistaken. These verses
call us to see in marriage a mystical representation of the very love
of Christ! How can we ever see these verses as a call for
self-glorification or the assertion of one will over another?

Mark 7:1-13:
Woohoo!
We get to bash on the Pharisees again! What fun! No need to
examine our own hearts and motivations when we can focus our scorn on
these pompous, pietistic men! I suspect that we need to be very
careful before we assume that we are exempt from similar ridicule,
for identical reasons.

The
Pharisees have good reasons for criticizing Jesus and his disciples.
Their rules exist for good reasons and for good intentions. However
Jesus exposes their adherence to and insistence upon these rules as
ultimately hollow, demands for mechanical obedience without regard
for the true source of uncleanliness – the state of the heart and
mind which cannot be cleansed by the washing of hands or plates.

Once
again Jesus shows his hearers how near-sighted they are, how fixated
they are on externals and temporary issues rather than on the core
issues. Rituals may be all fine and good if they drive us to
recognize the deeper truths which they are intended to embody. But
at the point that they become mechanical, mindless, without thought
or purpose beyond self-perpetuation, they become an obstacle in the
life of faith rather than an aid.

In
how many ways do we do the same thing? In how many ways do we and
the Church of Christ in a larger sense insist on certain rituals and
ways of doing things without regard for the deeper motivations and
purposes? We
must worship this way and not that way. We must worship in a church
building and not a park. We must worship for one hour and no
longer. We must come to worship but Bible study is optional.

The list could undoubtedly go on and on, and at times that list
becomes counterproductive, locking people into a way of thinking and
acting that actually hurts them, rather than facilitates the good
that a well-crafted ritual intends.

Jesus
focuses his hearers (that means you and I, too!) back to the
important issues that are not necessarily so clearly dealt with
through external rituals. Where is our heart, both in following a
given ritual or calling others to follow it? Our difficulty is that
we are more easily foolish rather than wise. Blind obedience to a
ritual or tradition is much easier than engaging ourselves as fully
as possible in the ritual, soas to recognize the intended benefits.
We are too prone to going through the motions, so that when someone
challenges those motions, we quickly attack them for impropriety
rather than pausing to determine whether the challenge is warranted
or not.

Wisdom
is a tricky thing. Just because something seems right or holds true
most of the time doesn’t necessarily mean it is wise. We are called
to place ourselves in obedience to Jesus Christ, trusting that in
doing so, we will be made wise. This may be an uncomfortable process
though, and likely should be uncomfortable. I suspect that if we
feel comfortable with the worldly wisdom we believe Jesus to be
speaking to us, we probably aren’t hearing him fully!