Archive for September, 2015

Book Review – Taize: Brother Roger and His Community

September 28, 2015

Taize: Brother Roger and His Community by Rex Rico

Collins Publications, Chino Hills – 1978

I purchased this book to learn more about the community of Taize in France, which my wife was privileged to visit this past summer while I was in classes.  I was looking for a historical examination of the community – how it started and developed.  While this book provides a little of that, it wasn’t really the history I was looking for.

The author begins with some biographical information about Brother Roger, the founder of Taize, and the early events which led to the creation of the community.  But the majority of the book is given over to various discussions of contemporary Taize – meaning Taize in the mid-1970’s, and particularly the Council of Youth which spanned multiple years in the 1970’s.  Either because the Council of Youth was vague on its own (very likely), or because of the author’s lack of clarity, it’s hard to make much sense of what this Council was.  I came away with an impression of a loosely connected network of youths living in small groups in impoverished areas of the world for various lengths of time, who would then come together again at Taize – typically around Easter – to share their experiences and highlight the suffering of the impoverished around the world.  Two letters generated from the Council of Youth are referenced in this book, but neither letter is provided in transcript.

The latter half or third of the book consists of various quotes from Brother Roger’s previously published works, as well as an interview with him.

This book conveys somewhat of a sense of the spirit of Taize (though Brother Roger explicitly tries not to use such language) without a great deal of specifics.  I begin to suspect that this is the essence of Taize, prompting people to examine their faith and live it out in meaningful ways without specific directives and guidelines beyond Christian love for one another, prayer, and community.  From that respect it continues to be a community that fascinates me, and I will be reviewing several other resources on it in the coming weeks.

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Reading Ramblings – October 4, 2015

September 27, 2015

Reading Ramblings

Date: Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 4th, 2015

Texts: Genesis 2:18-25; Psalm 128; Hebrews 2:1-18; Mark 10:2-16

Context: Family is a recurring theme in the readings for today, except for the Epistle lesson which is to be expected during this liturgical season of Ordinary Time. The readings emphasize God’s original intent in human marriage and family – an intent that remains despite the effects of sin which sometimes make divorce inevitable. In an age where marriage has fallen into disrepute because of high divorce rates, we must always seek to promote and encourage and support Biblical marriage as a gift of God for those He calls into that arrangement.

Genesis 2:18-25 – God creates unity through diversity, single species’ defined by male and female. He allows Adam the opportunity to recognize that he himself lacks a partner, that he himself is not yet whole. When Adam has realized what God already knows, God creates a partner for Adam out of himself. Adam is thus able to receive her with the appropriate joy, as a gift of God that is, in a very real sense, part of himself as well. Separate but together. Unique halves of a common humanity, essential to one another for companionship and procreation and joy itself. This is God’s intention for marriage, an intention which the Church is called upon to proclaim despite the clamor of our culture to redefine it or render it obsolete all together. It is not simply love for one another that should draw man and woman together in marriage, but ultimately love for God above all. In such a situation there is no cause for shame but only joy, as each partner can truly be the blessing to the other God intends, and as such, receive the blessings that come from right relationship to God and spouse and self.

Psalm 128 – A beautiful depiction of the Lord’s blessings. Obedience to God’s word should yield a life that is marked by God’s blessings. Obedience aligns us with the way God created things to be, so that we can experience greater joy and harmony. This psalm aligns well with the pre-Fall condition of Genesis 2. All is as it should be. Mankind has his duties and fulfills them, enjoying the fruits of his labor. Domestic harmony and joy is evident. Husband and wife are a blessing to one another, and in turn are blessed with and by and for children. This is the way things ought to be, but the way things are not far too often because of sin, both the sin within us and the sin around us in the world. As such, could this psalm be read as a picture of how things will be once again when creation is restored?

Hebrews 2:1-18 – Having gone through James, we begin Hebrews, however we begin in chapter 2 for some strange reason, thus missing Paul’s introduction to his theme, the supremacy of Christ. For those of Paul’s hearers who might be inclined to see Jesus in his humanity as somehow less than other heavenly beings such as angels, Paul strives to demonstrate how this is not the case. Perhaps he is dealing with the Greek philosophical assumption that the material is always inferior to the purely spiritual. In Jesus’ incarnation, then, Greek philosophy would be inclined to see a weakness not shared by non-incarnate angels. Paul sets out to address this erroneous line of reasoning.

The angels do indeed have an important role as harbingers of God’s redemptive work. But the redemptive work is carried out exclusively in the person of the incarnate Son of God, Jesus. In perfect obedience to his heavenly Father’s plan of salvation, Jesus in turn is rewarded with Lordship over all creation, an honor nowhere given to angels.

In fact, rather than being a detriment, Jesus’s incarnation is actually a further blessing to you and I, since he shares our humanity and destroyed our enemy, death, from within, having suffered physical death himself. It is his likeness to us in his physicality that enables him to be a trustworthy and effective intercessor on our behalf with God the Father.

Mark 10:2-16 – Jesus corrects the sinful attitude of the Pharisees, who treated divorce as a divine right rather than a divine concession. Jesus illuminates the depths of their sinfulness in this matter. While we aren’t assigned verse 1, probably because it seems extraneous, it is actually very helpful. Jesus is in the region beyond the Jordan, the former stomping grounds of John the Baptist. Why isn’t John there any longer? Mark 6 tells us that John is not there because he is dead. Arrested because of his public castigation of Herod and his wife Herodias. And what did he take them to task for? Marriage and divorce. In other words, the Pharisees ask Jesus to teach on marriage in a region where Herod has already demonstrated a willingness to arrest and even execute those who disagree with his personal life.

Jesus does not shy away. The pharisees – like us – take divorce for granted, even seeing it as a blessing from God. Jesus makes clear that divorce is not a gift from God. It is a result of our sinfulness. Rather, God’s intention was that man and woman united in marriage would remain as such for all their lives. God has joined them as such, and it should not be prerogative of man (or woman) to dissolve this union.

Jesus goes on to further affirm the value of children. Between these two scenes we see Jesus affirming our family lives as they were intended to be – man and woman united in lifelong marriage, bearing children to whom they are a blessing and through whom they are additionally blessed.

How far we have fallen from this divine ideal! Sin wreaks havoc in individuals, between spouses, and in families. However the effects of sin no way eliminate God’s original intention. We are called to live out our marriages and families to the best of our ability. We must never make the mistake of claiming that divorce is something pleasing to God, and when it is absolutely necessary, we must undertake it in repentance both as individuals and in Christian community. As such, we must receive the forgiveness of God that enables us and our families and our Christian community to move on as witnesses of God’s grace.

Christian communities need to be places where marriage is taken seriously and the faithful are encouraged to live out their marital vows in faithfulness and joy. But at times the Church must also be the place to comfort those who are damaged by and in their marriage relationship, and when necessary, declare the forgiveness of God to those who are repentant for the necessity or inevitability of divorce. This is a difficult balance to keep, but failure to do so demeans the gift of God in marriage on the one hand, or casts out those who have gone through divorce.

Killing Freedom

September 25, 2015

Why is it that people presume that rescinding freedoms and liberties in the name of niceness is somehow better or different than those same freedoms and liberties being rescinded by a totalitarian regime?

This seems to be the issue for the public universities in our state, who once again are attempting to basically eliminate free speech on campus as an effort to stamp out not-niceness, which goes by the term intolerance these days.  What is frightening is that such an effort comes from and is aimed towards institutions of higher learning, the very places where exposure to multiple ideas and thoughts was once encouraged.  We were told over the past few decades that freedom of speech on campus was necessary because it exposed people to alternate viewpoints on issues like gender and sexuality and politics and economics.  Now the same people who allegedly benefited from that exposure are now seeking to eliminate it for those who come after them.

I read another article last week where students were interviewed on the topic.  It was both frightening and depressing – though hardly surprising – how they responded.  They responded like robots programmed with faulty logic.  We believe that freedom of speech is important and vital.  Unless someone is saying something we don’t like.  Nobody should say something we don’t like to hear.  It’s frightening that they can’t see that these goals are mutually exclusive.  Either speech is free, which means that, with very few if any limitations, people can say what they want, or it isn’t free.  If the issue is being nice, then who gets to decide what is nice?

Universities, apparently.  They can determine that it’s not nice to challenge emerging views on homosexuality.  This is an extension of the anti-bullying rhetoric that was used so prominently for a few years.  Bullying was no longer to be permitted, and if you didn’t agree then you would be bullied into obedience.

Life is full of perplexities and things we don’t understand, don’t like, and don’t agree with.  The solution to this is not to try and pretend this isn’t the case through artificial, selective suppression of certain ideas and expressions.  The solution is to actually educate people to analyze these things and make determinations.  In other words, the role of the university is to provide people with a set of tools by which they can make decisions about the world they live in.  The role of the university is NOT to dictate what decisions people must make.

Book Review – Alcoholics Anonymous

September 24, 2015

Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th Edition

Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 2001

It has been three and a half years since I first realized that one of my congregants was an alcoholic.  I didn’t discover this immediately, of course.  It took months and months for the full picture to emerge through a family crisis that culminated in their estranged spouse’s death.  I didn’t think that anything was out of the ordinary.  I figured people were overreacting.  Only late did I come to the realization that someone can be an alcoholic for 60-some years of their life, that alcoholism is not simply for the young or the middle-aged.

Purely by coincidence,  four years ago I first visited the Rescue Mission here in town.  I’ve since taught there once a week, giving the men in the year-long residential recovery program from drugs and alcohol addiction the opportunity to ask questions about the Bible, Christianity, and the life of faith.  A little over a year ago I began doing the same thing at the women’s equivalent in town.

Four and a half years ago I began visiting the medium-security wing of our county jail once a week, visiting with the guys there to offer Christian instruction and the opportunity for them to direct conversations about the faith.  I learned that over 80% of the inmates in the county jail are there for drug and/or alcohol-related crimes.  Addiction is a big deal.  And it has become a big element in my weekly ministry.  So it is rather embarrassing to admit that I only just recently read the Big Book, as it is known in Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.

I’ll say for starters that I believe that AA and the Twelve Steps can be very helpful and effective in guiding a person towards a life free from alcohol or drug addiction.  From that perspective, my opinions of the book itself are rather meaningless.  If reading the book and applying the steps can help someone, then they should read the book and follow the steps and disregard what I’m about to say.

My biggest beef with the book is the way it effectively downplays spirituality and religion and God while at the same time claiming that this is really the pivotal issue in recovery.  In order to appeal to as many people as possible, the Book Book emphasizes a relationship with God or a higher power as the participant has come to know that entity.  In other words, while the religious component for the AA founders was the Judeo-Christian God, they aren’t going to allow that particular to stand in the way of someone’s sobriety.  The famed statement is that you could make a doorknob your higher power, so long as you believe that the doorknob has the desire and ability to help you maintain recovery.

This is the critical aspect of the program.  You can’t achieve and maintain sobriety on your own, and nobody can do it for you, but your trust is that a higher power can and will do this with you.  It seems grossly intellectually dishonest to me to make spirituality a central tenet yet pretend that the spirituality really doesn’t matter.  It’s more of a mind-game than a truly spiritual experience.  If the program is dependent on a higher power that is personal enough to know an individual and have an expressed interest in their recovery, it automatically disqualifies a great number of the world’s religions.  And, frankly, it disqualifies the doorknob.  I can’t be at peace with pretend spirituality, or spirituality as a mean’s to an end.  A higher power who is interested in someone’s recovery probably has a more far-reaching interest in that person’s life than just their sobriety.

As a whole, the book reminds me most of the Quran.  It is chock full of anecdotes and other efforts to convince the reader that this is the real thing.  The difference is that I believe what the Big Book says whereas I don’t believe what the Quran says.

The style of the book is intentionally anachronistic.  The original writings of the original founders have been left intact.  Many of the testimonies included in the book are also from a bygone era.  Efforts have been made to include more recent testimonies, but these seem to date from the 70’s or perhaps early 80’s at the latest.  Testimonies are inclusive of both genders as well as heterosexual and homosexual backgrounds.  The theme is consistent – we can do it and you can too if you just follow these steps.

When I teach at the jail and the Rescue Mission, I make it clear that Christianity and recovery are not one in the same.  It is possible to be a drunk Christian.  It is also possible to be a damned sober person.  AA and the Big Book are primarily about recovery from alcohol and drugs.  Christianity is primarily about God’s victory on our behalf through the incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and promised return of his Son, Jesus.  Confusing the two seems to cause confusion eventually, as I know multiple people who continue in their sobriety more or less, but who have become disenchanted with the faith that was pushed so strongly on them, and that they grasped at so eagerly for their recovery.  If you or someone you know struggles with drug or alcohol addiction, read the Big Book.  But don’t quit reading the Bible.  Go to AA meetings but go to church as well.  God desires your recovery but He desires so much more than that as well.  While that may not seem possible, or may appear pointless to the person still in their addiction, it will become clearer as you are led to sobriety.

Wet Bar Wednesday – Suburban

September 23, 2015

I was excited to find a web page devoted to “whiskey drinks for gentlemen”.  While I recognized most of them (and think my recipes are better on more than a few of them!), this one caught my eye and I couldn’t immediately find more information on it.

The Suburban

  • 1.5 oz whiskey
  • .5 oz dark rum
  • .5 oz port
  • dash of Angostura bitters
  • dash of orange bitters

Mix and pour over ice or mix with ice and serve neat, however you prefer.

However, I didn’t prefer this drink at all.  It has similar overtones to an Old Fashioned but the dark rum really overpowered the other flavors for me, and not in a good way.

As a consolation prize, though, my wife picked up a bottle of seasonal Ace’s Hard Pumpkin Cider at Trader Joe’s.  We tried it a year or two ago and really liked it but they ran out of stock pretty early in the season.  While I’m generally not a fan of seasonal hoopla (the result of being raised in the desert, I’m sure), this is really a delicious ale with a little pumpkin-y and nutmeg spice to it.

It’s nice when one drink flops but you have a trusted backup.  Enjoy!

Caveat Emptor

September 22, 2015

The scientific method heavily relies upon the idea of objective, repeatable experiments as a means of discerning information about reality.  Chemistry is a good example of a field driven by the scientific method, but medicine and psychology also presume that in order for something to be accepted as factual, it should be demonstrable in a controlled experiment and able to be replicated by others.  This is understandably a powerful means of learning.

But it might be that not everything that we accept as subjected to this rigorous standard actually holds up.  I found this little article very interesting.  An effort by 300 scientists to replicate the results of 100 different psychology experiments resulted in success only 40% of the time.  In other words, 60 of the experiments could not be replicated – or more accurately, the results could not be replicated.

These were all experiments published in highly respected and authoritative publications.  And all of these experiments were published less than 7 years ago – since 2008.  In fact, one of the co-authors of this study was unable to replicate one of his own experiments.

The article duly reports that duplicating experiments is difficult work and that failure to do so is not necessarily indicative of a flaw in the original experiment.  Which I’m willing to grant.  My problem is that it is these same studies that are used as the basis for asserting things as fact.  When people question or doubt scientists simply point to the research and say here’s the proof, end of discussion.  Well, poor scientists do.  In reality, perhaps such data is not nearly as conclusive and authoritative as the authors of any given study position it to be, or as pundits or other people not directly involved in the original experiments might want them to be or claim them to be.

It’s good to remain skeptical.  Theoretically, skepticism is a fundamental strength of the scientific method.  Which is why it is disturbing when scientists attempt to circumvent skepticism in order to secure their own particular views and interpretations.  Like this group of scientists petitioning President Obama to prosecute climate change skeptics using anti-racketeering laws!   That is fundamentally disturbing to me, particularly in light of the fact that what we ‘know’ or think we know about our world can change dramatically in very short periods of time, as new information and more refined studies are done.

Book Review: The Inklings

September 21, 2015

The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Their Friends by Humphrey Carpenter

Harper Collins, 2006

I re-read this book after perhaps a decade, and it’s still a fantastic read.  If you’re a fan of Tolkien and Lewis (or Charles Williams) then this is a fascinating insight into their lives together in a weekly literary group called The Inklings.  They would gather to drink beer, read to one another from their works in progress, and engage in spirited debates on issues pertinent to their fields and current events.  Because the author completed a separate biography specifically of Tolkien, Tolkien figures less in this book than Lewis or even Williams.

I came away from this biography feeling as though I knew Lewis a little better.  I haven’t read any of Williams’ works but he figures prominently in this biography as well, along with – to a lesser extent – Lewis’ older brother Warnie.  In the older edition that I have there are some great black and white photos of Lewis and the various other people mentioned in this biography.  Carpenter is a skilled and engaging biographer, so that the book reads quickly.  I’m not a big biography buff, yet this book kept my attention throughout.  Carpenter draws his information from research in the diaries of the various figures in the book as well as from personal interviews, providing an inside-glimpse from as close to the perspective of the people involved as possible.

Reading Ramblings – September 27, 2015

September 20, 2015

Reading Ramblings

Date: Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 27, 2015

Texts: Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; Psalm 104:27-35; James 5:1-20; Mark 9:38-50

Context: The issues of sin and power and ego are on display in the readings for this week. We are prone to want to protect our power or our contributions, and to edge out others who might want to contribute in a similar way. We see power as a limited quality that we can have only if others don’t have it. But this is not the way God’s power works. It does not diminish me when someone else is gifted by the Holy Spirit! Rather, it builds both of us up.

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29 – The chopped-up nature of the reading is an effort to keep the reading somewhat short and focused on the issue of the people’s complaints and God’s response. Extraneous material has been left out of the assigned reading to make it more concise. However the choice of verses is interesting because the preliminary issue – the people’s unhappiness with manna and their desire for meat – isn’t addressed in these verses, but in verses 31-35. Instead this reading emphasizes God’s response in the granting of his Spirit to the 70 elders. The people of Israel aren’t the only ones complaining – Moses is complaining as well and God’s solution is to grant his Holy Spirit to the elders to assist Moses in governing the people. In case we think that this is something that Moses might be less than thrilled about, that he might view as a demotion or a lessening of his authority, Moses sets us right. He acknowledges this as a blessing from God, a blessing that could only be improved if it were more broadly disseminated!

Psalm 104:27-35 – We pick up towards the end of the psalm, where God is praised for giving food and sustenance to the creatures listed in verses 1-26. Grass grows for livestock (v.14) and the birds of the air nest in the trees (v.17). But the source of all these blessings is not simply the reality of creation, but the God behind it. God has not simply set things in motion, He actively sustains all things. He is actively the cause of the seasons and the rains and the food that fills the stomachs of his creatures. Likewise, God determines the time of their death. Nothing is beyond our Creator’s care. As such, verses 31-35 are rightfully a call to praise this Creator and Sustainer. Not only will He continue to provide for his creation, He will be the cause of evil and sin’s departure from creation, of the restoration of creation to the perfection in which He first called it into being. Verses 27-30 fit nicely with the Old Testament account of God’s provision for his complaining people, and verses 31-35 are the appropriate response, contrasted with the response of Israel in the wilderness.

James 5:1-20 – The first twelve verses are optional for this reading, but it makes sense to go ahead and include them in the spirit of the lectio continua that the Epistle lesson is intended for during this time of the liturgical calendar. Here James warns those who are blessed with riches, for those riches can be a snare that leads their hearts away from God and could lead them to do terrible things, including the murder of righteous persons. One might think of the story of Naboth and King Ahab in 1 Kings 21, and how King Ahab (or more accurately, Queen Jezebel) had Naboth falsely accused and executed for the king’s gain. James’ exhortation to Christians who face such predatory practices is to set their eyes on the coming of the Lord. We are not called to take our salvation into our own hands – a difficult thing for Americans to consider! We are not even to grumble – rather, we are to wait on the one who will vindicate and restore not just our reputation but our lives from the grave. As such, there is no need to resort to extraordinary measures. We simply answer yes or no, trusting ultimately in the God who created and redeemed us.

The second half of the chapter has to do with prayer and sickness and faith. Anointing with oil was a medicinal practice in the first century, so we would do well not to interpret any special spiritual significance. In other words, do what you can for the one who is suffering from illness and pray for them as well. The prayer of faith will indeed save the one who is sick – save, not necessarily cure. Rather, the prayer of faith results in our forgiveness so that God raises us up from the grave on the day of our Lord. We are to take prayer seriously, for God responds to prayer. Likewise sin has devastating power in our lives and even over our health, James intimates. We must take it seriously, dealing with it in confession and absolution and prayer. In this process, if someone has wandered, no longer considers the sin in their lives something to worry about, it is the duty of their brothers and sisters in the faith to call them back to the truth. We dare not commend people in their sin, for their health today and their eternal life is at stake. Rather, we speak the truth in love, with the desire for repentance and restoration of that brother or sister.

Mark 9:38-50 – Once again the issue of pride is at play, with the disciples worried about others exhibiting power in Jesus’ name without being his direct followers. As such, the disciples are similar to Joshua, concerned that Eldad and Medad were prophesying inappropriately. In both cases the concern is unwarranted. Power comes from God, and He will best determine who utilizes it and towards what ends.

But what about the reverse? What if the issue is not the exhibiting of God’s power to heal or drive out demons in another person, but rather leading that other person into sin? This is a serious situation indeed, and one the Christian must take seriously. Sin is real and dangerous, as James hinted at. And causing someone else to fall away from the faith is something that places us in very real danger before God, who created that other person as well as ourselves. Is Jesus serious with his talk of self-mutilation? Most scholars are quick to claim no. But perhaps it would do well for us to consider, if only briefly, whether perhaps Jesus might be speaking more literally than we would like to think. If we thought the natural consequence of a repeated sin was to lose a hand or a foot, we might concentrate more emphatically on fighting that sin!

Jesus’ disciples are worried about the possible sin of others using Jesus’ name and power, but Jesus instead calls them to self-examination. In this process of examining their own hearts, confessing their own sins, receiving God’s forgiveness, they will tend to deal with the sin in others in a more loving way. Not that the goal is to soft-peddle the issue of sin, but rather to ensure that when we confront one another with our sins, it is truly for the good of the other person and not for selfish ambition or vain conceit. Only the one who is all too aware of her own sin can truly love her neighbor in restoring him from sin. So it is that Jesus begins with the seriousness of sin and ends with the issue of peace with one another. It sounds like an odd jump at the very end, but this has been Jesus’ goal since v.33 and the disciples arguing among themselves. They go from squabbling among themselves to wanting to squabble with others. In both cases the issue should be personal repentance rather than argument.

Fear

September 19, 2015

I haven’t wanted to talk about the brew-ha-ha over the boy with the suspicious-looking alarm clock in Irving, Texas.  Primarily because it is so patently an organized effort on the part of the media to make a big deal out of something that is not fundamentally a big deal.  Because 50 years after we legislated Civil Rights, people insist on viewing everything in terms of race – and often it’s those who claim to have moved beyond the whole race issue who turn everything into a race issue.  I haven’t wanted to talk about it because it’s so stupid on so many levels.  At best, the well-meaning foolishness of a young boy results in unfortunate events which, with a little forethought from him, his family, and at least one of his teachers, could have been avoided.  At worst, a carefully calculated effort from the boy and his family to flout student codes of conduct results in a media circus tactically calibrated to condemn the very safety that has become such a cultural mirage, at once desperately sought after and at the same time forever elusive and vanishing from our fingertips.

Google the stuff yourself.  You’ll see every sort of story running the gamut of ideological positions.  But here is the basic situation – the boy brought something to school he shouldn’t have.  The MacArthur High School Student Code of Conduct prohibits students from bringing to school any “look-alike weapon”.  If rolled up paper can be deemed a weapon by some people, certainly a small box full of wires and electronics might be expected to raise some suspicions.

Ahmed should have known this.  His parents should have known this.  Why?  Because they’re required to read and sign the Student Code of Conduct.  Ahmed’s electronics teacher knew better, and frankly should have reacted differently.  Rather than just telling Ahmed to keep the device hidden in his backpack all day, the teacher should have offered to keep it for Ahmed until after school.  Clearly this teacher understood that the device might cause some concern, that it wasn’t appropriate at school.  It isn’t Ahmed’s budding creative and innovative tendencies that are in question.  It’s a matter of where and how those tendencies are expressed, and whether we like it or not, our schools are no longer places where those things can be expressed.  We have made them that way in our effort to make them safe and risk free places.

Ahmed’s actions don’t make much sense.  That’s to be expected from a 14-year old boy.  But our reactions to his actions, and our reactions to our reactions, are the true goofiness, the true indication of just how great a frenzy the media has whipped us into in regards to fear.

Teachers and administrators and parents are terrified of school shootings and bombings and other acts of violence.  They’re also so scared of possible legal action that strong actions are taken against obviously minor infringements.  Our children have become unknown, dangerous strangers.  Certain people are terrified of anything that smacks of racial distinctions or overtones, and interpret everything in such a light, even when representatives of the race in question don’t see the situation as race-related.

How could all of this have been prevented?  Ahmed’s parents could have advised him that taking a small box full of wires and electronics to school was inappropriate.  They could have referred to the student code of conduct to validate their caution.  His teacher could have offered to keep the device with him instead of encouraging Ahmed to hide it.  All of which are small issues.  There isn’t really much in the way of blame to be levied here.  An enthusiastic boy.  Proud parents.  A teacher settling into the new year and trying to get to know and work with a freshman student.  Another teacher trying to enforce discipline and instead finding a strange looking device in a student backpack.  Administrators and law enforcement officials who are bound by law to take such issues seriously or face serious legal repercussions, both criminal and civil.

The media who wants to ignore all of these realities that the media itself has helped create should be held accountable for making this into a race issue.  The media could condemn Ahmed’s treatment as an unfortunate effect of the mini-prisons that schools have become, but to do so the media would need to acknowledge that the relentless coverage of school atrocities has contributed to this very mindset.  The media has taught us to live in fear of our children – or more accurately, other people’s children.  To blame teachers and administrators for reacting the way they have been taught and trained to is immensely disrespectful of our educators.  The same media, had it actually been a bomb, would have been equally quick to vilify any teacher or administrator who hadn’t followed the proper guidelines for such situations.

At a more fundamental level, the media simply reflects our own fear.  We devour the 24/7 coverage of the latest atrocity, and we might as well make some popcorn to go with it.  Instead we should be ashamed of ourselves for the fear we live in. A fear that allows no slip, no exception, that takes everything equally seriously when all things are obviously not equal.  A fear of our elected leaders.  A fear of strangers. A fear of loss.  A fear of enemies both real and imagined.  A fear of life itself, because our greatest fear is death, and the two are linked inextricably.

When you take God out of things, when all we’ve got left to hold things together is ourselves, fear is the only natural consequent.  If all I have is this life, then anything that threatens that life becomes terrifying.  Safety becomes the one thing we long for and yet can never have because nobody can guarantee it.  This is not a safe world.  I am not a safe person.  Neither are you.  And even if we were, someday we’re going to die.  Every last one of us.  Maybe from a terrorist bomb.  Maybe from old age.  Maybe from being aborted in the womb.  Maybe from a failed surgery.  Maybe, most terrifying of all, for no discernible reason.  Despite exercising and eating healthy and practicing mindfulness and whatever else you want to throw into the list, you’re going to die.  I’m going to die.  My children are going to die.

We need to come to grips with this first.  We need to come to grips with the fact that we don’t control this, by and large.  We pretend we do, but that is mostly an illusion.  If we get in a car we’re at the mercy of electronic systems that control the car and controls the traffic lights.  We’re at the mercy of the drunk or drugged or exhausted driver who slips up and slides over the center divider line or isn’t quick enough to stop for the red light.  We could stay in our house all day and still die from slipping and falling or a tainted batch of pickles or an airplane falling out of the sky or a satellite falling out of orbit.  Or simply from genetics and the wiring of our own brains and bodies.

What we fear most is death and the ultimate unknown and the logical extension of eliminating God from our cultural landscape – there is not only no explanation for anything, there is no purpose to anything and ultimately no value to anything.  Nothing other than this fleeting moment and what I’m able to do to secure the next fleeting moment.  Whoever promises to keep me safe and alive the longest gets my vote.  Take my kids from me earlier and earlier in exchange for the promise that they’ll be better educated, better socialized, better prepared for a good college and therefore a good life and good income and good life-expectancy and maybe they’ll look after me when I’m old?  Sure, go for it!  Force my children to be shot full of undisclosed chemicals in exchange for the promise that they won’t get the flu or an STD or smallpox or whatever else comes to mind?  Sure, go for it!  Force me to purchase insurance to keep me healthier?  All-righty then!  Force me to wear seat belts?  Motorcycle helmets?  Tax cigarettes more and more?  Sure, go right ahead if it keeps me alive a little longer, if it keeps me a little bit healthier.  Better to live a slave than to die free, right?  Isn’t that what the man said?

I don’t think it is.

And we as a culture need to collectively re-think our unfortunate reversal of this maxim.  If we don’t like what happened to Ahmed we only have ourselves to blame.  We have become slaves to our fear, and as such, it is only a matter of time before we become slaves to whomever promises to protect us from our fears.  History shows almost unilaterally that this is never a good exchange.

How Did It Go?

September 18, 2015

I get this question often – understandably – from different people who know I’m spending three hours a week on our local community college campus.  There’s a sense of excitement that is natural to a new undertaking, and much room for prayer is needed.  But it’s a question that inevitably also causes me some anxiety.

I liken it to mission work.  And I suppose there is a tendency at some level for someone preparing to go into the foreign mission-field to assume that they have a good handle on what they’ve let themselves in for.  They’ve done their homework.  They’ve researched and read the history of other missionaries in that region.  They’ve boned up on the culture and have made beginnings in the language.  Part of the mission-preparation (I would imagine – maybe some of my missionary friends can vet me on this one) ought to be preparing the missionary for the shock that will come when their superficial understanding of another culture and region and weather-system and currency and fashion are ground up by the relentlessness of simply being someplace for a long time that is not home.  You can know a lot, but knowing isn’t being, nor is it, specifically, the difficulty of not-being, of becoming a foreigner when all you’ve ever known is being in the majority.

I could say that with 20 years of campus ministry experience I understand what I’m doing and how to go about it.  The truth is I don’t.  It’s been over 10 years now since I left my little campus ministry, which itself has now been destroyed by the foibles and politics of near-sightedness and larger, more pressing issues to be dealt with.  Ten years as well since I was actually teaching in college classrooms and interacting directly with college students instead of teaching them via the Internet.  A lot happens in ten years, or at least it seems to in our century.

So I have tried to assume that I don’t know anything.  I know what some other campus ministers do, and I know that such tactics can vary greatly in their success or failure.  I know I have to figure out what is natural for me.  And all of this takes time.  How long before a missionary to a foreign land can actually have a meaningful discussion with a native about Jesus without talking like a 2-year old?  I can’t imagine that frustration, and the patience required.  Or perhaps I can, dimly.

But I don’t know if others can.

For all the talk about how much our culture has changed, I don’t think people really understand what this means in terms of cross-generational work.  What it effectively means is that things take time.  I’m impressed, frankly, with the number of contacts I’ve already made sitting at a rather bare table next to the student cafeteria.  Yesterday I had five different conversations over the course of three hours, which I think is phenomenal!  The week before I only had two brief interactions.  People are beginning to expect me sitting there, which is a good thing.  But it doesn’t sound like much is happening.

Or at least I worry that’s what other people will think.  Nobody coming to church yet.  Nobody coming to midweek activities yet.  Just some conversations and reconnections.  Just some opportunities to demonstrate that I was serious about what I said – that I really would be there the following week at the same time and location.  I’ve gotten two e-mail addresses and have already begun correspondence with two of the students and that’s pretty exciting.  But it’s slow going.  Very slow going.

So, it went well.  And thank you to those who ask.  Please do keep asking!  But if I hesitate in my answer, this is why.  God is good and the Holy Spirit is at work, I trust.  But I may not have much tangible to sustain that trust.