Archive for the ‘Community’ Category

Ending With a Whimper

August 14, 2022

After over two years of sacrifice and fear, I guess this is how it ends. A barely reported update from the CDC that two cornerstones of the Covid pandemic era are no longer necessary. Social distancing is no longer recommended nor is at-home self-quarantining after being exposed to someone with Covid. Apparently there are enough people with antibodies that the unchecked spread of Covid is less a concern. That and weakened strains of Covid that don’t hospitalize or kill nearly as many people – though that’s not mentioned as prominently.

I wish there was a party. I wish we could celebrate making it through this together. I wish there was some acknowledgement that our efforts were helpful and effective. We did bend the curve enough to avoid completely overwhelming hospitals and healthcare institutions globally (although some places were indeed overwhelmed at various points). For all the jobs lost, educations disrupted, livelihoods reduced, emotional grief experienced, for all the fear and anxiety and uncertainty – to be able to have some sort of cathartic release would be so nice!

But we’re not going to get any of that kind of celebration. No hurrahs, no congratulations. Nothing. I suspect there are a several possible reasons.

First, I think there is a recognition of the power of mass fear in modifying human behavior, and acknowledging that a fear is passed doesn’t contribute towards that power. Other than 9/11 which was far more limited in scope there hasn’t been an opportunity in the US to see how far people’s behavior could be dictated and forced to change in America in our lifetime. In several generations, in fact. To celebrate the fact that such changes were unfortunate and only necessary for a short period of time might short-circuit the use of such tactics in the future, whether pandemic or otherwise related.

Secondly, people have been conditioned to fear, and there is no shortage (apparently) of possible new contagions to be fearful of. Monkeypox is an obvious example, though exact numbers are quite elusive and the apparent relegation of the disease primarily to the LGBTQ+ community hasn’t made it quite as comprehensive and able to generate the same level of fear – though media outlets are doing their best. Future variants of Covid will no doubt all get their airtime full of suspense and uncertainty whether they merit them or not. Insistence on tracking and reporting Covid cases rather than hospitalizations and deaths will also mean that inevitable spikes will be a cause for further pot-banging, even if they don’t cause more damage than any other illness we’ve taken for granted all our lives.

Thirdly, I suspect there is some level of bitterness in the scientific community. Though initial calls to shut down businesses and lock ourselves in our houses were couched in terms of bending the curve and trying to mitigate the rush of cases and hospitalizations and deaths in the early months of the pandemic, it became quickly clear this wasn’t really good enough for some in the scientific community. Instead, reasonable language was replaced with irrational language – warfare language. We weren’t simply going to endure Covid and ride it out and have as few deaths as possible, we were going to beat it. Defeat it. Stop it. End it. We were going to win because we had the science and technology to do so. Allegedly.

Vaccinations were a big part of this shift in language and I think there is some latent bitterness the vaccinations proved far less capable of protecting people from infection than initially asserted. Granted, the vaccines apparently lessened the severity of infection for some people, but I think there were more than a few folks convinced we could develop a vaccine that would essentially make people bullet-proof to the virus. Instead, we all got a first-class education in the limits of science and technology. And humility is not pleasant.

We also, hopefully, got a first-class lesson in the reality that America is different from any other country in the world. And while we’re quick to tout the benefits and glories of this, there are inevitable trade-offs. Our foundation on individual human rights rather than individual obligation to a government is a huge difference between the US and every other country in the world, democratic or otherwise. The insistence that the individual should be the primary arbiter of their risk-taking and general behavior has provided incredible opportunities that people from around the world still literally risk their lives to participate in by entering our country (legally or illegally).

On the flip side though, Americans are not as willing to accept mandates, directives, or recommendations, and as such vaccine rates were far lower than political and scientific individuals and groups wanted. The stubbornness that prefers to take somewhat known risks rather than the unknown risks of a newly developed vaccine was vexing for political and scientific leaders alike, and I think there is still bitterness over this. Nobody wants to congratulate a population that to varying degrees resisted the exhortations and pleadings and in some cases demands. Rewarding such behavior is counter-productive for future situations.

As someone who put off vaccination until the last possible moment and who personally had the illness, I commend this hard-headedness. I commend people insisting on making their own decisions rather than relegating that authority to some other agency. At least as much as possible. Such a line of reasoning does not – contrary to popular media – make people monsters. I think it makes them Americans (which some might equate with monstrosity). This applies in reverse as well – those who opted for the vaccine should be free to do so without denigration from others. Options are a blessing, as is personal agency. You’d think that was not the case to hear some people talk over the last couple of years.

So I think you should throw yourselves a party. Gather your family and friends. Gather your Covid-community that endured the hardships together. Do what’s healthy for yourself rather than expecting the powers-that-be to encourage or sponsor it. Don’t wait for someone to establish a day to celebrate when we collectively started to breathe sighs of relief that Covid was merely endemic. Because they aren’t going to.

While you’re at it, maybe give some consideration about how you’re going to pass down your experiences to the generations after you, especially the ones too young to remember or not around yet. Figure out how to convey your personal and family and community experience of Covid to future generations, rather than allowing whatever official reports exist or will be created to do that for you. You lived through a peculiar piece of US and world history, and your kids and grandkids and great grandkids and beyond would love to hear about it!

And good job, by the way. Whether you fought for vaccines or against them. Regardless of what philosophy you espoused or what political machinations you worked with or against. You made it through. By the grace of God, and that’s something to give thanks for, even as we remember those who didn’t.

Say What?

June 27, 2022

I’m sorry, can you explain this?

‘Experts’ are warning of a rise in infant mortality rate with the undoing of Roe v. Wade. Claiming an additional 75,000 births per year could be expected if abortion is not readily available on demand everywhere.

Compare that to over 60,000,000 abortions since 1973.

First off, if we are worried about infant mortality, shouldn’t we be more worried about the number of infants killed via abortion rather than the statistically much smaller number of infants potentially at risk through pregnancy complications? If we’re going to throw numbers around, which ones are bigger?

And doesn’t infant mortality imply that unborn children are actually, you know, children? Oh wait – I forget – they’re only human children if you want them to be. Otherwise they’re fingernails. My bad.

Moreover, they’re predicting a greater impact for people of color, which to my mind means that people of color were aborting babies at a higher percentage than people-of-no-color (?). So if more people of color were getting abortions, then how is it that more of their children are going to die without abortion?

I’m also curious about blanket statements such as this:

Pregnant people of color have long been marginalized and neglected in the medical system, frequently experiencing racism and discrimination at all points of care.

I’d be curious to see supporting documentation on this. But to just throw it out there as an accepted fact? Hmmm. Problematic to me.

And of course the logical conclusion is that the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade is racist. If people aren’t allowed to abort their unborn children before childbirth stage, more of them are going to die.

What?

Watching From Afar

June 26, 2022

I’ve been privileged now to have observed some pretty major events in recent American history while abroad. It’s a curious feeling, being physically so detached while glued to Internet news feeds. A few observations.

Of the multiple dozens of news feeds I scan daily, I have seen exactly zero headlines indicating there is a large percentage of US citizens who oppose abortion and are relieved this heinous practice is no longer federally protected. Not a single one. By just reading headlines you would be led to believe nobody in America was praying and hoping for this reversal, and that it’s a cruel and barbaric ruling imposed on a population overwhelmingly opposed to it. Although survey data is hard to analyze, what is clear is that the numbers fluctuate greatly depending on how terms are defined. Although there is a +- 10% at either end of the spectrum, who either support or oppose abortion under any circumstances, the vast majority of Americans fall somewhere in between. And somewhere in between is not what Roe v. Wade provided for.

The only headline I’ve seen all week indicating the presence of Americans who welcome the overturn of Roe v. Wade was from the British publication The Guardian.

Headlines almost universally refer to the repeal of Roe v. Wade in language that would lead the uneducated person to believe abortion is now illegal throughout our country, rather than the reality that it is no longer a federally mandated option. Abortion is not illegal in our country. It may be illegal in certain parts of the country, or may become illegal. But that’s a decision best left to more localized populations than dictated from the national level.

Much is said about the changes conservatives are bringing to American policy, but all of the extremely liberal changes that have been wrought since Roe v. Wade are depicted as de facto rights that have always existed and should be above challenge, as opposed to legislation and judicial decisions which, per our Constitution, are always open to review or revision. As amazed as many news stories sound, it is not an alien thing for the Supreme Court to reverse a previous decision. It is rare that it reverses it’s own decisions, but this should be a good thing, assuring both sides that such instances represent some very lengthy deliberation and study of the Constitution and law rather than a simple response to popular pressure. For example, the original Roe v. Wade decision is about 36 pages long. Dobbs vs. Jackson, which overturned Roe v. Wade this week, is 213 pages long. Clearly a lot of thought was given to this case.

I’ve seen stories citing cherry-picked, Western and European countries who are shell-shocked America could change it’s mind on this issue. This ignores the fact that abortion is limited in a large number of countries in the world. Again, since abortion has not been outlawed in the US, it would be more helpful if news reports compared apples to apples in their reporting.

There have also – predictably – been news stories featuring Christians lamenting this decision and asserting their support for abortion. Very little is mentioned – if at all – in such articles that probably the overwhelming majority of Christians worldwide understand abortion to be a violation of God’s Word in the Bible, and that certainly the largest Christian denomination on Earth – the Roman Catholic Church – has and does and (God-willing) will continue to oppose the practice steadfastly. I know there are Christians (some of them Catholic) who disagree with the Bible and their denominational stance, but it’s dishonest to ignore this difference of opinion simply to make it sound like all Christians everywhere support abortion (or should support it).

The (apparent) total lack of regard many lawmakers, celebrities, politicians, and other leaders in our culture have for the many, many people in America who believe abortion to be morally wrong, and who therefore believe it should not be a mandated right (paid for with tax dollars no less) or believe it should be illegal, is indicative of the growing polarization of our population and contributes directly to it. If you wish to disparage the logic or argumentation or conclusions of another citizen, all well and good. But if you simply want to insult and deride them and flip them off, you are not part of the solution to our polarization, you are part of the problem. This applies equally to people on both sides of any given issue. The unwillingness and inability to actually debate and simply scream and yell is a condemnation of our churches, our schools, and should be of utmost concern to our leaders. That they prefer to exploit it for their agendas is abysmal.

Much mockery has been made in recent years of those Americans who openly question the honesty and reliability of American media and news outlets. I suspect most of us are too jaded these days to implicitly trust much of any source (outside a sacred text). The incredibly disproportionate tone of the news media just this week alone ought to give pause for thought to whether or not the major American news outlets really are, as they claim, representing the news fairly and without bias. Not that this shouldn’t have been obvious for decades, but if anyone had any doubts about it, this week ought to make it clear.

Church Authority

May 10, 2022

An interesting – if too vague – article on the necessity of Church authority. By this, the author basically means every professing Christian ought to submit themselves to the authority of a church body – a local Christian congregation. Church membership as a whole continues to decline in the Western world, even as reported rates of theism in America remain very strong. Clearly there seems to be a trend where people believe they can believe in Jesus without being part of a Church. This article – rightly – questions this assertion and boldly questions such rationale.

I like his terminology – theological anarchist – for those who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ but refuse to submit to the authority of the Church. The typical rationale – the risk of abuse of power within the Church – is not a valid rationale as the author rightly points out. Jesus established the Church not to be perfect but to be the place in this world where the faithful can be fed and nourished (albeit imperfectly) towards their eternal place in the perfect creation that is already inbreaking. Sometimes it is not possible to be connected to a community of believers because of intense risk and danger. However it’s interesting that it is in exactly such conditions the Church seems most resolute and permanent. Not as an institution but as the reality of Christians gathering together to sustain their souls by the promises of God conveyed in the reality of brothers and sisters willing to risk this short, frail, mortal coil to affirm the equal reality of what all believers are supposed to be anticipating. Japanese Christians had to hide for a time but did continue to meet. The same happened in China and the USSR and other places where Christianity and the Church were suppressed or outlawed.

What remains as a rationale for avoiding submission to Church authority is something else, something far more personal. The author’s language is very strong here, offensive even. But isn’t the refusal to submit to Church authority equally offensive? Isn’t the assertion that no congregation is good enough for me offensive, even if the person hasn’t thought about it like that before?

I think the article can be a bit misleading in the title. It led me to expect a discussion about the exercising of church discipline and authority over members as opposed to the need and mandate for submission to Church authority vis a vis membership or attendance or however you want to name serious commitment. Committing to a community of faith is often, tragically, only a commitment of convenience, lasting only as long as the individual happens to agree with what is said and done and asked of them, and terminated when it suits their personal preferences as opposed to for reasons of heresy or theological error.

Of course this is a dominant problem in America and the West where individualism is reaching absurdist heights, and the Church is not exempt from these problems. Good but competing models such as democracy are often absorbed into congregational polity. Sometimes they can be good. Sometimes they can be harmful. But most dangerous is when they are confused with the Church, with the Gospel, with God’s will and work in our lives and world which is only and ever in Christ and not in the well-intentioned creations of any other person or group.

The Church is not -as some insist – part of such a subset of human-created ideas and institutions. The Church is Christ’s command and creation (Matthew 16:18). It is not perfect, but it will be, just as every individual who is part of it is not perfect but by the grace of God in Jesus Christ one day will be. As surely as I am not perfect, no congregation is perfect. That does not excuse me from the necessity of being part of one. To profess an invisible Lord while refusing to submit to that Lord’s visible, though imperfect Church is problematic in the extreme.

As a note, the questions and answers with Biblical citations at the end are from the Westminster Larger Catechism, crafted for use by the Church of Scotland in 1647 and followed by many Presbyterian church bodies. I don’t agree with all of the statements printed at the end of this article (I’m not Presbyterian!), but the author feels they help support some of his assertions.

Hospitality, Meals & Scripture

May 9, 2022

I’ve had a long interest in the intersection of hospitality, meals and Scripture. The Bible frequently uses the language of food and feeding to teach spiritual truths, and hospitality is not only repeatedly described throughout the Bible (Genesis 18, as just a single example), it is also prescribed (Hebrews 13:2 as just a single example and related most likely to Genesis 18).

I finally verified something I suspected for years – I have access to a theological database called Atla (originally short for American Theological Libraray Association). So now I can start to research what others have said on this topic as I continue to draw my own conclusions from the Word.

The first article I read can’t be accessed without paying for it (unless you also have access to Atla). It’s by a Presbyterian pastor in North Carolina by the name of David W. Priddy. The essay is entitled Eating with penitence: An essay on the local church eating responsibly (sic) and it was published in the Review & Expositor, a quarterly Baptist theological journal.

Priddy’s thesis deals with what the local church can do towards food reform and agricultural renewal. He posits three key issues. Firstly, a high regard for Word and Sacrament; secondly, examining the role of meals in Scripture (particularly the New Testament) and specifically in association with themes of judgement and a call to humility; and thirdly, the importance of continued remorse over sin (penitence).

Although at times abstruse, Priddy does a good job outlining these key issues, and I concur with most of the ideas he presents. Although we come from different denominational backgrounds I suspect we’d have a lot in common theologically, at least on this particular topic.

The only difficulty I had with the essay was his disdain for the history of some property owned by his congregation. His difficulty reflects modern notions of contemporary remorse (penitence) as well as potentially the appropriateness of some sort of compensation for past injustices (penance) although he stops short of such an assertion here. He relates how a 200-acre plot of land and large home was donated to his congregation well over 100 years ago (perhaps as long as 170 years ago). The problem isn’t the property per se, though Priddy has ideas about how it could be better put to use in food reform and agricultural renewal. The problem is the man who donated it to the church owned at least ten slaves and apparently sired children through at least one of them (and it’s implied that it was far more). The congregation’s fellowship hall is named after this man, something Priddy clearly finds offensive and problematic.

However in the little he says in the essay, it’s hard to know whether Priddy has investigated the donor’s penitence. The life of faith is indeed a constant one of confession and absolution, of contrition as well as accepting the gracious forgiveness of God, something Priddy highlights admirably in his brief discussion of historic liturgical formulations. Yet the presumed damning evidence of the congregation’s benefactor all those years ago leaves little room in Priddy’s words or spirit for the idea of forgiveness either sought or granted, the idea that the offending donor might have in fact been penitent, which may have spurred his donation of land to the church as an act of penance.

Priddy speaks a lot about penitence but very little about absolution and this is most clear in this real-world application. The Church must speak this loudly in the face of rising intolerance in cancel-culture. The irony is that culture has discarded Church, the Bible and God, and with it the only worldly assurance – and demand – for forgiveness and absolution. In lieu of this we are now daily on trial by a culture that rapidly evolves in it’s ideas about what is right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable, and that views any past sins of either omission or commission as equally damnable and irredeemable. The psalmist might these days say If you, O Culture, should mark iniquities, O Culture, who could stand? (Psalm 130:3, modified). The answer is no one, and unfortunately Priddy conveys a similar unwillingness to accept the possibility of penitence or penance if the sin is great enough, and therefore denies effectively the possibility of forgiveness and grace – certainly in this world and if so, then perhaps in the creation to come.

Pastors and congregations do have an opportunity to encourage members to reflect more on the choices they make as consumers (in this case, specifically as consumers of food products). While I don’t have the basis Priddy apparently does to label the entire food industry as essentially evil, I recognize wholeheartedly there are some major problems that affect land and health. Congregations have the opportunity to read Scripture with an ear towards how these topics are discussed, avoiding the temptation to simply apply Biblically-specific verses and situations to modern-day issues, yet recognizing the Church is continually called to contrition and penitence as well as to joyfully proclaiming the forgiveness won for us in Christ. Failure to do either inevitably leads to darkness.

I’m excited by the prospect of continued research and academic engagement, and grateful my seminary provides this benefit to alum, particularly now that my work has taken me to places where obtaining physical books (including my own professional library in boxes in storage) is either impossible or unreasonably expensive!

Hypothetically Speaking…

May 6, 2022

Let’s assume it was Ellen Degeneres (of 3-4 years ago, before she was tarnished by reports of her conduct towards employees) and not Dave Chappelle. I wonder if the decision would also be to charge the attacker with misdemeanors rather than any sort of felony.

Admittedly, if the weapon was in a bag and not in hand, brandished, or otherwise more readily accessible that might change things somewhat. But still, I’m sure the media outcry would be for a stronger sentence. It might be somewhat cynical to think the decision to charge with misdemeanors instead of something more serious could in any way be due to unpopular interpretations of Chappelle’s comments last year regarding transgender and LGBTQ+ behavior.

But I’ve been called a lot worse than cynical.

Hard Words. But True

January 8, 2022

If you are responsible for raising children right now, read this. Or read it if you know someone responsible for raising children. If you take your Biblical Christian faith seriously and need to guide young people towards their future, ready it. It’s blunt. And maybe bluntness is something we need a bit more these days.

What Cancel Culture Can’t Account For

January 5, 2022

A short article, but a miraculous one in our climate of cancel culture and the scorched-earth ideologies and tactics of whomever wields influence at the moment. The article reports how former inmates with the once-imprisoned Bill Cosby still try to keep in touch with him because of the positive impact he had on their lives while he was behind bars.

The author struggles with what appears to be this impossible paradox – a man imprisoned for accusations of sexually assaulting incapacitated women – could still have wisdom to impart and be a benefit to anyone. Because by today’s standards, this shouldn’t be possible. Someone who commits a crime or violates the accepted or promoted values of the moment deserves to be destroyed. Deserves to have their honorary degrees revoked, their accolades trampled, their achievements obliterated. The idea that a deeply flawed human being could at the same time actually be someone capable of doing good to others doesn’t hold currency in our culture today.

St. Paul would disagree, though. Read the latter portion of Romans 7 (actually, read ALL of this letter, but the most pertinent part to this discussion is in Chapter 7 for my less patient readers). St. Paul is not trying to exonerate himself. He is not insisting that he does not sin, or that his sin should not count against him. Rather, he acknowledges full well the reality of his sin, the severity of the sin, his deserving of the full penalty of the law for that sin. He realizes that his intentions are not enough to satisfy the requirement of the Law. And he recognizes he is doomed under the Law if left to himself. He is totally dependent on being rescued, redeemed, restored by someone external to himself (vs. 24-25).

I’m not defending what Cosby may have done. I’m not arguing he should not be punished for those crimes if they occurred. I simply hope to remind people that we are incapable of perfectly fulfilling the law. Either laws we create for ourselves or the Law given to us in Scripture upon which all of our laws ultimately derive whatever validity they might have. As such, punishment must come. As such, all of us to varying degrees deserve punishment. And as such, all of us must pray and plead not simply for justice and obliteration but mercy. Because whether we’re guilty of gossiping or shoplifting or murder, most every one of us also has moments where we are capable of doing some good – large or small – to others. Therein lies our humanity and our love for tragic heroes.

It’s not hard to punish. But it’s hard to punish while still desiring the best for the person being punished rather than simply wishing their suffering for reasons of revenge.

Old Testament Laws Today

December 26, 2021

An interesting article about the Old Testament rule that Israelite farmers needed to observe a sabbath year every – seventh year – from planting and harvesting crops (Exodus 23:10-12). I’m sure there were complicated issues of politics in Old Testament times as well as today. The directive was given for the express purpose of benefitting the poor (who had no fields of their own and could glean from whatever sprouted in their wealthier neighbors’ untended fields.

Following Up

December 19, 2021

Following yesterday’s post on the rather narrow focus of Covid-response measures (essentially vaccinations for everyone) I came upon this article from National Public Radio. It references “surge teams” created to assist hard-hit Covid areas and provided a link to more information. That led me to this White House press release from 12/2/21. While it doesn’t talk about building more healthcare infrastructure – temporary or permanent in nature – it does briefly describe several teams of personnel available for deployment nationwide, as well as funding measures to support locally-based groups of medical volunteers.

These are certainly good responses and I wish we heard more about them. Since it’s apparent already vaccinations alone are not going to stop Omicron or likely future strains of Covid – at least not to the extent we don’t have to worry about surges in cases and potential corresponding increases in hospitalizations – directing some serious thought and resources to additional infrastructure only makes sense, could help to provide jobs and economic stimulus to various areas, and would provide people more hope that we will get through this time one way or another.

I can’t take credit for these ideas (dang it!), but I can at least recognize that other people far better placed than myself are thinking about them.