Archive for the ‘Community’ Category

Empty Empathy

April 17, 2019

A great article on the decline of empathy in our culture over recent decades.

While I’ve identified as an empath and described at empathic by many people throughout my life, I never really gave much thought as to the history of that term (which is relatively recent) or more technical usage of it.  To me it just meant the ability to understand and respond to something another person was feeling or going through.  It’s a handy enough definition, and it avoids some of the technical and clinical definitions or nuances that I might be more hesitant to agree with.

I immediately thought about empathy in light of the Christian faith.  The Bible doesn’t utilize εμπάθεια, the particular Greek word from which the English term derives.  And yet it seems as though empathy is very much an expected response to the Gospel.  At a basic level, we are to have empathy with others as creations of a loving God, but sinful creations in the midst of a broken creation.  Our shared circumstances, existentially speaking, drive us towards empathy from the Biblical perspective as opposed to away from it.  Others might argue the Biblical injunction to love your enemy or offer forgiveness freely make no sense apart from a certain amount of empathy.  While I’m not sure I’d say it’s required, empathy certainly might help the process of obedience.

It isn’t surprising in a clinical book and on the NPR website that there is no effort to mention a correlation between a decline in empathy and the decline of Christianity in our country.  But I can’t help but think that they are very much directly related.

Christianity calls the individual out of themselves,  placing them in a larger communal context in the past, present and future.  Everything in the  Christian faith is, Biblically speaking, a matter of community.  And this continuous outward direction of the life of faith will help develop empathy with others if it isn’t something that was present in the individual prior to conversion.

It seems to me declining rates of empathy are indeed unsurprising where this counterintuitive life of faith is not practiced.  It is far more natural to not be empathetic to people I disagree with, fear, or dislike.  It is precisely for this reason that the life of faith as described in Scripture must direct me towards and empathetic posture to those around me.  Despite Richard Dawkins’ attempts to argue that empathy and altruism could be attributed to natural selection, we seem to be witnessing a return to a more natural human state, the state unmitigated by faith and trust in a God who created all things, redeemed all things, and is bringing all things to a conclusion.  If there isn’t anything beyond myself, existentially speaking, why waste the time and effort to try and understsand others, especially if I don’t like them or disagree with them?  Life is short, eliminate the negative baggage, as social media continually reminds us.

The conclusions drawn by the author of the book on this subject seem very much on point.  A lack of empathy can only lead to deeper division and polarization, something fatal to democracy.  This is, historically, where we’ve come from, and it appears to be where we’re returning to.  Our experience of “civil society” as Fritz Breithaupt, the author, describes it, is one inextricably linked to being people of faith, and particularly I would argue people either explicitly and personally Christian, or who embrace Christian ideals for ease and simplicity.  This association has long been recognized and noted by people such as Alexis de Tocqueville.

But we’ve either forgotten it or choose to ignore it.  The results are devastating.

Breithaupt’s solution, the development of a selfish empathy, is equally doomed to failure.  As we discovered with the ruse of tolerance in the last 20 years, people don’t act in one manner very long if they believe in something very different.  If you believe that you’re right and someone else is wrong, eventually this is going to come out in the wash and tolerance gets swept aside.  Likewise, pretending to be empathetic may work for a short while but will get smashed apart as soon as someone gets hurt or is rejected or otherwise sees no personal gain to be gotten from it.

Unless we are obedient to a Creator that tells us we were designed to live together and for one another and Him  rather than just ourselves, we are left with the meaninglessness of materialism and evolutionary theory and atheism which says there is nothing greater, no purpose to any of this.  And as such, we might as well just enjoy ourselves as much as possible for the brief span of existence we enjoy.  While the rule of law will prevent some people from taking that mindset to an unhealthy extreme, it cannot foster the positive sense of empathy that requires a meaning and purpose beyond oneself.

 

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Listening Matters

April 10, 2019

My family arrived to Lenten soup dinner tonight with tales of anger.  The weekly home-school park gathering was disrupted by a woman screaming at the kids from the other side of the park.  She was apparently irate that the kids were sitting on a low-hanging tree branch.  She screamed that they should get down, that somebody could get hurt, that their mothers surely must not be paying attention.  The moms were paying attention just a few feet away.  The kids were confused, the moms were a bit shocked, and the woman wandered away when nobody immediately met her demands.

One of the mothers went after the woman to talk with her, and ensure that the woman did in fact realize that the mothers were present and monitoring the situation.  The woman had no interest in listening – outright refused to actually talk.  Apparently she had wanted to scream her demands, not engage in an actual discussion.

Listening is getting harder, and rarer.

I was reminded of this by the above anecdote, and like many people in such a situation I clucked my tongue at the woman’s absurdity and inability to engage in actual dialogue or conversation about an issue.

But the below issue demonstrates that I – and perhaps you as well, dear reader – can be just as guilty of not wanting to listen, particularly when we think we know what we’re going to hear or not hear.

Currently there is a bill with bi-partisan support making its way through Congress.  I know.  Shocking, isn’t it?  The bill would ban the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) from developing a free e-filing program for itself.  The ban is heavily opposed by big business.  Specifically, big businesses in the business of tax preparation, like H&R Block and Intuit.  These companies have spent millions of dollars trying to ensure that the IRS doesn’t develop any such program as it could hurt the business of private tax preparation services and software.  These companies argue that they already allow people to use their products for free if they are below a certain income level.  And while 70% of Americans would qualify for their free e-filing services, only 3% of these eligible Americans use them.  Presumably another, higher percentage of these eligible Americans end up purchasing services that the companies upsell.

So far, no big deal.  But then I spy this article about liberal firebrand Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez complaining about this very issue, and suggesting that the IRS could – and should – provide auto-completed tax documentation free of charge.  The great majority of Americans have simple enough tax returns that the essential data could be auto-filled by the IRS, verified by citizens and then submitted electronically.  Other countries apparently do this already.

I was tempted to skip the article.  After all, I disagree with most everything I’ve heard this person say so far.   I don’t know the larger context of her comments, but at least in this limited sense, until I see a counterargument, I think it’s good that she’s raising the issue.  Since the IRS isn’t going to go away anytime soon, and since any changes to the tax codes result in more confusion, it would be nice to see the IRS develop a system that could help eliminate the headache for many Americans.

I also, however, don’t believe the IRS is capable of developing this kind of system, and that’s pretty depressing.

But the important thing is to keep listening.  Even to people you disagree with.  Disagree with ideas, not with people.  And by all means, look for  opportunities to be reminded that even people we disagree with (rather than ideas!) can sometimes say things we resonate with.  That’s an important thing to remember as more and more people become more and more comfortable with just screaming their demands or objections from a distance.

 

 

No Excuses

April 8, 2019

Last night was another exhausting exercise in building trust and relationship with wounded people.  I wrote a few weeks ago about deliberately choosing to be shorter in response to some things one of our Sunday evening folks was putting out there.  Last night the follow-up conversation I knew would come eventually came.  I’m not sure if the conversation is done yet, but it at least began.

Towards the end of a two-hour long emotion-laden conversation with this person, he asked me a question, the precise nature of which I can’t remember exactly in the fog of the evening.  Something to do with why we welcomed him to our house every week.  My response was immediate.  Because I love you.  He responded with a follow-up question – why do you love me?

It’s the type of question from a wounded person who needs and wants affirmation and encouragement as he’s rebuilding his emotional life.  It was an invitation to make comments about him personally, comments that would in some ways soften the blunter responses I gave him a month ago.  I knew there were things I could have said that would have made him happy, but I also was convicted that the right answer was theologically, not emotional or psychological.

Because you’re a child of God.

The disappointment was immediate and palpable.  And he drew the conclusion I assumed he would – that such a basis for love was relatively indiscriminate.  The same rationale would apply to any person who walked through that front door.  I agreed.  And I went on to affirm that yes, the rationale was indiscriminate in quantitative terms.  I am called to love every person I come across in my life because God created them.  Whether they like me or visa versa is irrelevant.  The command from my Savior is unequivocal.

This prevents me, ideally, from favoritism.  I’m not allowed to love some and not love others.  It will be easier to love some more than others.  I may like some more than others.  But I am called to love everyone.  That decision has been made for me already by my Lord and I am under his command in this regard.

But the love that I show to the people in my life does differ qualitatively.  It is in this category that I need to figure out the best way to love each particular person.  One person is more delicate and needs more encouragement.  Another is more cocky and sometimes needs a challenge.  Each needs to feel welcomed and important but hopefully in ways that are best received by them.  This should not be favoritism, though of course everyone has favorites.  There’s nothing wrong with having favorites but there is something wrong with favoritism (read James 2:1-12).  It can be a tricky line at times.

I imagine there will be more conversations ahead.  In talking and debriefing with my wife today, she commented that I was brave to be willing to confront this individual as I did a month ago, and then to follow-through with the harder work of working through that with him.  Community and relationship is a two-way exchange, though.  In our culture that demands that everyone accept everyone else for who they are there is no actual exchange, no actual interaction between real people.  The relationship is artificial if there is not honesty.  That honesty should be conveyed in love, but sometimes the loving thing to do is not the polite thing to do.  Ultimately I believe that committing to this way of relationship ultimately offers the greatest hope of real relationship, and then the greatest hope of the Holy Spirit being at work in that relationship to point the way to Christ.

Not easy but necessary.  In a culture of convenience, just as I’ve rejected the use of a microwave in our home as antithetical to the kind of life we want to embrace, certain relational short-cuts have to be eschewed as well.  It might mean that people who aren’t able to handle this will walk away.  But it does encourage the people who remain (myself included) to really learn and grow in how to relate to one another as children of God pointing the way to Christ.

 

Connectivity Doesn’t Stop Loneliness

March 26, 2019

An interesting essay challenging our concepts of success and suggesting that a robust community should be one of our top goals in life.

While I struggle with some of the language towards the end of the essay, it’s a good case study in the importance of people around us.  Not just bumping against each other on separate trajectories but rather walking with one another in and out of the various situations we can find ourselves in.  I don’t know that I would describe community as an “insurance policy”.  While there are elements of accuracy there, it strikes me as too calculated, too transactional.  Yes, community can support us in amazing ways, but it goes beyond just what happens when things fall apart.  Community shapes us, strengthens us for everyday life together as well.

Nor is community an “immunity”, some sort of vaccination that keeps us from suffering “loss and disappointment and rage”.  But it is true that community helps us deal with these things in healthier, more constructive, less destructive (whether internally or externally) ways.  Community is not a means of  “future-proofing”.  Community is a way of shaping today and therefore shaping tomorrow.  In the process today is richer, and we can look forward to a richer tomorrow.

And of course ultimately community in and of itself, with nothing greater within it or behind it or ahead of it is as pointless as any other isolated human experience or endeavor.  What gives community it’s real power is being grounded in the ultimate, eternal community, a God who in his very essence is communal as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It is this reality that gives meaning and purpose to our communal experiences here and now, knowing they are preparations for an eternal communion not simply with one another but with Him.

On Ashes

March 6, 2019

A colleague posted a question on Facebook the other day asking about why or why not we should or should not engage in the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, particularly in light of Jesus’ teaching Matthew 6:16-18.  There were a great many responses – around 40 the last I checked.  Predictably they ran the gamut of ideas and theological ponderings.  Folks who poo-poo’d the idea because it was just a church tradition, as well as those who made a point of doing the ashes precisely because it is a church tradition.  Those who felt ashes on the forehead are pretentious and therefore a violation of Jesus’ teaching, and those who disagreed.  People who prefer to allow individual conscience to dictate and those who see value in the communal practice.  People shared their various practices – including one I really like of including Holy Communion on Ash Wednesday.  The ashes are imposed at the start of the service, and after confession and absolution and Holy Communion they are then washed off using the water from the baptismal font.  Definitely an idea for next year!

If you want to read to opposing (LC-MS) views on the subject, this is a great summary of two articles.  Another perspective is here.

Traditionally people refer back to the Old Testament as a support for the practice of noting repentance or sorrow with ashes and sometimes fasting.  I thought back to Leviticus 16 (and verse 29 particularly)  which stipulates that every 10th day of the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar is to be a day of solemn fasting and repentance.  Jews today know it as Yom Kippur.  Leviticus stipulates fasting but not ashes.  But it seems a strong starting point with our Old Testament consideration.  God’s people for a long time have shown grief in some particular ways, ways that continued even among believers with a different cultural background from the one it originated with.  And the idea of  a communal day to acknowledge personal and corporate sin goes back to God himself.

Jesus and his disciples undoubtedly followed this command.  What that meant, however, is not clear to me.  The earliest written instructions regarding how to observe the Day of Atonement – other than Scripture itself – are contained in the Mishnah, which was compiled in the early 200’s AD by Yehuda HaNasi, realizing that the Temple wasn’t going to be rebuilt any time soon and that God’s people needed the oral traditions to be written down as they were increasingly dispersed.  In the Moed section of the Mishnah which deals with holy days, in the Yoma section, there are five things prohibited on the Day of Atonement – eating & drinking, wearing leather shoes, anointing oneself with oil, washing, and sex.

Presuming these regulations were in place in Jesus’ day  then, is Jesus in Matthew 6 instructing his disciples not to follow the five prohibitions above, but rather to violate at least two of them?  That seems like a stretch.  Jesus was well known for clarifying Jewish customs, their traditional practices and interpretations of Scripture.  But I can’t think of another place where Jesus is critical of the Day of Atonement practice in particular.  Most of his emphasis seems to be on Sabbath traditions and stipulations.

I’m  comfortable presuming – using an argument from silence – that Jesus and his disciples followed the five prohibitions for the Day of Atonement, and therefore Jesus in his teaching in Matthew 6 does not rule out the idea of public forms of penance or  repentance or the observance of a special holy day.  I presume his teaching to deal with personal, private fasting, aside from public, prescribed days of communal fasting.

How does all of this relate to Ash Wednesday?

Potentially, not at all.

Ash Wednesday is not commanded in the Bible or referenced even in passing anywhere in Scripture.  The closest relative in my opinion is Yom Kippur but they are separated by a rather impressive chasm in Christian perspective.  So Ash Wednesday is not a divinely commanded observance with particular traditions we’ve innovated that may or may not be helpful or correct.  Rather, it’s a tradition.  A tradition steeped in Old Testament language about ashes and sorrow and repentance, (Genesis 18:27, 2 Samuel 13:18-20, Esther 4:1, Job 2:8, Isaiah 58:5, Jeremiah 6:26, Lamentations 3:16, Ezekiel 27:30, Daniel 9:3, Jonah 3:6 – to name a few). to be sure, but only steeped.

Interestingly, there are no New Testament references to the use of ashes for sorrow or repentance.

Roman Catholics trace the tradition of Ash Wednesday (dies cinerum) back to roughly the eighth century and Gregorian versions of  the Roman Missal. FYI, a missal is a book of prayers used by an officiating priest, not something you shoot at someone to blow them up.  Into ashes.  Get it?

Ahem.

There should also be recognition that – likely based on the Old Testament references above – there has existed a long-standing tradition of associating ashes with public penance.  Someone caught or admitting to serious sin of a public nature would adorn themselves with ashes publicly as a sign of their repentance – their repudiation of their sin and their avowal to strive to live by God’s Word.  Some see this as primarily a clerical practice – for church professionals, as it were.  But an Anglo-Saxon priest by the name of AElfric bishop of Eynsham in England, probably born around 955 AD suggested the practice was more widely practiced and not limited to churchmen.

So, to say the least, there is at least a 1000 year tradition of associating ashes with repentance and sorrow, with doing so in a public way, and with doing so particularly on Ash Wednesday.

Do we have to keep doing this, then?  No, of course not.  A tradition is not made anything more than a tradition simply based on how long it’s gone on.  But that being said, there is a depth and richness to long-standing traditions.  There are benefits that can be gleaned from them, even in our day of iPhones and smart watches and self-driving cars.  Are we ever so certain that this tradition of ashes has nothing to do with us, nothing to offer us, and so can be relegated to the ash-bin of history, ecclesial or otherwise?

In a culture where death is so greatly feared and hidden away, might there be something to be gained by someone telling you to your face that you are going to die?  An existential certainty (barring Jesus’ return or another similar miracle on the scale of Enoch or Elijah) we all need to come to grips with, and should do so on a daily basis rather than in a rush at the last minute sitting in the waiting room of the doctor or breathing in the anesthesia before surgery?

I like to think that God gave us senses for a reason, to know things about ourselves and the world around us, and for him to tell us things and remind us things about ourselves and even him.  Our senses were given to us before the Fall.  They’re good, though now corrupted by sin and not nearly as reliable as  before, just like the brain they’re connected to.  Protestants, in moving away from the Roman Catholic Church 500 years ago, lost a lot of the sensory aspects of worship.  Not surprising, happening in the midst of the Renaissance and not long before the Enlightenment.  No surprise that the mind should push itself to the forefront and the other senses be pushed down.  Primitive.  Animalistic.  Lesser.

Maybe not.

Just as we adore music and the visual arts in worship, perhaps there is something to drawing in the other senses as well.  Perhaps this is why baptism uses water and the Lord’s Supper is something you can taste.  More of our senses engaged again in this life of faith rather than just our mind or that less definable aspect of us, the spirit/soul.

I make the ashes each year.  Following the tradition of using a palm from the previous year’s Palm Sunday.  Not because I have to or because it makes Jesus love me more.  But because it is beautiful to me to do this, knowing that children of God have been engaging in a similar practice for nearly a thousand years.  That I, sitting on the bench outside under the shelter of our arched entrance to the Church, protected from the rain a few feet away but able to smell it and feel it  still, using a small gas lighter to turn the palms of celebration into the ashes of mourning, am not so very different from the monk a thousand years ago, sitting outside some monastery listening to the rain drip as he sought to burn palms to  ash as well.  As Normans were making preparations to launch the last successful invasion of England.  As the tribes of Europe fashioned themselves into countries.  As bombs rained down in the world wars.  As the Tesla dealership across the street starts the morning litany of test drives.  Bound together by a simple practice.

Not just individuals doing whatever I personally feel like because that is what my particular culture tells me is more important than anything else.  Doing it with other people.  For other people.  To other people.  The cult of individualism will one day come crashing to the ground into ashes, and from those ashes will arise, I hope, a new sense of the power and need and purpose of community.  Of limiting the self, of seeing membership in the whole as more beautiful than my own personal preferences.

I enjoy the ashes because they are a reminder to me, as I mix and crush the larger pieces into a finer powder before adding oil – this year nard but in previous years myrrh or frankincense – that my sin is my death, but my death is not the end.  That in going to the cross, Jesus took my sin and exchanged it for his righteousness.  Life from death.  Beauty from ashes.  Righteousness from sin.  Change from the past.

These things are what have to be, not the ashes.  I’m free to take or leave the  ashes, and so if you disagree so be it.  Just make sure you know why you’re passing them up.   And be sure you aren’t looking down on those of us who get something from them, a la Romans 14.  And I’ll try not to think less of you as well, as per the same chapter.  Because that, too, is more important than the ashes themselves.  It is part and parcel of the season of Lent that we begin today.

To God be the glory.

 

Standing Firm

March 4, 2019

We live in a squishy culture.  Nothing is firm and set.  People and ideas and beliefs and practices are expected to be equally squishy.  Like jello or marshmallow, like sponge cake you can poke and push and it will bend and form to the shape of your finger or fist, allowing you to pass through or pass on before it begins to take shape again.

When you listen to people talk this is readily apparent.  I hate that I catch it in my writing and speaking as well, though I try to ferret it out.  You know what I mean, the constant prefacing or concluding of any statement with in my opinion or it seems to me, or  in my experience.  The kind of statements that devalue whatever follows or precedes, even though the speaker or writer believes those statements.  It is the assumption that nothing can be stated absolutely, that everything is up for question and grabs, and that any opinion is ultimately as good as another, even if we don’t treat them that way.

Squishy.

It is shocking to people to run into non-squishiness.  It is painful.  But it is necessary.

Last night we had a deep conversation with some of the core people in that community.  People who have been coming every Sunday night  literally for years.  They come because they know us and trust us and love us to some degree.  All things that evolved because in our home they found love and acceptance and respect.  They know we don’t necessarily agree with them about everything they think or say or do.  They know that we’re Christian, even if they aren’t sure what they are at the moment.

Yet in conversations – those rare, deep conversations that I live for – there is the expectation that we will converse like everyone else in their lives has conditioned them to converse.  State what you think or feel.  Couch it in the squishy terms mentioned above, but put it out there and nobody is allowed to question or disagree.  Or if they must disagree, they need to do so in the same squishy terms the original assertion was made.  Disagreement must be couched in dismissive language that softens it for the hearer and, in my opinion, assures them that they can go on feeling what they feel or thinking what they think because I’ve acknowledged that my disagreement has no stronger basis than their opinion.  It’s a self-defeating form of expression that ultimately makes any sort of progress meaningless or pointless as there is no acknowledged objective reality to strive for.  If I asked them to defend a mathematical equation they would leap to it readily and easily.  If I asked for the proper  medical treatment for a specific condition they could provide it authoritatively.  But in the biggest questions of life, of meaning and purpose, of truth and beauty and good and evil – these things are supposed to be squishy.

So there were tears last night because I wasn’t squishy.  Because I responded to assertions with simple nos and you’re wrong and that makes no sense sorts of statements.  No squishy comfort words before or after, simply confronting their statements with hard, abrupt words.  I was reprimanded for it, at which point I assume I was expected to apologize and back down and be more squishy.

And I refused.

I meant to be hard.  Not mean or cruel, but hard.  Unyielding.  Anti-squishy.  I know these people and they know me.  And I rely on that built up relationship of love and mutual respect to be able to be hard and  unyielding when I deem it necessary.  Because when everyone is talking squishy talk it’s easy to lose track of things, easy to discount things, easy to move past things.  And some things shouldn’t be moved past or through or around so easily.  Some things, like Truth, need to be run into and bounced off of.  People need to be shaken at times out of the stupor of relativism and subjectivity which now passes for intellectual discourse.

I am not squishy.  I mean, I am, personally.  But what defines me, what anchors me, what is my rock and fortress is not squishy.  I don’t stand on my own ideas – at least as much as I can avoid it.  I stand on a word I believe with all my heart and mind and experience and observation and reflection  is given by the Creator of the Universe himself.  I stand on a rock that cannot be moved no matter how much simpler life would be for some people if it did.  And it’s my job to stand firm on that rock.  To not be squishy.  To not be hesitant.  To speak with boldness and confidence as God the Holy Spirit allows and leads me to.

NOT to be unloving or uncaring, but to stand firm.  In love and care for others and refusing to allow them the misconception that I think these ideas of truth and reality are soft and squishy and malleable.  And hopefully, in standing firm in the midst of tears and shock and anger, to trust that the relationships we’ve build over the past three plus years will drive us back to these topics for explanation and clarification and discussion.

It’s not easy or pleasant, but by the grace of God, because of His infinitely greater love and care for these people than my own love and care for them, it’s getting easier.  Easier because it’s becoming so much clearer.  Such a fascinating process!  And such a blessing to know that He is at work in all of these things not simply to vindicate my point of view, but ultimately to draw these children of his back into his arms to find the peace and hope and healing they need so desperately.

 

Creating Community

February 28, 2019

Last August my wife  and family and I decided that we wanted to begin a new ministry outreach.  Some of our spiritual giftings are in the area of hospitality and helping people feel comfortable, welcome, respected, safe.  For years, I’ve been working in the recovery community locally, engaging each week with men and women committed to a year-long residential addiction recovery program.  I’ve had many joys in getting to know these people in their journey.

The difficulty is that for many of them, the relationship I build with them is viewed as part of their recovery program.  Thus, when they graduate from the program, I never see or hear from them again.  In one sense that can be good and fine.  Some are from out of town and head back to their own areas to continue their life of recovery.  Other times, I know they’re still local.  I give them my contact info, but I think there’s the idea that I was part of their recovery program and now they’ve graduated from that and moved on.  Yet the life of recovery – modeled after the life of Christian faith – is grounded in relationships and community.

So we decided to begin inviting small groups of 3-4 clients from the women’s program over to our home for dinner each week.  Over the course of two months all of the women came over.  Our  goal was simply to provide community and relationship.  To give them three hours to be in a home where there are no expectations other than being together.  They can relax.  Sometimes they help in preparing dinner or setting the table.  They help in clean up after we enjoy the meal together.  Often times there are board games or video games for them with our kids.  Each night is slightly different based on who is with us.

It was great.  We enjoyed it and the ladies enjoyed it.  Our goal was that this would be an ongoing thing.  Never an expectation or requirement but always an option for them.  But once all of them came over, the staff assumed that was the end of it.  After some further conversations  and explanations, we started up the dinners again this month, and have another one tonight.  Again, good experiences.  Not always easy, but certainly fascinating.

But tonight was a first.  One of the ladies who attended one of our very first dinners last year called my office up.  Normally she plays softball on Wednesday nights but due to rain, the game was cancelled.  She remembered coming for Wednesday Bible studies at our church, and I think in part because of the different kind of relationship she experienced briefly in our home, she felt comfortable reaching out.  I picked her up and brought her to our regular Wednesday night, informal pot-luck dinner at our church and then she stayed for Bible study afterwards.  She indicated she planned to start coming to our Thursday dinners at our house next week.

It  was a very affirming moment.  Building relationships is long, slow work.  Our congregation recently was blessed to have some missionaries to Turkey come by and speak with us for a bit.  He described a relationship with a couple and family, and the ups and downs of that relationship and how God the Holy Spirit brought others into the relationship as well to move it along.  Eventually the couple became Christian, which changed their lives and led now to the curiosity of their children about the faith, having seen how much happier their parents were in their new faith.  At the end of his sharing I asked him how long this relationship had been going on.  How long had he and his wife been working with this couple.  Loving them.  Caring about them.  Getting to know them and allowing themselves to be known.  Ultimately being able to share the love of Jesus Christ.  Well over 20 years, he responded.  Over 20 years for that relationship to grow and develop!

So little baby steps are a huge blessing.  To see that in opening ourselves and our homes, we can leave impressions, make impacts on people that may not be recognizable initially.  Not for weeks or months or years.  Sometimes not for decades or lifetimes!  It was a further confirmation of the direction my family and I are being drawn in through ministry.  It’s exciting and invigorating even as it’s exhausting.  But it’s nice to hope that it’s making a difference.  Slowly.  One person at a time.

Book Review: Pollution and the Death of Man

February 18, 2019

Pollution and the Death of Man: The Christian View of Ecology

by Dr. Francis Schaeffer

I picked up some books at the used book store a looooong time ago.  Lost them, forgot about them, and rediscovered them recently and plucked the top one up.  While I’m a big admirer of Schaeffer’s practical theology and philosophy, I had forgotten how painful he can be to read.  It isn’t that the concepts are too technical or complex, but more that writing is just not his forte.  It’s one thing to think big thoughts, but an entirely different thing to communicate them in understandable terms!

But this book, after an initial rocky start, really is far more accessible than some of Schaeffer’s other writing.  The topic hasn’t gotten any less important in the last 50 years, and while his thoughts on it are something that anyone well-versed in the Bible might piece together on their own, it doesn’t seem to be a topic or a treatment that has attracted much attention.  Some of Schaeffer’s observations in this book are fantastic in that they apply in so many areas beyond ecology, yet they apparently elude so many Christians.

Schaeffer really hits his stride in Chapters 4-6.  He grounds Christian ecology on, logically enough, the creation account in Genesis.  He argues that Christianity is unique among religions and philosophies for providing the baseline argument of why we should treat nature kindly and gently: because God created it. Most other religions and philosophies argue for a certain treatment of nature that is far more anthropocentric – we should take care of nature because it benefits us, specifically, as human beings.  Schaeffer argues powerfully that such an anthropocentric view is dangerous, as is the other extreme – pantheism.

Schaeffer goes on to offer a compelling description of man and his place in creation, separated by a gap not only between himself and his Creator, but between himself and all the rest of creation.  That, endued alone with the imago dei, man is unique in creation but not separated from creation.  He is both unique in the imago dei and not unique in that he also is a creation.  Schaeffer offers an exploration of this and how man should treat nature.  The example that stands out is that man is free to rid his home of ants.  This is a necessity (at least most people would view it as such!) and so many does this.  But when he encounters the ant on the sidewalk, he steps over it.  The ant has a right to his antness in his proper habitat, just as man does.  And man does not have the right to arbitrarily destroy nature when there is no need for doing so.  And if there is a need to do so, man can choose to limit himself (in terms of time and profit, primarily) so that nature is not unnecessarily destroyed more than needs be.

This is really helpful reading.  It prevents us  from erring in the traditional way, but claiming that as God’s highest creation the rest of creation exists only for our own use or pleasure.  No, creation has a right to exist in itself, though man has the right to utilize nature towards his needs and ends, so long as it is done without losing sight of nature as a creation of God, just like mankind itself.  And it prevents us from erring with the pantheists or the materialists.  Pantheists see all things as divine and ultimately degrade humanity in the process.  Materialists do the same thing but because they lack any sense of divinity, rather than suffering from too great a sense of it.

Finally, Schaeffer rightly asserts that Christians should be living out these truths as witness to our culture and the world around us.  That our individual and corporate lives should be governed by decisions of self-limitation in order to preserve and respect the rest of God’s creation.  Powerful thoughts for Christians and their families and congregations!

 

 

 

Heir of the Dog

October 15, 2018

Here’s a good essay by well-respected author and academic Gene Veith.  He asks the question whether adults should still be held culpable – even prosecutable – for crimes they committed as minors.

His basic point, one that is reflected in many of our legal forms and procedures (such as – in general – treating minors accused or convicted of offenses differently than adults, including lighter punishments and the possibility of having their criminal records as minors expunged or sealed permanently), is that we generally understand that children are children and held to different standards of accountability.  We all did things as  children that, having attained some level of maturity or at least age, we wouldn’t repeat.  The why we wouldn’t repeat might be sketchier – is it just a better understanding of legal ramifications or actual recognition that words or actions once somehow judged appropriate never really are?  But barring some extreme situations, I don’t presume to judge the character of an adult based on some random fact about their childhood, especially if what I know of them as an adult outweighs that random incident.  Such as, say, eating glue in third grade.

There are also times when a minor commits one or more crimes so heinous that they are no longer treated as children but as adults, because the fundamentals at play ought to be understandable even by someone under the age of 18.  There’s a line between adulthood and being a minor, but it can be a permeable one, as well as an inconsistent or inaccurate one.

What interests me, tangentially to this conversation, is our obsession as a culture with beginning to rescind honors and accomplishments by individuals based on a later-discovered moral failing or flaw, perhaps an isolated incident but more typically of an ongoing nature.  I first wondered about this with Bill Cosby.

For example, his honorary degree from Penn University was revoked in February 2018 as the nagging rumors of sexual foul play finally materialized and were acted upon, leading to his conviction and a 3-10 year prison sentence.  Wikipedia claims Cosby has over 70 honorary degrees from various institutions.  Many rescinded those degrees once his misdoings were verified.  Other institutions did not revoke their degrees, such as Virginia Commonwealth University.  Other schools removed the names of prominent honorees from buildings because of either real or perceived transgressions.

Obviously Cosby’s sexual behavior is deplorable and deserves punishment.  However on the flip side, does  such behavior counteract or overwrite a person’s other achievements?  Is this a binary thing – where you are either an accomplished professional or a disgusting criminal?  Can you only be one or the other?

That is problematic to me, as I don’t know many binary people.  I know many people who have wonderful characteristics but also who have some characteristics I don’t like so much.  And of course in my vocation as pastor, I am called upon to hear confession from time to time.  Very personal and specific confessions of actual bad or even illegal things people have done in their past.  And I am then charged and privileged to declare the forgiveness of Jesus Christ to that person, and to mean it.  I’m not allowed to distance myself from that person afterwards because what they confessed was too heinous.

Yes, there is a difference between the forgiveness of Jesus Christ and potential  legal liability for one’s actions.  But again, this isn’t a  binary thing.  We’re all guilty of some infractions real or imagined, large or small.  Did we make a full stop at that stop sign?  How often are we going over the speed limit?  Yet we generally say that such things don’t negate the good things a person has done or accomplished in their life. Sure, you ran that stop sign, but we’re not going to take away your Nobel Peace Prize because of it. 

As a Biblical Christian, I hold the tension that says that each of us is capable of amazing acts of love and grace, and at the same time capable of amazingly hurtful, cruel, even criminal behaviors.  The person is the same, capable of both sides of the coin, and therefore not binary.  Perhaps for short periods of time, but when considering the work and span of a person’s life, only in rare cases (Hitler, duh?) can we say that a particular person was practically universally bad.  Or good.

St. Paul fleshes this out in his amazing words in Romans 7.  This reality that we all live with – that there is a continual battle within us between the sinful and evil me, and the holy and righteous me.  I’m not binary.  By putting my faith in Jesus Christ, both mes exist within me – for the moment.  Only one is going to last, however.  Eventually I will be binary – I will be completely and only perfect.  But until that day, when Jesus returns and ushers in a new creation, I remain both saint and sinner.  The traditional theological phrase is simul iustice et peccatorAt the same time righteous/just and a sinner.

What this should lead to is not a glossing over or ignoring of sin, but the recognition that someone might be capable of a great sin, and yet still capable of accomplishing something great and praiseworthy, either before or after the period of time when they perpetrated the great sin.  It allows me to condemn Mr. Cosby for his sexual violence against women while recognizing that he is a legitimately gifted comedian, actor, and even thinker.  The two are not mutually exclusive.  And just as the sin needs to be punished, the gift remains worthy of praise.

And such praise is necessary, every bit as necessary as the punishment of sin or illegality is.

If  we’re only going to acclaim the admirable works of perfect people, we have nothing left to praise.  Nothing at all.  Which means what remains would be to determine which sins or illegal actions would be severe enough to counteract not only whatever good someone may have done in the past, but any good they might achieve in the future.  (And, for the Lutherans reading, I’m using generic terms and not dealing with a theological argument about whether we on our own are capable of any good works!)

And who will determine what sins or illegal actions those are?  And on what basis?  And what happens when a sin that is at one point considered heinous is eventually not viewed as a sin at all?  Can we counteract not the punishment that was due, but also the praise that was scrubbed out?  I don’t think so.

Hopefully Mr. Cosby learns from his sins and their consequences.  Not only that, I hope that others in positions of power or influence or wealth learn that such behavior is wrong.  Always.  But his accolades and accomplishments need to remain in the public eye as well, as reminders of what is possible despite our shortcomings, our failures, our sins, and as encouragement to others that good can be accomplished even if they get off to the wrong start.

Curmudgeonly

October 12, 2018

That’s how this post will make me sound, I’m sure.  Though if you’re a regular reader you probably drew that conclusion a long time ago.

But particularly, my grumpiness has to do with the efforts of congregations these days desperate to try and improve their image in their community.  Often times this is tied to declining membership and a desire to appear welcoming to the community.  Task forces and committees get together to come up with ways and means for engaging  with the community.

This is one of those vague, nebulous phrases that takes on a life of its own and won’t seem to go away.  I think it assumes that the reason Christian congregations are – overall – shrinking in size and growing older demographically as fewer young people bother to attend is that the community doesn’t know they’re there or views them as disconnected.  To disprove this, congregations seek to show up in their community as involved entities, demonstrating love and care for the community.  Oftentimes this comes in the form of providing services the community might want or view favorably.  It could mean providing help to the less fortunate.  It could mean supporting and promoting local artisans and small businesses.  It might even extend into the political arena  to some degree.

Through community engagement, a congregation will benefit from greater exposure and an improved public opinion about them.  I suspect that’s the basic goal.  The further, often unstated goal is that there will be people in the community impressed enough with the congregation’s engagement to begin attending.

It sounds nice  and good.  I can’t completely fault it, as much as I’d like to.  I guess I don’t fault the idea of being part of a community, but I question whether a congregation is able to do so as opposed to individual members doing so.  And I definitely question whether community engagement accomplishes the goals it sets out to achieve.

I  don’t think there are a lot of people in our communities who aren’t already active members of a church (or mosque, or synagogue) who sit around each week  lamenting that they have no idea where to find other like-minded believers to gather with.  Before the Internet we had phone books where you could easily look up pretty much every major church (or mosque, or synagogue) in your community.  It might have just been a single line or a full-page ad, but you could find them.  It’s even easier now with the Internet and Google.  If people want to know you’re here, they will figure it out.  I don’t think that publicity or exposure is a major challenge Christian congregations face and that accounts for falling attendance.

Similarly, I don’t think the community will have a much changed opinion about a congregation that engages in the community.  It seems like every cause or event now has sponsorship placards and signs all over it.  It’s easy to shell out a few hundred dollars and have your name slapped on a flyer listing supporters.  So easy, in fact, that I never pay any attention to it.  The only reason I might pay attention is if it’s something that I disagree with or find objectionable and I want to know who’s supporting it so that I don’t support them in some way.  But if it’s a good thing?  Hey, everyone should be supporting this, so it’s no big deal if one particular church is supporting it.  If I’m going to church already I’m not going to change churches just because I see a church supporting something I like (at least that shouldn’t be the reason I change churches!).  If I’m not attending church already, I’m probably not going to just show up randomly at a church I see on a flyer or a sign for an event.  I’m far more likely (statistically) to go to a church where I know someone and where someone has actually extended an invitation for me to attend.

So while the community might be happy to have support for a particular cause or event, I don’t think that support is going to result in new people showing up for worship.

Particularly if you’re a conservative, traditional sort of congregation that doesn’t support abortion, euthanasia or same-sex marriage.  More and more these churches are going to be seen as anathema.  Not simply out of touch with the times but actually evil and wrong.  More and more, younger generations wouldn’t be caught dead in a place like that.  What if their friends saw them?  What if their employer knew they went to a church that didn’t support abortion?  More and more faith is going to become a cultural and therefore professional liability.  People will choose churches – if they go at all – that won’t cause them difficulties in seeking that big promotion at work, or cost them the chance at public office.  Even President Obama learned that lesson once he was more permanently fixed in the public eye.

Communities will be happy to receive whatever congregations are willing to give them.  Well, that’s not actually true.  Communities are going to be less and less interested in receiving the one thing those congregations should give them – the Gospel.  The truth that there is real and true and objective good and evil, and that there are eternal ramifications to these things.  That by default we’re in the camp of evil rather than good, and that we can’t extricate ourselves by any words or actions or feelings or thoughts.  Our only hope lies in the Son of God who suffered and died for our sins, received the punishment we deserve for our sinfulness, and offers resurrection hope and life in his own empty tomb.

That’s the unique gift a Christian church can offer the community.  The one thing the community can’t get anywhere else.  The only things that really truly matter.  Truth.  Hope.  Forgiveness.  Grace.  Life.

I wish I heard more congregations and Christians talking about how to get those things, that message out into the  community instead of how to get the community to like us more for doing things that anybody or any organization could do by writing a check or fielding a few volunteers to wear t-shirts.  The Church’s job is not to get our community to like us.  The Church’s job is to witness to Christ crucified and resurrected.  More and more, that message is going to be offensive and will engender hatred rather than social  media likes.  It’s going to prompt vandalism and protests and angry letters to the editor.  Not because we want it to, but because we have an enemy at work stirring up hearts and minds and confusion in opposition.  That’s real community engagement, loving your community so much that you’re willing to tell them the things they don’t want to hear.  Offering the real assurance of forgiveness and grace if and when they come to repentance.  Feeding them with the Word of God that conveys eternal life and sustaining and nourishing them with the sacramental gifts of God.

Why can’t we create some great t-shirts for that?