Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

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For example, his honorary degree from Penn University was revoked in February 2018 as the nagging rumors of sexual foul play finally materialized and were acted upon, leading to his conviction and a 3-10 year prison sentence.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  Many rescinded those degrees once his misdoings were verified.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.

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Slavery Is Bad – Unless It’s Good

October 8, 2018

The basic idea of feminism as I understand it:

Is that women and men are equal, but women haven’t been treated as equal.  They won’t be fully equal until they are emancipated from the economic and social constraints that have bound them through the years.  One of these constraints is the fact that, unfortunately, they are the bearers of children and, unfortunately, children need their mothers.  We don’t have a solution for that yet, but  we’re working on it.  In the meantime, women should be encouraged to work just like men work, and should be freed from the penalties of being out of the workplace to take care of their children until the children are old enough to be shipped off to early childhood care or preschool.  Motherhood and the constraints of child-bearing are part of the slavery imposed on women (by men, no doubt), but should be fought against and equalized in every way possible until  we figure out how to make men have babies.

So to free women from the slavery we allege child-bearing and child-rearing to be, our solution is to impose that exact slavery, the very slavery we are trying to free women from, on men.  We will force men to do what women have traditionally done but don’t want to do any more.   

In the name of equality.

There are undoubtedly spectrums and nuances to this and varying degrees of agreement and support.  But this is what gets published.

Literally.

The Wall Street Journal ran an essay a couple of weeks ago advocating for mandatory maternity leave for men, and arguing that this would ultimately be a good thing for the family.  They literally quote an executive:  “Bias plays such a clear role, we decided we are going to say, ‘It’s not an option.  You [men] have to take time off.'”

So in the interest of freeing women from a perceived form of slavery, the answer is to impose that same slavery on men and call it a good thing rather than a bad thing.  I understand the goal – the goal is that men and women are equally employed across all sectors earning equal amounts of money.  That all sounds rather fascinating and good – in and of itself.

What this article does not address at all – similar to a recent Time article on this topic in Sweden, is what’s best for the baby/child, and even what may be most desirable by the woman/mother.   The baby/child/family is treated ultimately as a secondary concern to personal vocational advancement.  The assumption is made that neither mother or father are really all that crucial to raising a healthy child – physically or emotionally (and of course we won’t even acknowledge the spiritual component).  Family is a distant second (or maybe even third) consideration.  What matters most of all is work.  Earning money.  Nothing is said about why or towards what end.  Earning money is the Holy Grail of feminism.  If you earn the same amount as a man, you’re finally equal.  No other metric will do.

I don’t consider it accidental that since the institutionalization of dual-income families the mental and emotional health of children seems to have declined precipitously.  Depression rates are apparently skyrocketing, and while some might chalk that up to better diagnoses, perhaps we also  should think about other more fundamental reasons why kids might be more depressed these days.  Factor in bullying by peers that no longer is restricted to school hours but can go on non-stop, 24/7 through the use of technology, and children seem to face a far more  hostile landscape than in previous generations.

Of course we can make all of this sound selfless.  After all, mom and dad are spending all their time and effort at work to make life better for you, Junior.  To ensure that you get the toys you want, live in the right school district, can attend the best universities, and in turn get the best jobs that will continue this cycle.

But what if kids really don’t need all of that?  What if kids really need their moms and dads?  What if emotional security and health begins with this rather than with school counselors and therapists and psychiatrists?   What if we’re killing ourselves for the wrong things, and equality is found in something other than a paycheck?  What if we  prioritized the family as the most important thing, and acknowledged men and women’s equally important and necessary and even unique roles in the family instead of treating them as interchangeable parts on an assembly line?

Radical thinking by today’s standards.  Just the sort of backwards, chauvinistic and misogynistic thinking to be expected of a man, I’m sure some might say.  But I’m willing to stand with what the Bible says – which is that our equality and value doesn’t come from what we do, but simply from the fact that we are.  That an employer or a paycheck doesn’t determine our worth, but rather the fact that God created us in the first place.

Of course this has a lot of implications on topics like abortion, euthanasia, family life, gender roles, and all manner of different things that certain groups in our society have decided they can arbitrarily change.  Even by natural selection and evolutionary standards though, the idea that we can arbitrarily redefine all of these evolved traits and characteristics is illogical.  Some might even call it arrogant.  But I guess if you decide you’re smarter than hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, you can make that argument.  I’m just not so sure you should trust that conclusion.

What makes you valuable?  Who makes you equal?  Nobody in this world – including yourself.  We dicker and fight about external means of  making people equal but I don’t know anyone who feels internally like they measure up, like they’re as good as everyone else or sometimes anyone else.  Those doubts and fears won’t be addressed by laws and business practices or more money in a paycheck.  Those issues can only be solved by God.  The God who created us equal in the first place, and who is re-establishing that equality through the voluntary death and resurrection of his Son.  Who insists that switching one form of slavery for another is no solution, and that nothing less than truly being free in Him will substitute.

I pray to be man enough to value and esteem a woman not because of her job or whether she earns more or less or the same as I do.  Just as I shouldn’t value or esteem her based on her looks.  But rather only on the fact that she is.  That God the Father created her, God the Son died for her, and God the Holy Spirit seeks to lead her back into a proper relationship with him that will reorder every other relationship in her life, including the one with herself.

Of course, I pray to be man enough to value and esteem a man for just the very same reason.  That sounds a lot more like equality than mandatory paternity leave does.

 

 

Book Review: The Daniel Dilemma

October 1, 2018

The Daniel Dilemma: How to Stand Firm and Love Well in a Culture of Compromise

by Chris Hodges

As a Lutheran, I’m a bit cursed.

That may have conjured a variety of thoughts for you, but I had a specific application in mind.  It comes to a basic difference in how to read Scripture.  Is it a story about us, an exhortation and encouragement and threat to constantly do better, live more faithfully, be more deserving of God’s grace and love, or is it a story about God and how good and faithful and persistent He is despite our constant rebelliousness, disinterest and apathy?

There are two caveats I need to acknowledge.  First off, I think most intelligent or mature Christians would be likely to say it’s the latter.  Lutherans aren’t unique in this.  Secondly, once everyone says this, many Christians (including a good number of Lutherans) proceed to gobble up books and instructions that place the emphasis squarely on what we should be doing, rather than emphasizing God’s grace.

To be fair, you aren’t going to sell many books by telling people to just focus on how loving and gracious and good God is to us and allow that to percolate through you and work itself out in a life of faith.  I just did it in one sentence.  Even by Twitter standards that’s pretty short.

On the other hand, you can write endless books interpreting Scripture as one long warning or encouragement to faithfulness, promising any number of fascinating rewards, from personal health and fitness to national renewal.  And since we all like good stuff, these books are constantly churned out.  Whereas the Bible – which tells us we’ve already gotten the good stuff in Jesus the Christ, the Son of God incarnate who lives and dies and rises again to convey his forgiveness and perfection to us – is, well, just one book.  And copyrighting it can be very complicated, I’m guessing.

It isn’t that we shouldn’t think about how to live our lives as Christians.  It isn’t, Lord knows, that we couldn’t be doing a better job of it.  But most books focus exclusively on this – what we call sanctification, the process of becoming more and more the holy and righteous person we will be on the day of Jesus’ return.  Most books pay lip service at best to the actual Gospel – that Jesus has done all of this for us already, and while this will certainly transform us in surprising ways, we are actually free.  Free to live out our lives in joyful response to God’s goodness.  Free to love others sacrificially.

Books that focus almost exclusively on our life of faith and almost not at all on God’s grace in Christ tend to enslave people though.  They give the impression – often well-intentioned or not intended at all – that if we don’t do better, God is probably going to love us less and we’ll miss out on all the cool stuff He wants to give us or do through us.

That’s a heavy load.

Lutherans balk at that load.  That’s not the Gospel, we say.  That’s transforming the grace and love of God into a work we have to earn, we say.  That’s not freedom, it’s just more chains and slavery, we complain.

The challenge is that there is a lot of room to talk about the life of Christian faith and our response to God’s love.  Lutherans may sometimes miss this or not talk about this out of fear that people will hear the Gospel being turned into Law, freedom into enslavement.  So it’s tricky.

Enter this book.

It’s a predictably engaging and affable book by a pastor of a huge church in the Southeastern US.  While I’m not personally familiar with him, I assume he’s earnest, kind, faithful and honest.  That these traits have enabled him to be very successful as a pastor and now also as an author and probably speaker.  So be it.  None of those things really matter to me, since I’m not his parishioner or in the same ministerial circles to be a brother pastor to/with him.  All I have is his book.

And his book is a lot of Law.

It’s not that, as the Law, it’s bad or wrong.  It’s just that it’s the Law.  And while he undoubtedly mentioned Jesus and love and grace and forgiveness a lot in the 250 or so pages, the much greater bulk of the book is aimed at trying to get Christians to actually live the way the Bible describes or prescribes.  He often uses italics at the end of chapters to drive his point home.

  • Have a good attitude.
  • Don’t wait until you have a breakdown.  Do it now.
  • The scales are waiting.
  • Don’t wait.  Don’t put it off.  Do it now.
  • The choice is yours.
  • Do what God wants, not what people want.

I get it.  You’re reading his book.  He has your attention for a few moments, and he wants to drive home the urgency of his message and he wants you to begin changing your life right now.  All well and good.  I’d argue it’s all well and good for a pastor to say to his congregation, whom he has a relationship with and a means of being in contact and follow-up with.  It’s a lot harder in a book.  In a book, it’s just a lot of pressure.  Failure to do these things, it is implied, is failing God.  And failing God either results in a less joyful life, or possibly eternal damnation.  Also true.  But again, a lot of pressure on the random reader who may have no other connection to Christian community or teaching.

The book allegedly utilizes the story of Daniel in the Biblical book of Daniel to provide insights into Christian living in a foreign culture.  Frankly, his use of Daniel is rather thin, and he goes long stretches without referencing him at all.  He utilizes a broad cross-section of Scripture otherwise along the way.  And his conclusions – none of which in and of themselves are bad – are appropriate in any context, not just in a culture that insists on compromise in belief and behavior.  Christians are to live out their lives of faith regardless of the particular cultural setting they find themselves in, just as they would live out their faith in essentially the same way regardless of whether they lived in Hawaii or Antarctica.

Throughout, he utilizes the Bible primarily to show us how we should be faithful.  Again, this is fine to a point.  But at other points it really seems to stretch this way of reading Scripture.

The most challenging, for me, came early on, in Part 1, starting around page 40.  Here Hodges relates Daniel 1:15-19, which describes how Daniel and a few other promising prisoners of war are put on the fast track to upward mobility in a foreign culture and government.  Part of the benefits of this are that they get the best of everything.  In fact, they eat the same stuff the king does.  Sounds like a great benefit, right?

Not if you have some very specific dietary restrictions.  Which the Israelites did (and faithful Jews today still do).  So Daniel’s response to this generosity is to ask – politely – permission to follow a diet more faithful to their faith, and if the results aren’t good enough in terms of their health and appearance, they’ll switch over to the king’s food.  At the end of the trial period, Daniel and his buddies who eat the alternate diet are stronger and better looking than any of the people eating from the king’s table.  So much so that the diets for all of the trainees are changed over to vegetables and water, just like Daniel and his buddies.

Hodges highlights this as an example of great faith on the part of Daniel and his buddies.  It’s an example of Daniel seizing an opportunity to test his faith, and being proved faithful in it.  It almost sounds as though Daniel’s faith was the cause of the turnout of the experiment.

First, I’d argue that rather than being an epic issue of faith, this is first and foremost an issue of training and therefore preference.  Having presumably been raised on a kosher diet and warnings against food prepared by outsiders who might not keep kosher or who might dedicate their foods to false gods, this would be the natural response for Daniel.  If you visited Vietnam (as I had the chance to a few years ago) and had the opportunity to eat dog, perhaps you would pass on this.  Our American culture finds that very inappropriate and disgusting.  Of course you’d ask for something else.

Secondly, if it is an act of heroic faith on Daniel’s part, it is God who gets the glory for both strengthening Daniel to stand firm in his faith and then blessing the outcome to vindicate Daniel’s faithfulness.  But these aspects are not mentioned at all.  The whole story becomes a moral model and encouragement for you and I to follow.  The emphasis is on Daniel, and therefore on you and I, rather than on God the Holy Spirit who is both the source of our faith and the promised presence of God with us in faith.

The rest of the book follows pretty much the same line.

Again, it isn’t that we all don’t need reminders and encouragements to deepen our faith.  But a book like this ultimately gives the impression that this is primarily our responsibility.  Biblically and anecdotally, I’d argue this is a false impression.  St. Paul sometimes has to clarify what behaviors are and aren’t appropriate for Christians, but he also clearly understands that whatever good there is in him to pursue those appropriate behaviors is not himself but rather Christ working in and through him.  This distinction is largely lost or ignored in this book.

Based on the title of his book, I think the best chapter in the whole book is the last one.  Ironically, it’s the chapter he begins with I hope you haven’t started with this chapter.  Yet this chapter reflects a more appropriate emphasis on the grace of God the Holy Spirit at work, and our chief tool in terms of prayer.  I wish more of this had permeated the rest of the book!

I read this because it sounded like an appropriate book for our times.  What I found was neither very deep exploration of Daniel and other of God’s people who lived in challenging times, nor anything very particular to challenging times.  If you proclaim Jesus as your Lord and Savior, live like it.  But remember even as you do this that it’s not really you doing it – once again it is God giving you the will and the strength and the power for you to put into use.  As such, you don’t get the glory when you succeed, or the right to look down on others who struggle more than you do.  And on the flip side, when you fail you rely on grace and forgiveness as an encouragement to get up and try again.

And in all of this, seek to live out the Reader’s Digest version of the Commandments – Love God, and Love Your Neighbor.  Whether they like you or not, whether they agree with you or not, and whether you really want to or not.

I think that last line was the sequel to my earlier book in this blog.  I’m on a roll.

 

 

 

 

Women’s Roles in the Church

September 27, 2018

The idea has been brought up in the last nine months that perhaps our congregation should have women Elders.  Our denomination traditionally has fought against this practice, although it is technically permissible through the careful wording of language in a congregation’s Constitution (which must be vetted and accepted by our polity in order for a congregation to be truly affiliated with the denomination.  So, as a pretty traditional and conservative Church body, we stand with the predominant Christian practice of the last nearly 2000 years and do not generally permit women Elders, and never women pastors.

There are exceptions, of course, to allowing women to be Elders and interestingly enough our two closest daughter congregations both allow it.  This is one of the reason some of my parishioners are asking about it.  Other reasons include some people growing up in other denominations that allow women pastors and Elders.  And of course our cultural climate for the last 50 years has really stressed that if women are to be considered equal to men, they must do identical things to men.  This is  not an option for strident feminists.  A woman should get a college education and join the workforce and stay in the workforce.  The maternal instinct should be shunted to the side as much as possible, and certainly a woman who truly upholds the equality of women should never opt to be a stay-at-home mom.  Equality requires that we be identical, our culture says, and our parishioners are hearing this message loud and clear and internalizing it.

So it was that I received a short note asking me why I didn’t think women were worthy to be Elders and bringing up two New Testament women who some think were not just Elders but perhaps even pastors – Priscilla  and Phoebe.  After clarifying that this is not an issue of worthiness or capability, but rather a matter of maintaining God’s Word to us that our value and worth is contingent not on what we do or don’t do but rather on the fact that God the Father created us, God the Son died for us, and God the Holy Spirit seeks after every last one of us, here is my quick treatment of Priscilla and Phoebe.

Priscilla – Our knowledge of Priscilla comes from four places:  Acts 18, Romans 16:3, 1 Corinthians 16:19, and 2 Timothy 4:19.  These passages tell us she was married to a man named Aquila who were Jews and tentmakers like St. Paul, had been expelled with other Jews in Rome likely in association with the Emperor Claudius sometime between 41 and 54 AD (probably 51-52 based on the reference to the proconsul Gallio).  These events are referenced as well by several Roman historians.  They are Paul’s travel companions from Corinth (where he meets them in their exile) to Syria.  They remain in Ephesus while Paul continues his travels, and it is in Ephesus where they meet Apollos and expounded or proclaimed to him the Christian faith more fully.  They are also in Rome and are referred to by Paul as co-laborers or co-workers in Christ.  They are said to host a church in their home in Corinth.
What do we learn from this?  Aquila and Priscilla are valued and trusted friends and co-workers with St. Paul.  Together they are credited with laboring on behalf of Christ, including the further education of Apollos.  Priscilla is not singled out in any of these things, but is treated as a partner with Aquila.  The reference to them as co-workers in Romans 16:3 is not a theological or church term, but a common expression of someone working together.  It doesn’t mean that they were necessarily doing the same things, but that they worked together.  Paul makes it very clear that there are many ways to serve Christ in the church (1 Corinthians 12), and not all of them are the role of Elder or Pastor.  The fact that Aquila and Priscilla serve Christ does not mean they are doing the same things Paul is doing.  And the fact that they host a church in their home does *not* necessitate that they were the leaders of that church.  Paul nowhere makes that assertion, and I most frequently hear that interpretation of the texts by people who already have made up their mind that women ought to be pastors or Elders/leaders in the Church and go off looking for texts to support their point of view.  An objective reading of the verses about Priscilla do not, I believe, lend themselves to this interpretation.  Particularly when we recognize that nowhere else in Scripture are women understood to serve in official capacities within the priesthood or Church, and that Paul specifically cautions against this elsewhere.
Phoebe – She has only one mention in Scripture – Romans 16:1-2, where Paul greets her as a deacon in the Church and a sister in Christ.  He instructs the Roman Christians to receive her and to be of whatever assistance to her they can.  Some scholars presume that she might be the person carrying Paul’s letter to the or perhaps even reading it to them.  Once again, he clearly has respect and appreciation for her and her work on his behalf and Christ’s.  But once again, there is nothing specific in what Paul says about her or  her work that would lead us to assume – again especially in light of Paul’s other words on the topic of women in leadership – that she is a pastor or an Elder.  Deacon is a Greek term typically interpreted as servant.  Because of Paul’s usage of the word, it has come to have a more specific, Church meaning as some sort of professional Church worker.  I assume this is why some translations don’t use the word deacon in Romans 16:1 – to avoid some of the confusion that has evolved regarding the word vs. the church function.  The question then hinges on how Paul uses the word deacon, and whether we can or should interpret this to be strictly or even primarily any sort of pastoral or spiritual oversight role.
Paul uses the word deacon in six places:
  • Romans 16:1 – in reference to Phoebe without further clarification
  • Philippians 1:1 – mentioned along with the overseers of the congregation, implying perhaps that deacons – while serving an important role – are not the leaders/overseers of the church –
  • 1 Timothy 3:1-12 – Paul lays out the qualifications for overseers as well as deacons, indicating fairly clearly that their duties were not the same.  The qualifications of a good deacon are considerably fewer in number and scope than the qualifications to be an overseer.
Once again, a straightforward reading of these verses would not lead us to think deacons were the same as overseers/pastors/Elders, but rather serve another function within the Church that bears mentioning along with overseers/pastors/elders.  Again, most arguments that Phoebe was essentially a pastor or elder are made by people who seem to have their minds made up on the subject already, and who are also blatantly ignoring Paul’s other teachings on this topic (most notably, 1 Timothy 3:12).  Towards that end, there are a few other references that are often brought up such as Euodia and Syntyche in Philippians 4:2-3.  They are also acknowledged and praised and thanked by Paul as co-workers working closely with him in his ministry, but not said to be doing the same things he is.  Also frequently mentioned is Galatians 3:28.  But it is clear contextually that Paul doesn’t mean that these differences don’t exist.  There clearly are still men and women, still Jews and non-Jews, still those who are enslaved and those who are free.  His argument has to do with the freedom we have in Christ as opposed to the constraints often endured culturally or societally.
The argument that women were leaders in the early Church requires a backwards reading of today’s ideas of equality and feminism into Scripture.  The argument today is that equality means doing the same things – and this is never the Scriptural definition of equality.  The argument today is that if women are not doing the same thing as men, it is tantamount to oppression by men and a betrayal of their gender by women, neither of which is Biblical (or frankly even logical!) in the least.
Biblically, our value and worth come from the fact that we are creations of God the Father and bear his  image, not what we do.
For 2000 years the Church has tried to give witness to this Biblical truth.  We are created equal but different.  Oftentimes that message has been confused or warped by sinfulness.  It has certainly been used inappropriately as a tool for oppression or suppression of women by men.  But the fact that we misuse it sinfully sometimes does not deny the essential truth behind it.  Frankly, our misuse of it only further heightens the validity of the situation.  In Genesis 3 God tells Eve that part of the effects of sin in her life and the life of her gender will be a constant struggle with men for control, and that more often than not, women will lose that struggle.
It has nothing to do with ability.  Men and women are equal before God, and have equal and intrinsic value and worth.  They have different giftings and abilities as well.  I  know women who would be far better pastors than some guys I know!  But that doesn’t mean we are free to arbitrarily define or redefine Biblical reality.  Even if we don’t understand the reason, we are to remain faithful to God’s Word to the best of our ability.  Women voluntarily recognize this authority and submit to it – it is not a means for men to exert control over women.
The LC-MS acknowledges that, despite 2000 years of church history, sometimes congregations feel compelled to make women Elders.  We tend to resist this as the Elders traditionally carry authority similar to the Pastor, and so confusion can be started.  If women can be Elders, why not Pastors?  So the LC-MS has discouraged the use of women Elders.  Yes, there are LC-MS congregations (locally!) who have women Elders, and loopholes exist Synodically that allow this.  Does that mean we should do it?  The fact that a loophole exists does not mean that it must or even should be taken.  The larger question is how does our congregation sees herself in 2000 years of Christian history and practice, and what are the overwhelming arguments put forth that women should be Elders here?  Is it simply a matter of convenience?  Is that an adequate argument against a pretty strong and consistent Scriptural argument against such a practice?  Should we go ahead and permit women Pastors as well?  The LC-MS draws a very firm line on this one!  But if women are up helping distribute Communion, isn’t that similar to being a pastor?  The questions continue and flow out from there.
So, it is not a matter of capability or  worth, but an attempt to hear what God’s Word says.  There are some who will abuse God’s Word to make women inferior to men.  They are sinful and wrong who do this.  Women are every bit equal to men, but that very equality requires that women be women and men be men, rather than attempting to take on one another’s roles.

 

Contextualizing Advertising

September 20, 2018

Despite a much-delayed and oft-sidetracked undergraduate career spanning 13 years, I did eventually graduate from Arizona State University.  It’s an accomplishment I am proud enough of but typically stoic and realistic about.  Going back to university at nearly 30 to complete a degree you gave up on years earlier because of a lack of direction or motivation is difficult, and I acknowledge that.  But what credit there is to be taken for that lies in me (by the grace of God), and not so much my alma mater.  I know folks from my high school that are die-hard fans of the universities they graduated from, and constantly sport the clothes, tail-gate parties, and hand signs of those institutions.

I’m not one of those folks, and anyone who knows me probably isn’t very surprised by this.

To be fair, I don’t feel an unusual attachment to any other institution I’ve ever attended, whether primary, secondary, or graduate.  It’s just not in my genes.

But that doesn’t stop these institutions from sending me their magazines every quarter, hopeful no doubt that perhaps I’ve improved my situation in life markedly from my earlier years and am looking for a place to devote some of my wealth.

I’m not one of those folks either, sorry.

But as I was quickly flipping through my alma mater’s most recent magazine, the only thing that really caught my eye was the back page and an advertisement from Starbucks.  An attractive and undoubtedly upwardly-mobile-minded female barista smiles glowingly at the reader, hands on hips in a pose of confidence.  The tag line, which claims to be a quote from her, reads:

Always push for what you want, what you love, and your passions.

But if news these days is to be believed, this is the fundamental problem  in our culture.  People pushing for what they want.  The news is decidedly anti-male these days, highlighting a cavalcade of men past and present who followed the above mantra fully and are now paying the consequences for it.  I doubt anyone would recognize this mantra as appropriate in the context of allegations about Brett Kavanaugh.  Or Bill Cosby.  Or Harvey Weinstein.  For that matter would people agree with this mantra in the context of Trump and his tariff policies, or Obama and his health-care reform?  Would liberals agree with this in terms of who gets confirmed as a Supreme Court judge?  For that matter would conservatives?

Our culture is in the throes of chaos precisely because of people who follow this mantra.

It doesn’t sound like a bad mantra though, does it?  Doesn’t it sound warm and glowing and awesome?  Isn’t it inspiring and confidence-building?  Doesn’t it reek of the go-get-it attitude that once characterized America?

Yet on the other hand, we could argue this mantra is destructive, evil, patently bad advice.

How can this be?

Because this mantra, this slogan – as with any mantra or slogan – needs a context.  It needs a larger background within which it fits, and which determines how it is  applied.  Only a fool would assume  that marketing companies and companies should be dictating human behavior in any given country, right?  That would be chaos, with norms and expectations and standards changing every time a new, more compelling slogan or mantra came out.

It’s terrifying to think that for many people this is exactly what is happening.

It isn’t that mantras and slogans are new.  They’ve been around for centuries, and we all can think about the most successful of them.  Be all that you can be.  Just do it.  Have a Coke and smile.  Have it your way.  There’s a common theme in them – they’re all applied to the individual and designed to encourage the individual to activity, engagement, and eventually or ultimately consumption of one form or another.

As marketing campaigns these were wildly successful.  But as rules for living your life?  Not so much.  And over and over again we are reminded that while it sounds like a good idea to Always push for what you want, what you love, and your passionsin reality this isn’t something that we should always do.  By a long shot.  Or perhaps ever do.  Because society is going to determine what is acceptable to push for, what is acceptable to love, and what sorts of passions are acceptable.  It may decide these things in retrospect years down the road.  It may change its mind about them.

What these mantras and slogans need is a context.  An overarching understanding of how one is to live their lives that makes sense of these urges or prompts, determining when they are acceptable or appropriate and when they are not.  And I think this meta-context is what our culture has discarded in the last half-century.

I suggest that the meta-context that used to be in place was Biblically based and easy to remember.  Love your neighbor.  While not everyone might know or agree with the person this meta-context is associated with (Jesus), they understood the basic concept.  It’s a concept that – on its own and out of the fuller context of how He said it and what else He said – isn’t even strictly Judeo-Christian.  It could be argued that this idea is implicit in all of the great religions and even philosophies of the world.  Of course each will define the terms and parameters slightly (or radically) differently, the basic underlying idea remains.

So then I’m free to Always push for what you want, what you love, and your passions, as long as it doesn’t cause me to cease loving my neighbor.  As long as I’m anchored in this larger meta-context, I can apply the mantras and slogans of the day in a limited fashion.  And of course the meta-context also provided the criteria to know what was loving my neighbor and what wasn’t, since we all tend to define this in ways that are easier or more convenient for us.

It’s not a perfect system, of  course.  There will still be anomalies and violations.  But we could at least identify them as such and deal with them as such.

Now, it’s a lot harder.  Oftentimes it seems to come down to who yells the loudest as to what constitutes a proper or  improper application of the mantras and slogans around us.  There was an effort a few years ago to come up with a new meta-context for life in our culture – tolerance.  It didn’t work so well.  It continues to not work very well.  And now we’re being told that in some situations, tolerance is actually the equivalent of refusal – which anyone with half a brain would have recognized right away.

So be careful what advertising or marketing mantra or slogan you grab on to.  Be careful what you quote to your kids or grandkids as inspirational and life-guiding advice.  They might just listen.  And they might just discover that it’s really not very good advice.  Not without something deeper and more reliable behind it.  Something not prone to the whims and waves of public opinion at any given moment (driven so often by slogans and mantras as well).  Maybe you should consider passing on something much deeper, and more  reliable.

For that matter, maybe you ought to consider adopting it for yourself.

 

 

Interesting Read

September 7, 2018

How do you articulate an identity in the face of an overwhelming alternative narrative?  Where do you begin?  What do you identify both as the strengths and challenges of the alternative?  What critique do you offer against the prevailing alternative narrative?

It might look something like this.

 

Confusing

September 4, 2018

I was at my Sunday morning coffee shop for my weekly tea and bagel Sunday morning.  The barista is the new regular on Sunday mornings.  She worked there several years ago before disappearing.  Now that she’s back working here again, she refers to her former self as a degenerate, but hasn’t elaborated much beyond that.  There probably isn’t need to.

Most recently, she announced to me that she’s pregnant, and explained that she is letting people in on it now that she’s about three months along.  She doesn’t want people to think she’s getting fat.

My first thought wasn’t that she was fat, or that she isn’t fat (she isn’t).  My first thought was terror.  Should I be happy for her announcement?  Was this a good thing or not?  I gleaned from earlier conversations that she had a boyfriend she seemed serious about.  But these days, the announcement of a pregnancy can be a nail-biting moment.  For some folks it’s fantastic news.  For others it’s a source of worry or concern.  Sometimes the guy is happy about it, sometimes not.  Sometimes it’s planned, sometimes (like this one) it isn’t.

The fact is that our culture’s insistence on tossing sexuality up into the air as a free-for-all results directly in this confusion.  Once upon a time, while a pregnancy might be a surprise, it would generally not have been entirely unexpected, and even if unexpected, there was a reasonable certainty that the pregnancy occurred within a marriage and that they would all muddle through somehow together.  Now women are instructed they don’t need a man to raise a child, and the media continues to demonstrate to men and women alike that men shouldn’t be expected to settle down and support a family.  All of which makes pregnancy a complicated thing.

Culturally we’re still trying to figure out how to make everything less confusing, but by and large we’re failing.  There’s a lot of hope that we’ll figure it out, though, and not surprisingly the biggest hope is in the arena of education.  But educating about sexuality  that is open and permissive between literally anyone – except if one person doesn’t really want it – is tricky business.

Our culture wants sex to be easy and painless and consequence-less but the reality is that it isn’t any of those things.  It’s inherently difficult, full of potential pain, and designed with myriad consequences.  The message is everyone should just have a good time sexxualy whenever they feel like it and with whomever is down for it but never ever make anyone do anything they don’t really want to do whether they can articulate that or not or are clear about it or really don’t decide until afterwards that they didn’t want to do it.  Sex is fun and wonderful until it isn’t.  Until the hesitancy is determined to be non-consent, or inadequate consent.  Until people change their minds.  Until the flush of the moment is replaced with repulsion for the person in the moments or weeks or years after.  Until someone decides that it isn’t or wasn’t fun, isn’t or wasn’t welcome.  Definitions shift and flux in time, but what is at stake is literally life changing for everyone involved.

And all that is without considering the very real possibility of children, which is kind of what sex was designed for.

Compared to the simple idea that sex is special and sacred not because it is shared with anyone but because it is only shared with one person to whom you’re bound in a lifetime covenant of trust and love, our modern notions are pure insanity.  The create infinite more problems than the outdated problem of  love and marriage they claim to solve.  The idea that if you aren’t married to someone, then sex isn’t an option is  so simple.  Not fool-proof, of course, but certainly a lot simpler than trying to write and re-write the rules of courtship or invent the rules of hooking up.   In the meantime, lives are being destroyed.  Women continue to be victimized, but now by generations of boys and men raised on ubiquitous porn that promises that every woman really wants sex.  Victimized by generations of boys and men who can’t handle rejection because they don’t believe it should exist because rejection doesn’t exist in porn.

Men in turn are victimized, taught that their interest in the opposite sex is somehow sick and twisted and perverse instead of a natural and God-given interest that needs rules and boundaries in order to keep both men and women safe.  Yet we’re all supposed to sexually liberated.  The media pushes out the message today that boys and men are broken somehow, that women are superior and must take over because they can do things right that men can’t – sexually and otherwise.  Yet at the same time women are supposed to be free to dress and act in ways that are suggestive to men – to say the least – yet shocked and offended when men respond.  Talk about confusing messages.

What are your kids being taught about sexuality in school?  Their own or how they should relate to someone elses?  What are you talking about with them on this topic?  Lord knows they’re going to need all the help they can get, including whether to be happy or not when they’re told someone is pregnant.

 

 

 

Book Review: God and Mr. Gomez

September 3, 2018

God and Mr. Gomez by Jack Smith

One of the aspects of my work is I receive a lot of book recommendations.  Which means, necessarily, that I don’t have the opportunity to read many of them.  I always appreciate the recommendations, but given my limited bandwidth I have to be a bit selective more often than not.

But on the eve of a trip to Mexico with my wife last month, a parishioner lent me a copy of this book to take along.  Being nearly done with Brave New World, I made room for this in my suitcase.  I didn’t actually start to read it until after getting back, but it certainly evoked certain aspects of the area of Baja California, Mexico that we were able to experience only briefly and unevenly.

I’m not familiar with Mr. Smith’s writings for the LA Times, but this was a light and enjoyable read.  He takes a very simple premise – the building of a second home in Baja California, Mexico and takes the reader along with him through the process.  His style is relaxed and warm, neither overly descriptive nor too sparse.  He captures the different cultural style of this area south of our border well without pandering.  It’s clear that he loves the Mexican culture and people and he portrays the pertinent characters (including the titular Mr. Gomez) with a respect that is far more likely to side with them vs. his own American habits and ideas.

The plot is simple, so by the second half of the book much of what is described is a variation of or repetition of issues and situations covered in the first half.  You’re never really in doubt as to the outcome, which is OK but I found myself less enchanted by the final third of the book.  Still, it’s a window into a different time, if the place is not so far away from me at the moment.  It makes me want to take a drive south of the border to experience some of the culture away from the border towns and tourist towns.  Whatever the wisdom of doing that these days, it’s encouraging to know that once upon a time it was very worth doing.

 

 

 

Calculated Risks

August 30, 2018

Every Thursday night now, for the past month, we’ve started taking calculated risks.

We don’t think of it this way, but that’s certainly part of it.  What we think of is just inviting people into our home for time and dinner, and this in itself isn’t too unusual.  Practically every night of the week we have one or more people outside our immediate family breaking bread with us.

But our Thursday guests each week are a little different – we try not to think of them that way, though others might.  They come from a local rehabilitation program, clients of a one-year residential treatment program for women suffering from drug and alcohol addiction.  We’ve had a dozen of these women to our home in the last month, in groups of three.  These women span the cultural, ethnic, and socio-economic spectrum.  They come from all over the country, from backgrounds either urban or bucolic, nightmarish or right off the set of Leave It to Beaver.  Yet each one for various reasons has found herself in the grips of serious addiction.

That grip pervades all of a person’s life, eventually.  What becomes optional, then manageable, then functional, finally becomes out of control.  Jobs can’t be held.  Families can’t be held together.  Jail and even prison are not unusual locations either short or long-term for some of these ladies.  Working in the recovery community as  I have for roughly the last seven years, I know these things.

We opened our home to these ladies to give them a taste of something they aren’t able to access very easily or often – home.  A place where they aren’t defined by their addictions of  the past or their recovery at the present or the uncertainty of their futures, but where they’re just friends invited to join us around the dinner table, or to play video or card games with our kids.  Where they’re free to just laugh and be.  No expectations.  No duties (other than helping with dishes a little bit!).  Last night the kids  led us all in making homemade spaghetti noodles for dinner.  It was a lot of work and didn’t go entirely as planned – at least initially.  But everyone had fun and enjoyed themselves.

There are risks with being open with people.  A friend of my wife’s – a fellow home-school mom – pointed that out to her the other afternoon.  She was concerned that we might be allowing people with criminal records into our home.  She was concerned for us, of course, and I appreciate that.  Nobody wants anyone else to get hurt, after all.

But life is full of calculated risks.  The challenge is that everyone uses slightly different variables in their calculations.  We don’t find the risk unbearable to have these ladies in our home.  Someone else would.  My wife and I have discussed the need to talk with our kids about being careful with people (not these people, specifically, but people in general) as they more and more find themselves in the world and negotiating the world on their own.  Not everyone can or should be trusted.  Not everyone is safe.  There are people out there who will hurt you and take advantage of you.

But in addition to teaching them how to be safe, we have to demonstrate to them how to make sure that the quest for safety doesn’t replace the very necessary calculation of risks with the goal of being as open as possible.  The goal should be openness as much as we can.  I think Scripture calls us to this.  It’s a means by which we love our neighbors.  But if we let it, our fear of being hurt can overwhelm our calling to love and serve one another.  We can quit bothering to really calculate the risks and simply opt for a very insulated life.  Ultimately this not only isolates us, it fosters attitudes towards others that aren’t just uncharitable, they’re unChristian.

What’s your risk calculation?  At what point do you draw the line?  We all draw lines – we all have to as sinful people in a sinful world.  Lines aren’t in and of themselves wrong, and I don’t fault people if they draw a line closer in than I do, and I try not to feel guilty when someone else has a line much further out than mine.  But how do I pray and work to extend those lines out as far as possible?  How do you strive to share yourselves with others?  These are important questions for people of faith to ask themselves in a media climate the fosters only fear and distrust.

Our answers to these questions can make huge differences, both in our own lives and the lives of those around us.

Book Review – Brave New World

August 25, 2018

Brave New World by Alduous Huxley

The above link is to an edition that includes Brave New World Revisited, which I’ll mention here.  It’s basically a set of essays written by Huxley 25 years or so after Brave New World was published, commenting on elements of the book and offering warnings about the direction of Western culture that could lead – much sooner than he had ever anticipated – to a world similar to his novel’s dystopian setting.

It was only mildly ironic that I read the majority of Brave New World while on a cruise ship.  Perhaps it is the perfect setting to see some of the concepts Huxley foresaw played out.  Soma is replaced by the ubiquitous encouragement to drink alcohol.  The emphasis is very much on the right now, and creating memories for a future completely detached from the present, which of course has no relationship at all to the past.  The descriptive blurb for a daily meet up for singles 40 and older suggested Looking for a soul mate, or just a ship mate?  What happens on the cruise ship stays on the cruise ship, right?  We’re all supposed to be very pneumatic, right?  Whatever that means.

As Neil Postman observed in his fantastic book Amusing Ourselves to Death, we’re much closer to Huxley’s dystopian dictatorship than we are to George Orwell’s 1984 version.  Most of us were force-fed 1984 as a form of vaccine against the wiles of communism and socialism, while Brave New World was relegated to the optional reading list.  Something good and certainly college-oriented, but nothing to stress about.  I read both in high school, and we certainly have slipped dangerously down the road to Huxley’s future.

Rereading it now, it’s not a great book.  Stylistically or even from a story standpoint.  Characters are rather flat, and Huxley is obviously more interested in playing with ideas rather than characters or plot.  The back-and-forth movement between scenes and characters early in the book is a good foreshadowing of Pulp Fiction and other modern efforts to shake up the linear narrative.

It’s not a great book to read, but it’s a necessary book to help us think about our current society and culture.  There are a lot of ways of dissecting where we are and how we might change course, such as this curious piece (warning, some unpleasant language there).  And I would of course argue that our predicament is far more theological than anything else.  But Huxley helps us to see that what we take for granted is dangerous simply in that we take it for granted.  That we are increasingly ill-equipped to think critically about ourselves or the things we are asked to do or buy, and that this is to the very real benefit of a select group of people capable of doing these things.  The fact that our newspapers don’t see it of great value to inform us – every single day – of the political doings in our state and national capital is a good indicator that a free press is not necessarily a helpful one.

Huxley’s reviews of his own work in a set of topical essays bundled together as Brave New World Revisited is obviously dated, but offers a few good reminders that we haven’t arrived at our current situation completely unawares.  There have been keen minds all along the way warning us of the consequences of media, advertising, eugenics, and other areas of inquiry and exploration and application.  Whether we can change direction or not on a societal scale remains to be seen, but it’s important and necessary first of all that individuals be equipped to do so in their own lives and families.  Towards that end, Brave New World should be just as mandatory reading as 1984.  It’s a lot closer than we think.