Sunday, October 26, 2014

Three Perspectives On Fear

Roosevelt: The only thing to fear is fear itself.

Modern media:  The only thing to fear is fear itself.  And Ebola.  And banks failing stress tests.  And ISIS.  And car recalls.

Scripture:  [W]hen I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor. 12:10b)

I think just about everyone agrees the modern media has a bias towards panic-mongering.  We look up to figures like Roosevelt because they were strong in the face of extreme challenges and terrible darkness.  But often we forget that weakness can be strength, for it is through adversity that we can experience the most growth.  All it takes is a little faith, a little self-honesty, and a little determination that the trials we face not be in vain.

Peace be with you this Reformation Sunday.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

On Adam's Quest: Why Christianity and Science Are Allies, Not Enemies

Nearly all Christians believe that all of Creation is of God's doing.  If this is so, then are not the very laws and rules by which our universe operates the Word of God, indisputable once discovered and forever unalterable by mankind?  I don't deny sources of spiritual wisdom and the idea that the Bible is God-inspired, but the laws of physics are translated from only one hop into our language, whereas the Bible has been hopping from hand-to-hand and pen-to-pen down through the centuries.  If one thing is certain in Christian teaching, it's that human hands corrupt and God's hands purify.

Yet too many of us, in our prideful certainty or unquestioning trust in human-translated and human-written scripture, ignore the fact that God created the laws of physics right alongside the stars.  We reject visible evidence of the work of God in favor of words from a foreign language, a foreign culture, and a time long ago, when human understanding of the nature of God's creation was more limited and less accurate.

Take the star V762 Cassiopeia, the farthest star visible with the naked eye.  It is over 16,000 light-years from Earth.  That means that if you believe in a universe created 6-8,000 years ago, the first rays of starlight from V762 Cassiopeia should only be halfway here and not yet visible on Earth.  In other words, if the Bible is an accurate astrophysics text, then a significant percentage of the distant light sources you see every night are lies.

Yet here they are, plain to see with the unaided eye on a dark night.  As is the light from the farthest object we can see: the Andromeda Galaxy, which is a staggering 2.5 million light years away.  In a Young Earth world, we wouldn't even know other galaxies existed, much less be able to see our closest intergalactic neighbors with the unaided eye.

This light is, if you are Christian, the work of God's hands.  Why distrust it?  Why assume that it must be a lie, designed to discredit the written Bible, which is indisputably a product of human hands?  I know it is much more comforting to have certainty, to refuse to entertain doubt.  It's also less work, intellectually, and I don't believe we were gifted with reason so that we can ignore it when it becomes theologically inconvenient.

But abandoning superstition and inaccuracy isn't a pathway to doubt and loss of faith.  Rather, I find the ancient light of the stars and the beauty of the eons etched in rock to be comforting reminders of God's hand and I find comfort beyond imagining in knowing that I don't have to have it all figured out, I don't have to be a Perfect Christian, so long as I am true to the core of my beliefs and not obsessed with a shallow and selfish need for the surface illusion of righteousness.

Evolution and the Big Bang and all the other theories and facts that show our universe to be ancient beyond human imagining don't undermine God.  These things, this human quest for knowledge and this unending desire to go out and name things and explore things and understand things—all of this glorifies God, for to a Christian, what is scientific curiosity but a desire to know better the works of God?  And for that matter, isn't this endeavor to understand the universe a faithful effort to carry out the First Task God gave to Adam?
19 Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the [p]sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name.  [NASB]

To name a thing is to understand that thing a little better.  We continue on Adam's quest to this day.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Three Powerful Messages for Christians Struggling With Self-Worth

I stumbled across some interesting videos (for which I have some criticisms, but in general believe to be positive messages) today.  They focus on the powerful message embedded within Christianity that no matter who others think you are, no matter who you think you are, you are worthy of God's love, you have a power within you to change the world, and you can (and should) fight to free yourself from negativity.  This is something I can get on board with 100%.

I feel a bit uncomfortable with the implication that feelings of worthlessness—in other words, depression—are from Satan rather than symptoms of mental illness.  Prior to the emergence of modern medicine, I'm sure mental illness, especially depression, seemed inexplicable except as a manifestation of "Satan."  The thing is, I don't really personify evil, I don't scapegoat it, and I don't view illness as an embodiment of it.  The depressed viewer could also get the impression that their feelings of self-worth might not need medical intervention if only their faith were strong enough.  To be fair, I don't think that's the videographer's intent here, but having spent a lifetime in close company with mental illness, I think it bears saying.

That said, we can shift the reference frame enough to see another possible meaning here.  If not the artist's intended meaning, it at least has the benefit of working for me.  You see, their response to feelings of low self-worth is to provide you with a mantra to overcome those feelings.  This is actually a therapeutically sound means of combatting depression.  If you are Christian, these videos can be a good and healthy way to deal with feelings of low self-worth as they happen.  I recommend bookmarking them in a folder easily accessible to you, or in your bookmarks bar.  (In Chrome, go to View, make sure "Always Show Bookmarks Bar" is checked, and then bookmark the videos there.  You can click the icon to the left of the URL and drag it to your bookmarks bar to do this very quickly and easily.)

And before you go, here's one last video, that underlines Jon's point.  It's identical to my own reason for doing what I do, saying what I say, writing what I write, and being unafraid to share what I believe.  It may help you to understand why and how the broken can heal the broken world.  It will show you that it matters not one bit how much guilt and shame you carry, how broken you think you are.  You are not disqualified from Life nor from Love nor from a Calling simply because you are not perfect.  Don't take it from me, though.  Take it from them:

You should never use or rely on only one coping mechanism or treatment strategy, though.  Depression and other forms of mental illness can be very dangerous to your physical and mental well-being.  Secular, scientifically-based, or medically-sound methods are not evil, nor does these videos say they are.

God's peace, and always remember, DFTBA.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Fellow Christians, the Pope's Right: We're Doing It Wrong

"The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules... the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all." ~ Pope Francis
[Update, 9/24: It appears that the Vatican has either not received the message or the Pope didn't fully mean it.]

I'm a Christian.  There are a great variety of all different sorts of Christians in the world.  I'm probably not the most common sort, but then, I never am in anything I practice or do.

I don't post this in any attempt to make myself look good or convert people.  I don't need anyone's approval for my spiritual life but my own.  I figure I already have God's since God knows none of us are perfect, none of us are always right, and none of us know everything—and still loves each and every one of us anyways.  And I also don't want a person to profess Christianity unless and until they're comfortable with and knowledgeable of what that truly means.  I think that most of the ways in which well-meaning evangelicalism has attempted to evangelize in the past have failed to gain much beyond increasing the number of pew-sitters.

That said, I'm concerned about two things lately.  I'm worried first and foremost that large portions of the Christian Church (and by that I mean every person on the planet who professes a Christian faith) have lost focus on our mission.  We lose the forest and see only the trees nearby—sometimes only a branch or a particular leaf.  This means, to me, that we in the church—progressive and conservative alike—fall in love with our doctrines and rules and often forget that the church and—more importantly—the wider world are both made up of other living persons, all loved-by-God as equally as we are.  "For God so loved the world..."  "God is love..."  "...and the greatest of these is love," and so on.

We get so wrapped up in the rules, and in the faults and imperfections of the "other" (and sometimes of our selves) that we forget that we are first—before everything else—called to love the whole world.  Before we admonish, if we are to admonish at all, there must be love.  And none of us—not a one—are called to judge and condemn.  Judgement—in the Christian context—is not the same as criticism or admonishment; rather, it is taking that one extra step from criticism or admonition to deciding the moral value of a person, their worthiness for our love, and the purity of their soul.  This is God's province, and God's alone.  (I'll talk more on this another time.)  Unfortunately it is a province that many Christians, progressive and conservative alike, have attempted to wrestle from God.

I am as guilty of this as any other.  And there is danger in this.  We are warned: judge not lest ye shall be judged.  And the world today judges Christians very harshly.  This is the consequence of our collective failure to loose ourselves from the small-minded hypocrisy of worshipping our own righteousness.

The second thing I'm concerned about is that, out of our Christian love for all—if it is deep and genuine—should come fruits of faith.  Only, we're in one hell of a drought right now and the crop is awfully sickly-looking.  In Europe, significant challenges around race and poverty and quality-of-life very nearly mirror issues of race and poverty and quality-of-life in the United States and Canada.  In Central/South America and Asia/Oceania, those challenges are magnified and begin to include some starkly different health outcomes and a huge disparity of abundance when compared to the "most-developed" nations.  As for Africa, the idea that dying children need church buildings as much as or more than they need their food, clothing, clean water, or anti-malarial and anti-retroviral medications?  Well, let's just say that's only a fragment of how badly this drought has parched that particular continent.

The church I grew up in made some token gestures towards this problem, like a food shelf collection and occasionally painting a house or two for the elderly in our local community who could not afford materials or manage a maintenance task like this on their own.  I'm sure we also supported mission trips that attempted to farm converts in Africa and Asia.  I'm really not sure what—if anything—we did to help them and their communities heal and grow out of the paternalistic, post-colonial nightmares that still haunt the world.

We did much more that served our selves—we beautified worship with multiple instrumental and choral groups, we maintained a gorgeous (and energy-hungry) complex, installed a great (and much safer) play area for the little ones, made sure every person in attendance had a well-paved place to park off the street, upgraded church infrastructure and office technology when we had the chance...  Well, you get the idea.

None of this was self-sacrificing in any meaningful sense.  But it did communicate to me the general idea that we knew Jesus was serious when he said, "Feed my sheep," and "Heal the sick."  We just didn't seem to care all that much about it beyond going through the motions.  And that made me deeply uncomfortable with Christianity, and with myself for not speaking up about it, for very many years.

It wasn't until I started to examine my faith more critically and open myself to differing views that speaking up in this way even became possible for me.  Even then, it took me too long, and took too many different messengers to drive the point home.  Undoing this portion of my upbringing shouldn't have taken so long.  It shouldn't have taken a book called, "The Courage to Think Differently" nor a paradigm shift within the Catholic Church (I'm Lutheran...) to give me the momentum.  Nor should it have taken an HIV diagnosis last October to completely turn me about.  I had all the pieces already, all the examples in front of me.  But criticizing "The Church" is not easy for me even now, though it may seem otherwise since I feel compelled to do it so often.

My faith has given me so much, and those that travel this path with me—as impefect as we all are—have been blessings for me since the day I was born.  It breaks my heart to share my disappointment in how we fail to serve the world and love others as we love ourselves.  None of this is meant to be hurtful to anyone—but inevitably it will be taken that way, by at least a few.

This isn't a problem confined to a particular congregation, nor to conservative or progressive congregations exclusively.  This is a problem of indulgence, found in very nearly every church, to some degree or another.  It is perhaps why a huge portion of my generation judged Christianity by its Christians and found it to be lacking.

None of this is to say that the food shelf donations or house-painting weren't needed or acts of Christian love—they were.  Nor is it meant to say that choirs are wasteful and a well-maintained building to bring together a community of faith is decadent—they are not.  But in all things there are degrees, and the degree to which we place our own needs and the needs of our own congregations above our duty to heal the world have made us all into hypocrites in the eyes of the world.  Why else would as many as 80% (page 7) of those of my generation who have left the church describe us as such?  When do we stop and reassess that we literally are God's hands, meant not to chastise the world, nor convert it, but to serve it and wash the feet of the teeming masses?

I don't need to tell you that there is significant need of our service and our abundance in every corner of our nation and world.  We don't even need to look as far as Africa to find it.  You needn't even look that hard in your own community, city, or state to find it—if you're being honest.  It isn't as if, with the dawn of the modern era, the world stopped needing us.  We just stopped paying attention.

photo of feet washing
Well, break time is over.  The world needs us, and we—in order to fulfill that emptiness we feel, that shallowness we sense about or own claims to love everyone and abide by Christ's words—need to serve the world.  To fail to do so is to oppress ourselves in the hypocrisy of our own inaction.

This is our call: to imitate and follow Jesus, who washed the feet of the traveler, touched the untouchable, and healed the servants of his Roman oppressors.  Who freed himself and the world from oppression—Roman or otherwise—by virtue of his unending love, and bids us to follow him and do the same.

So now that you know, what will you do?

Monday, May 20, 2013

Occupy Sodom

It's often said by those who use the Bible to condemn LGBT people that homosexuality was THE reason for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah via fire and brimstone.  Whether you believe God literally nuked those two cities or it's bit of an exaggeration, you can be certain of this: many modern Christians are very, very misled about the "Twin Cities of Sin."

Next time someone references Sodom and Gomorrah to drive their condemnations of lgbt people home, point them towards Ezekiel 16:49-50:

"Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen."

Now who does that sound like, today?  The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is a tale that is applicable in our modern world.  While I reject the brutal and genocidal and petty deity characterized by the account as a human corruption of the God of love and compassion, the lesson taught is a valuable one.  Cultures that engage in xenophobia, lionize greed, ignore poverty, and take pride in these failings do so at their own great peril.  This isn't just some blanket moralization, either.  Almost every empire that fell or regime that died to revolution faced social unrest, much of which could be attributed to vast income gaps between rich and poor, horrible economic conditions for the majority of society, and/or the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few.

I realize the passage uses some heavily freighted language that is also common to English translations of biblical condemnations of homosexuality, but I don't believe the author simply forgot to be specifically anti-gay.  These "detestable things" were pretty clear: things like threaten sexual violence against foreign visitors to their city.  At least, that's what I recall actually happened in the tale of Lot and the Angels.  And so do other Old Testament writers.  Jeremiah (23:14) mentions deceit and pridefulness in wrongdoing alongside adultery as reasons S&G went down.  No mention of homosexuality there.  Lamentations 4:6 mentions that "no hands were wrung for her" when Sodom was destroyed.  Given that Leviticus needed a prohibition on a "man lying with a man as if with a woman" in order to set the Israelites apart from their neighbors, it is likely that those busy not wringing their hands for Sodom and Gomorrah were doing so for reasons other than men lying with men.

Amos, Zephaniah, Peter, Isaiah, Paul, and Jesus all compare people and communities of their day to Sodom and Gomorrah.  None of them mention homosexuality as we know it today.  Yet each of them decries greed and arrogance and false idols.  Without exception.

Money, like power, is useless without some goal towards which to apply it.  The avaricious pursuit of wealth alone—much like lusting for power—without some consideration of bettering the conditions of your community and your world, is worse than useless.  It shifts the weight of one's worldview to the rickety scaffolding of arrogance rather than the sure foundation of love.  It undermines the very security and prosperity upon which we all depend.  Poverty increases crime and relegating a community of people to poverty only increases the sense of desperation within that community.  And desperate communities do desperate things.  You need only to look at the economics of pre-Revolution France to understand how the starving people referred to disdainfully—and then fearfully—as The Mob by the French aristocracy came to support the bloody purges of the Revolution and the Reign of Terror.

We, as a nation, aren't there yet.  Since you're reading this, I'm hopeful you're willing to be yet another voice for the voiceless and the oppressed.  If you are, and if you live in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, take some time this summer to pay attention to the mayoral races and see who might have a plan to ensure prosperity for ALL of us.  Take some time to volunteer in a community that needs trees planted, or children tutored, or houses protected from foreclosure.  Help a non-profit like One Village work towards a self-sustaining and economically just Africa.

If you really want to spite the judgemental, "occupy" their hypocrisy through living your life filled with actions that reject the greedy and selfish and self-righteous status quo and instead embrace love, compassion and positive change.  Reclaim the lessons of S&G from the anti-gays by showing that S&G were anti-poor, anti-compassion, anti-humility.  Most of all, like Ezekiel and Jeremiah and Jesus, don't be content with being right.  Spread the seeds of true righteousness through selfless acts, for only then can we smother the weeds of self-righteousness and selfish acts.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Invictus Arduis

Invictus - Latin for unconquered, unconquerable, undefeated.

Invictus arduis - Latin for unconquered in difficulties.  In other words, the story of my life.

Right now, I'm unemployed, living in a spare bedroom of a friend, dealing with a major depression and a chronic illness that as of yet has no cure, and as an out gay son of evanglical conservatives have suffered more than a bit of anti-gay animus over the course of my life.

I try not to feel sorry for myself, and I don't ask you to either.  In fact, if you did, I'd probably be mildly annoyed.  I'm kind of prickly, at times.  Self-centered, arrogant, and quite possibly a know-it-all.  Most of that is automatic or unintentional, but it's still there and I work on it.  It's also extremely difficult for me to accept help or admit failure or mistakes.  I also work on that.

I'm not starving, I'm not on the street, I have clothes on my back, medication for illnesses, support from loving grandparents and aunts and uncles who don't place conditions on their acceptance of me, and a wealth of experiences in life that I've learned a great deal from or simply enjoyed beyond price.

Sometimes, I think I have a few things in common with King David.  I mean, aside from the King part and all that.  I'm blessed and wealthy in many ways, and yet not unscathed by life.  I struggle with many of the same problems he did, and several he couldn't have conceived of in his culture and context.  So Psalm 51:17 hits home for me, "The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a troubled and broken heart, O God, you will not despise."

Some days I think I might be one of the biggest sacrifices God has ever seen.  But even then, this verse reminds me that I'm not forgotten, that I'm not defeated and despised by my Creator.