Friday, June 21, 2019

What's New?

So, things have been hectic the last few months. We decided in November to sell our house and get a new one. It's not the best time of year to do that, but, after six months, it worked out ok. We're closing and moving this week! I've added a page to this site (look up.. not that far, just to the top of the page), and you'll see a link for "Middletown Ministry."
You can explore there, maybe help out, and be excited with us for the next phase in our adventure.

You'll also see I added some other pages to make this look a little more like a real website (someday I'll figure out the right url and buy it, I promise). But I also wanted to highlight my writing and speaking. I want to do more of both, so having a way to invite connection makes sense.
If you've got a congregation, camp, gathering, or group that might benefit from engaging with me, let me know. I'm always excited to connect with people.

If you want to talk more about The Nest and the new ministry we'll be doing in our new house, you can check out the Facebook page. This what we've been dreaming about and trying for the whole seven years we've lived in Middletown and we're excited for the possibilities.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Can We Stop with the Over-Spiritualizing?

A few months ago, my alma mater (Eastern Nazarene College), sent out a donor letter with a copy of Max Lucado's book, Unshakable Hope. I really, really hope some alum paid for all these copies to be sent out and funds from the school itself were not used. Still, I want to support my school, so I'm reading the book before deciding whether to give it away or just recycle it.

Max Lucado, if you don't know, is a pastor from Texas, but one of the more prolific evangelical authors of recent times. He's published 40 some books and the jacket of this one boasts 130 million total books in print. His writing is basically a Christian version of self-help, with lots of bible verses and basic affirmations. It's not terrible. I don't always (or often) agree with his theology, but I have found his writing helpful from time to time (especially when I was younger and less confident in my own beliefs).

I don't want to trash it, but it's not my thing.

As I read through the book, some chapters seem really good - like they'd be incredible helpful to people who need a dose of hope. Others (far fewer) seem problematic, like they're going to provide a short term fix, but make things worse in the long run. These tend to be over-spiritualized chapters. It's not surprising; one of the hallmarks of evangelical theology is a tendency to downplay or ignore humanity. Modern evangelicalism was birthed out of a theological divide that, in shorthand, led to liberals being associated with social justice and real-world problems, while conservatives became associated with eternal destiny and spiritual health. These are just stereotypes, but they're important.

In one chapter, Lucado talks about how the Devil is the embodiment of evil and selfishness and those people who deny the real, personal existence of a devil are just playing into his schemes for damning our souls. This is very typical evangelical fodder (although a bit dated) perfectly appropriate for someone Lucado's age and for his core audience. I'd argue this kind of talk ends up letting us, as people, off the hook. We blame the devil for our sin and it creates a layer of separation from responsibility. Evangelicals have been trained to take the shame and guilt of sin on ourselves (sometimes too much), but we struggle accepting responsibility, which, in my view, is a real key to overcoming and redeeming our faults and failures.

The most recent chapter I read started and ended with the powerful story of a college softball player who injured her knee rounding first base on a game-winning home run. The rules prevented her teammates from helping her to reach home plate, so the opposing team decided to do it, even though it meant them losing the game. It's a profound story of compassion and selflessness - the kind of thing that can bring a tear to the eye and stir the soul.

Lucado uses it in an interesting way, though. The softball story is bookended around an extended explanation of Jesus' humanity. (Lucado's real talent is somehow extending what should be a paragraph of information into a chapter; that's how you write forty books while working full-time as a pastor.) He talks about how Jesus experienced life as we do, understands our suffering, and offers a solution.

All of that is great. He ends the chapter, though, after revealing the conclusion of the story, by saying what that opposing team did for the injured player in what Jesus wants to do for us. We're stuck in the failure and inadequacy of life, incapable of doing what we need to do and God makes up the difference. That's all true, but it missed the actual, practical point: that we're called to do for others what those players did for their opponent. We're called to be the difference for each other.

Now, I grew up hearing that kind of argument refuted as humanistic. God does for us; we don't do for ourselves. Ultimately that comes back to the Calvinist idea of total depravity - that sin completely removed the image of God from humanity and we're incapable of doing good without God.
That's not the foundational argument for over-spiritualizing, but it is a contributing factor. Many evangelicals want to be careful not to attribute anything good to humanity.

I don't think that's a real worry, because I don't believe in total depravity. I certainly affirm that people are incapable of being good on their own, but I wholeheartedly believe God has always intended to make us partners in the redemption of the universe. God works with us and in us - sometimes before we're even aware of it - to bring good to the world. It doesn't diminish the power of God to say that we can be agents of grace and salvation to one another - so long as we recognize the work of God underneath and within it all.

The real issue evangelicals struggle with - at least in this instance - is the notion that this life doesn't matter. We get so focused on being "in the right place" when we die that our lives become a means to an end. I don't know whether Lucado himself would say it (I don't like putting words in someone's mouth), but many evangelicals would say that grand gesture in the softball game doesn't mean squat if the people involved haven't prayed the right prayer and committed their lives to Jesus Christ.

That's far too dichotomous for me. It's a simplistic separation between the physical and spiritual - something the New Testament and the earliest Christians fought tooth and nail against. Jesus profoundly merged the physical and spiritual; the Jewish tradition (of which Jesus was deeply a part) says we are not us without both elements. The Lord's Supper, the center of our faith, makes it very clear how these two things are completely intertwined.

Yes, Jesus wants to do for us spiritually what those players did so graciously and self-sacrificially for their opponent. We can be lifted up, made whole, healed, and redeemed by the love of Jesus Christ. But that love was manifested in a physical act: suffering and dying out of love for the world. That love continues to be manifested in physical acts, like the one in question and a billion others around the world every day.

In fact, Jesus tells his disciples they will do even greater things than him. Maybe, just maybe, some of those things are fallible, sinful, dysfunctional human beings responding to the love of God by being agents of salvation to each other in the midst of the world. I don't believe eternity is some far off place. I don't believe "afterlife" is the best way to talk about heaven. Eternity begins here and now. God's redemption is happening as we speak. Our call is to be part of it as God calls an enables.

I believe strongly the condition of your soul has far more to do with the condition of your hands and heart than most evangelicals have been led to believe. I suppose there's some danger out there that we could focus so much on humanity that we forget God. I don't think it's likely, though. After all, no one has put more faith in humanity than has God. We'd do well to follow that example.

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

There's Nothing Wrong With the World

Way back last fall I purchased an online course from the great Peter Rollins. He did a "pay what you can" offer for his teaching on Paul Hessert's book Christ and the End of Meaning. There's nine videos (with Q & A, since the course was originally taught live online), plus a PDF copy of the book, which is out of print. I got the course as professional development. I need 20 hours of continuing education as part of my ordination and it's so wonderful to have such great online resources available.

I didn't intend, necessarily, to write or report on what I was learning, but after viewing the first video and reading the first chapter of the book, I'm pretty excited about the kinds of thoughts in triggers in my mind. The following is an extended quote from Chapter 1, that I felt most compelling:



In order for Christianity to be "meaningful" in the culture, it must validate the culture's demands for meaning and power and try to fulfill them. It does this by accepting the cultural structure as the basis of its own understanding — that is, the imperfect present linked to, but separated from, the ideal by time and guilt. The variant forms of Christian thought and practice — conservative, liberal, evangelical, fundamentalist, charismatic, orthodox — are but various forms of this one cultural orientation. In spite of the specific features by which each distinguishes itself from the others, or those features by which the others characterize it, there is a remarkable structural unanimity.

For example, all are one in the condemnation of the present as deficient to the ideal or even a betrayal of it. One stresses contemporary "immorality" in terms of promiscuous and deviant sex, drug and alcohol addiction, and preoccupation with "materialistic concerns." Another attacks "secular humanism." Another stresses systemic poverty and indifference to human values. Still another points to obsession with ideology that feeds the arms race and the peculiar economy attending it. Another concentrates on the neglect of traditional religious and patriotic practices.

It is the circle of reality as a whole that is legitimated by religion, and the condemnation of the present, in whatever form this may take, is one of the most important ways this circle is supported. Condemnation of the present is not an attack on the culture but a reinforcement of its structure.


Hessert's main argument is that western society has one "circle of reality" through which it approaches life. Generally this is the distance between what is and what might be. We see ourselves as we are and the distance between now and some ideal future as the purpose of life. We want something different than what we have - whether it's a job, money, a relationship, happiness, peace, freedom, weight loss, whatever - and we work towards achieving it.

His argument is essentially that most of Christianity has generally participated in this same western "circle of reality." Typically, though, various Christian denominations find an alternative goal. They replace whatever "worldly" thing we're searching for with Jesus or fulfillment or social justice or whatever, calling it a different perspective or worldview, but really just reinforcing the very same "circle of reality" centered in pursuit.

It's only chapter one, so I don't have a lot, yet, to say about the alternative, but I'm fascinated by the religious implications of Hessert's idea that there is an alternative - an alternative that is perhaps much closer to Christ and Christ's teaching than what we've come to know as Christianity.


Established religion, at least in this western "circle of reality," tells us there's something wrong with the world. It highlights the difference between what is and what could be, focusing on all the problems that prevent the now from being the ideal. What if a better understanding of Christianity says there's nothing wrong with the world, just our perception of it?

Rollins used the analogy of fish in the water. They're not conscious of the water itself, it is just part of the fabric of a fish's reality. Our "circle of reality" is not something we inherently see, but the structure by which we experience the world. Jesus called us to notice the water, to see our "circle of reality," and then Jesus challenged us to adopt a different one. The critique of Christianity is not about the substance of our beliefs, but about the very frame around which we build them.

Jesus provides a fundamentally different way of seeing and understanding existence. "Blessed are the poor" makes no sense in our culture, neither does "love your enemies," or "give without asking anything in return." These ideas fundamentally contradict how we understand the world. Our "circle of reality" is built around acquisition and improvement, but Jesus calls us to look at things differently.

What if the Kingdom of God is not something in the future (the ideal), but it's just a different way of seeing what's already here? Again, it's only chapter one, but I'm excited to see how Hessert (and Rollins) explores this argument more thoroughly. What if the culmination of all things is not some far off resolution to a current problem, but the result of people seeing the world as it is?

I love the optimism of this idea: that there's nothing wrong with the world, just something profoundly wrong with how we look at it (and thus how we live in it).*



*I found out this is, apparently, a Henry Miller quote. Who knew? (Not me. I promise.)

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Thrones: Love and Loyalty

I know it's a little problematic to post two consecutive ethical musings about Game of Thrones, but this penultimate episode got me thinking a bit. Loyalty has been the predominant theme of the show from the very beginning: when you show loyalty, to whom loyalty is owed, how to decide when loyalties have shifted, or should. All of the politics people love the show for are about which powerful person will support another and under what circumstances.

More than anything, as with any medeival-ish society specifically, loyalty is set against love. From the very beginning, when Ned Stark takes his boys out to execute a deserter, he leaves them with the lesson: "he who passes the sentence, swings the sword." Ned is known to be a person of wisdom and mercy, but he also executes his responsibilities (literally). His loyalty is never questioned, but it clearly trumps love. He can't do what he might be inclined to do; he has responsibilities. The situation dictates his response.

People are what they do. I think most of us believe this - at least about other people. We might have sentimental feelings now and then or we might know that there's more to someone than just their worst actions, but generally we judge other people by what they do.

Cersei Lannister is set up as the ultimate big baddie in Game of Thrones. This is because her loyalty is to herself alone. She'll lie, cheat, kill, and betray anyone, at any time, for power. The show talks about how her children are her motivation, but only in so much as they are extensions of herself. Cesei's conscience is based on survival and domination. If it helps her, it's right; if it hurts her, it's wrong. This makes her an ultimate villain.

Every other character on the show is grey; they do good and they do bad. One of the major intentions of George R. R. Martin, the author of the books, was to establish a world with some sense of realism. Most fantasy has good guys and bad guys; the sides and stakes are clear. With Game of Thrones you're never sure who to support or for how long. Except Cersei; no one is rooting for her. There's some fleeting attention paid to her affection for her twin brother, Jaime (who is also her lover... yeah, I know, the show goes places), but she never has his best interests in mind, only her own. By this final season, she's even driven him away with her madness and treachery.

Cersei is loyal to no one, so no one is loyal to her. Cersei's actions are despicable as is she; entirely unlovable.

Yet, as we saw on Sunday, Jaime came back. He'd finally escaped and found love with a women (Brienne) he truly respects, one who sees the good in him and genuinely wishes the best for him, someone who is loyal to a fault - essentially the exact opposite of his sister. One of the most heart-wrenching scene in the entire run of the show is Jamie leaving her to return to Cersei. He says, "She is hateful and so am I." It's his rejection of whatever good Brienne sees in him. At the time it feels like weakness, but this week it's revealed as incredible love.

Jaime eventually find Cersei, her city is being sacked and burned by a dragon; any chance she has of power or continued life is gone. He doesn't return to apologize, to justify her actions, or rejoin her team. Jaime returns to Cersei so she doesn't have to die alone. Yes, they're trying to escape and run away to live happily ever after, but no one (not even them) believe that'll ever happen. They came into the world together and they leave the same way.

It's extremely touching. Many fans are upset the show's villain got such a favorable death. Yes, her life was a selfish waste, but she was loved - and that's not nothing.

It's also not loyalty. Jaime had no reason to return, no advantage in this play. No one would even look favorably on him for being loyal in this moment, because Cersei doesn't deserve it. He'd already abandoned her; the family ties were broken. This return was all love. Love for one who is unquestionably unlovable.

That's magic. It's a recognition that there's some part of us worth something regardless of our deeds, attitudes, or intentions. We cannot be utterly irredeemable, because we are human; beneath whatever it is that makes us unique is something that connects us all together, something bigger than ourselves. That core humanity is worthwhile, is valuable, is lovable, even if we are not.

Loving your enemies is the most profound idea in the history of the world. Most everything Jesus said had been said before, but this idea was new. A love grounded entirely outside self-interest and directed entirely towards another - no personal gain. Logically it feels like a love wasted, but it is the only real expression of love.

What's more, Jaime doesn't see Cersei as an enemy, although she is - to him and to everyone else. He might've been her brother, lover, and closest confidante, but she's done nothing to acknowledge his worth or for his benefit. No one else in the entire universe of the show has any reason to mourn her passing and every reason to celebrate. Jaime's in that camp, too, but he doesn't know it. That's because of love.

You see, the trick is not really loving your enemy. That's the goal; that's where it starts. But the love at the core of Christian teaching can't be love of enemy, it is a love that so transforms us that we have no enemies. Even those who act like enemies to us are not enemies in our eyes. Loving our enemies is still passing judgement on them. There's a magnanimity that is, in the end, self-serving.

Some people look at the call to love our enemies and believe they have to be kind to everyone - a sublimation of our natural responses. I don't think that's true. The command to love our enemies is, in my mind, a reminder that everyone, all of us, are worthy. We are called to love our enemies because there are no enemies - even if people sometimes act like it. That doesn't mean we ignore the consequences or somehow aid in people being selfish and evil, we simply refuse to believe (and thus act) as if those actions are all they really are.

Our actions define us, but they are not all of us. I think this reality is the only way to find hope in the midst of suffering. I suspect it's the only way to imagine something beautiful in the midst of the dirty chaos that is Game of Thrones. It's one small example of love in a story about loyalty. I suspect this lesson was not the one the show's creators planned to communicate, but I'm glad it was present, even if they rest of the episode left something to be desired.

Thursday, May 09, 2019

In Defense of Sansa

There's been a lot of conversation in the days since Game of Thrones last aired Sunday. Most of it has been about plot choices and what people would prefer to see in the show. One particular issue, though, has rammifications beyond the show and has caught my attention. Game of Thrones has always been criticized for its treatment of women. Early in the show there was a lot of nudity and sexual violence, which ended largely because the show became a success and the actresses had bargaining power for what they would and wouldn't consent to do.

Part of the criticism was answered because it's a show set in the fantasy past, in the midst of a darker time and a strong patriarchy. Women are treated poorly because that's been the lot of women in history. That doesn't hold a lot of weight for a show that features zombies and dragons; historical accuracy is somewhat malleable. There's only ever been one woman in the writer's room and it's easy to tell what perspective reigns.

The controversy returned again this week with a short conversation between Sansa Stark, a scion of one of the noble houses, and Sandor Clegane (known as The Hound). As a child, Sansa had been sent to the capital and betrothed to a lunatic sadist would-be king. The Hound was the personal bodyguard of said prince and bailed when it became apparent the guy wasn't worth defending. He offered to take Sansa with him, to bring her home, but his reputation wasn't the greatest at that point and she was very afraid to speak up for herself or act in her own best interest.

One of the arcs of the show has been Sansa's growth and maturity, most of which comes in the midst of terrible sexual and emotional violence.
She spent years being used and abused as pawns of more powerful people. She survived and has become a wise, ruthless, powerful player in her own right. It's a triumph of resiliency - at least as much as can be in a fictional universe.

The conversation in question has Clegane reminding Sansa that he could've saved her from the terrible suffering that has been her life. She reminds him that she's also achieved incredible success in the midst of that suffering and says that without her suffering, she would not be the wise, self-assured person speaking to him.

Obviously, it's problematic to have a woman give credit for her success to the horrors of her life, as if she didn't already have this potential within her that could've been brought out in other (less miserable) ways. This is sound criticism, but I'm not sure that's really what's being implied. I saw her statement as recognizing the importance of adversity. Yes, she could have realized her potential without rape and abuse, but perhaps she could not have realized her potential without suffering and struggle. The coddled, sheltered life meant for her, cushioned by a safe, protected, familiar environment likely would not have given her the tools to navigate an otherwise dangerous and ruthless world.

Our children need to be challenged - to stumble, fall, and fail - allowing them to do so is one of the most difficult parts of parenting. Protection is a natural instinct that's reinforced by cultural pressure to remove obstacles from our children's paths to success. We make fun of parents showing up to job interviews with their twenty-something children or negotiating grades with college professors, but that's just an extension of the social pressure towards supervised play dates and baby wipe warmers.

It's not that any of those things or those instincts is bad on its own merits, but to the extent we keep our children from failing, we're failing them. I'm the father of an almost-seven-year-old only child. She's as spoiled as they come - or at least it feels that way. I'm not talking about dropping them off at boot camp or taking away their bike helmets. It's hard enough to make my daughter (and remember, she's seven) buckle her own seat-belt.

I see how easy it is to quit when things are difficult. From tying her shoes to pouring a glass of milk, simple tasks still take practice - which usually means failure, at first. A lot of things came easy to me in life; those things gave me space to just avoid the things that didn't come easy. I don't know that I learned hard work as well as I could have. I'm pretty sure I could've used a little more perseverance in the face of failure; I suspect most of us could.

Because life is hard. Well, life for many of us could be pretty easy. I'm an educated straight white male; the stars have aligned to make coasting through life awfully easy for me and people like me. I guess I should say making a worthwhile life is hard. It's difficult to accomplish things that really matter, no matter how gifted you are. Maybe I'm dead wrong and the writers of Game of Thrones really do believe that everything happens for a reason. Rather than justifying abuse, I hope they're simply trying to point out the value of adversity in general. We could all use the reminder from time to time.