Thursday, December 26, 2013

All You Want to Know About Hell by Steve Gregg

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. My integrity is not for sale. Those who know me well are aware I would relish the chance to give a bad review in exchange for a free book. If I've failed to do so, it has nothing to do with the source of the material and only with the material itself.

I got this book mostly out of morbid curiosity. I've spent a lot of time studying the scripture and the afterlife, especially hell. Steve Gregg is a conservative bible teacher (and anyone who uses the term "bible teacher" is more conservative than conservative) and christian radio host. I suspected All You Want to Know About Hell would at least be amusing if nothing else.

It's a solid book. Gregg delves deeply into the scriptural and cultural background of hell in the Bible. He does so unabashedly and honestly. In a brave and rare move for conservative circles, Gregg acknowledges the scriptural validity not just of the traditional hell of eternal torment, but also for annihilationist perspective (that unrepentant souls will cease to exist) and even to evangelical universalism (that ultimately all people will be redeemed).

The first third of the book is the strongest section, providing historical and cultural explanations for the development of the concept of hell, providing the reader with all the information they need to begin an exploration. The second two thirds of the book are in depth representations and rebuttals of each theory. Gregg claims to be undecided and writes responsibly about each one. Perhaps the traditional view gets a tougher treatment than the others, but based on the force of history, probably deservedly so.

The book is well organized, but the writing is a bit difficult. There is a lot of fallback to Calvinist logicisms that frankly bore the heck out of me and will be difficult for less-experienced readers to work through. Still, I will recommend at least the first section to anyone struggling with how to explain and understand hell. It's a valuable resource for the Church, especially for evangelicalism.

It is very basic. The book lacks in-depth treatments of immortality, wrath, and punishment, all necessary for a complete dialogue about hell. The three theories are a bit too concrete and I really did not see my personal perspective represented in any of them, still it is an immanently worthy primer for embarking on the study beyond the traditional definitions of afterlife.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the® book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Reza Aslan's "Zealot" and the Search for Jesus

I finished Reza Aslan's Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth this week.* It's been a challenging read. Aslan is not just some hack with an agenda. He does have an agenda, but he's no hack; Aslan knows his stuff and he spent a lot of time researching this book, which has gained no small measure of notoriety.

Aslan comes from a family of Iranian-Americans who fled after the overthrow of the Shah. His family blamed Islam for the ruin of their country; he does not come from an antagonistic perspective. In fact, he was converted to evangelical Christianity as a teenager and only slowly moved away from this tradition in his further studies. The book's stated aim is to recast Jesus, though intense cultural and historical study, from Jesus the Christ, the ethereal, disconnected savior Aslan encountered in evangelical Christianity, to Jesus of Nazareth, a radical Jewish revolutionary.

Zealot argues that Jesus is not divine, mostly because it's highly unlikely. Obviously, those who disagree do so by faith, and Aslan readily admits there is no argument for or against - it is simply a matter of faith, mostly centered around the fact or fiction of resurrection. This is an assumption underlying the book, but not an essential part of his attempts to understand Jesus.

Something I'd never considered before was the likely fiction of the birth narratives. With the gospels having been written so long after the life of Christ, the details therein are theological in nature and not necessarily historical (or even real in some cases). It's a disconcerting thought, especially this time of year, but his arguments make a lot of sense; I don't find them particular helpful or harmful to an understanding of Jesus.

Aslan's notation system is more narrative than technical, lacking footnotes, but including a lengthy section for each chapter, which helps communicate his frame of reference. There is a strong attempt to be inclusionary of diverse opinions there, even if not in the prose itself. At the same time, "I agree with Richard Horsley" is an oft used phrase and it's clear many of his more controversial conclusions rely on the work of one man (albeit a strong scholar).

The book provides powerful, vivid descriptions of life in 1st century Palestine, along with an important summary of intertestamental history and a gripping narrative of the Jewish revolt and subsequent annihilation of Jerusalem in AD 70. I can't recall any element of his historical and cultural research that I questioned to any great degree. Zealot can be an important resource for anyone, Christian or otherwise, to better understand the context of Jesus' life and ministry.

The main problem, however, is the more we uncover the more difficult it is to define and understand both Jesus himself and the faith his life spawned. Aslan does indeed poke holes in the colloquial understanding of Jesus' life, something relatively easy to do now that the Church doesn't have a monopoly on information and authority. At the same time, he resides in an almost extreme opposite position, giving almost no credence to any element of the traditional Christian narrative that might speak to reality.

This is no more clear than in Aslan's characterization of Jesus' aims and intentions. Jesus of Nazareth is rightly placed into the mold of messiah, a common Jewish archetype of the period, usually a radical revolutionary bent on overthrowing the spiritual monopoly of the temple or the political domination of Rome (or both). Aslan lumps Jesus wholesale into the tradition, including its dedication to violence almost entirely on the authority of one verse - "I come not to bring peace, but a sword." For someone so willing to take liberties with the text, to parse them for redaction, sarcasm, and the like, he takes this one verse, upon which a main tenet of his argument hangs, with no critical engagement. The idea is to challenge the notion that Jesus' Kingdom was intended to be celestial. I personally have no problem challenging that notion; I do think there is plenty of room to affirm Jesus as a political and religious revolutionary bent on establishing an earthly Kingdom, I just suspect there's more nuance and possibility than Aslan ever seems willing to entertain.

More difficult, but important is Aslan's narrative of how the life of Jesus was communicated to subsequent generations. He sees the church quickly devolving into two competing bodies - a Jewish core, made up of the Apostles and Jesus' brother James, centered in Jerusalem, adhering to Jewish law and customs, and committed to the notion of Christ's immanent return and the arrival of the promised Kingdom. The other group, comprised of wealthy, educated Hellenized Jews - those who traveled from the farther reaches of the Empire for Passover, those more inclined to disconnect this new faith from its Jewish roots, the group led by Paul.

It is really Paul who becomes the villain of Aslan's story, a power-hungry egotist who hijacks the story of Jesus, transforms him into the literal Son of God, rejects the Torah, and makes the faith acceptable to the Roman world.

These claims are not entirely far-fetched, even within the corpus of scripture itself. Certainly there is a measure of real tension between the message of James' epistle and most of Paul's teaching. While some might consider these two important streams of Christianity necessarily held in tension, Aslan considers one valid and other false, despite Paul's clear victory in the long run.

There are a number of dichotomies that Aslan highlights in Zealot. He tends to make them either/or decisions, which is perfectly in line with traditional Christianity, which does the same thing from the opposite side of each debate. I am not convinced that any one "side" is going to (or needs to) "win." This book brings to light important realities and troubling contentions that are easier for the Church to simply forget, ignore or deny. We do ourselves a disservice to give in to those temptations.

There are a lot of doctrines the official "orthodox" church has established in stone that have always seemed less than crystal clear to me. Aslan succeeds in highlighting many of them - the largest being how Jesus relates to God. Many traditions, some existing through to the present day, refuse to affirm the absolute equality of Jesus with Yahweh. While I have no problem affirming the divinity of Christ, I suspect we do ourselves and the mystery of God a disservice to exclude those traditions outright. Ultimately, I don't see the Nicene Creed as the unifying faith statement of Christianity, but the early and simple declaration that "Jesus Christ is Lord." That can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people, but I believe our gracious willingness to work those out together is the best possible testament to the truth of our faith.

Zealot is not an easy read - and certainly has the potential to be earth-shattering for the unprepared. I'd love to have more time to investigate many of the sources he cites and the history he so deftly wields. There are some clear theological holes in his argument, but none of them strong enough to justify entirely writing off Aslan or his position.

Aslan ends the book with an interesting conclusion:

Two thousand years later, the Christ of Paul's creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history. The memory of the revolutionary zealot who walked across Galilee gathering an army of disciples with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, the magnetic preacher who defied the authority of the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, the radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the Roman occupation and lost, has been almost completely lost to history. That is a shame. Because the one thing any comprehensive study of the historical Jesus should hopefully reveal in that Jesus of Nazareth - Jesus the man - is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in.

I don't believe we need to choose between Jesus the man and Jesus the Christ. I agree that there is a narrative of Jesus in the Christian tradition that fails to take into account the reality of Jesus' life and times. I think we too often fall back on traditional interpretations, failing to analyze the gospel as a theological document from a specific period in history. There are a lot of challenges to faith inherent in the rediscovery of Jesus the man. At the same time, I see this rediscovery happening with great strength inside the Church. My seminary experience was filled with a rooted foundation of Jesus in Judaism, both culturally and religiously. It has made a profound impact on my faith - and quite honestly, if I had to make the choice between Jesus the Christ and Jesus the man as Aslan describes them, I'd make the same choice he does. I just don't think it's an either or.

The radical, revolutionary Jesus is a great critique of the traditional, ethereal, heavenly Christ narrative which has formed the backbone of much of Christianity, I just don't think one should, or can, ever subsume the other.

*This is not one of the books I've reviewed as part of the Booksneeze project. I chose this one myself and got it from the library. I'll probably have another one of those later in the week.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Sara Bareilles - The Blessed Unrest

I like awards shows. It's part of my unhealthy affection for competition. If someone can win it, I'll watch it. I do also, from time to time, like music. Since Spotify came around, I've been trying to listen to all the Best Album Grammy nominees, so I can make an informed decision. This year I decided to post my thoughts about each one.

First up is the surprise dark horse, Sara Bareilles. She released her album, "The Blessed Unrest" almost a year ago, to middling reviews and semi-decent sales for someone who's had a few hits before. Steven Hyden from Grantland thinks she's got a legitimate shot at winning, mostly because her nomination was so unlikely; the voters must actually like the album.

Called The Blessed Unrest, the album certainly feels like it. There's not as much variety in the style and tone as I might have expected from such an inventive songwriter, but in the end it makes sense given the title. There is enough creativity in the midst of the mood to really spark an interest.

Halfway through I would have said it was "good, not great," but she does the idea of "concept" album proud. Some of the songs are very good - "I Choose You" is a fantastic little love song, albeit too short - those that are a bit short on lyrics have strong production and musicality, those with less than stellar melodies have strong writing. Everybody probably knows "Brave" by its cultural immersion, but the album ends on perhaps its best track. "December" is a song about life after tragedy or disappointment, encapsulated the idea of blessed unrest. It's really well done.

If The Blessed Unrest wins Best Album, I can see why. It's still a long shot, but I'm glad I took the time to give it a listen.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Year Later

The shooting deaths of a classroom full of elementary students in Connecticut happened a year ago this week. I wrote some about it last year when it happened. This week I've been reflecting some more on exactly what it means and how (and especially why) we react the way we do.

Intellectually we know most people don't deserve to die - certainly no children do. But an intellectual commitment to the value of human life doesn't engage our emotions when hundreds of thousands of children die everyday of hunger, malnutrition, and preventable diseases. Those deaths are tragedies, we know it, but we don't react the same way.

I've been trying to figure out the connection between our visceral reaction to such traumatic events and my hesitancy to intrude on the pain and grief of the people who actually knew and loved these kids.

In the end, I think, we connect to these tragedies because we know children like them. We see their faces on TV and we know children who look like them. We know children in first grade or fifth grade. We know children we substitute for the deceased in our heads and it creates an emotional reaction.

We care about these kids who are complete strangers to us because we think about losing kids who aren't strangers. We empathize.

Instead, however, of inserting ourselves into the tragedy of others, spending the day on the couch watching coverage, and whatever else we do, I think we should spend that effort engaging with the kids we're actually upset about, the ones we think about losing, the ones that connect us emotionally to the unknowns who've actually died.

I've been thinking about that this week and then I came across this article from my old stomping grounds. Sister Berta is a hero - an inspiration to many of us who spent time working with kids in Kansas City. I think she gets it. We need to react to terrible tragedies, yes with empathy, but also with a renewed conviction to engage with the kids around us.

It seems strangely appropriate this time of year to think and talk (and do) some good in the lives of our kids, the kids around us, and the kids who should be around us more.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Lost Work

I'm not much for demons and angels. As odd as it may be, I tend to skew pretty far to the side of empiricism when it comes to belief. That being said, I absolutely see poverty as a demonic force. I've probably mentioned this a time or two before, but I don't mean demonic in the sense of sentient. I don't think there's an insidious force out there willfully pulling strings to impoverish people; I just don't. I do believe, however, that there are forces we've (human beings) have constructed which have grown beyond our ability to control. Poverty is one of those things.

Our modern solution to poverty - the Welfare State - is likely another. We've battled one demon with another and it's left us with a different, albeit similar mess. We now can guarantee most people (at least most people in the West) bare minimums for food, clothing, shelter, even some health care, certainly at a level to which a large part of the world's population can only aspire. Poverty in the US is just not the same as poverty in Thailand or Malawi.

Of course, we've also created a more or less permanent underclass. As crass an unseemly as Mitt Romney's deathknell quote might be, there is some part of that 47% which really is entitled and dependent and irresponsible. It may be a small part; it may be large. You all can fight about those numbers somewhere else. The truth is, a Welfare State teaches people to be dependent and entitled because it treats them that way. Work ethic, education, self-reliance all break down over time - certainly not universally among the poor, but as an inevitable cultural shift among some.

It's an unfortunate cyclical pattern. Those who tout the benefits of a Welfare State are just as correct as those who caution against its drawbacks. Change is inevitable. This solution to poverty will be followed by a solution of its own. I apologize for being negative, but I don't expect whatever comes next to be much better - different, for sure, but with similar problems - a new demon.

It's inevitable because the same refusal to sacrifice that gave us our societal demons in the first place will equally prevent us fully addressing them. As the Welfare State was the easy way out of poverty, so whatever comes next will be the easy way out again. The path of progress is the path of least resistance. I won't deny it's progress of a sort, but it's only progress from the starting point, not progress towards a solution - more like walking around in circles than anything else.

Writ large this problem stems from sacrifice, or the lack of it (we're not going to solve big problems until we're willing to put the comfort, benefit, and even survival or others, perhaps undeserving others, ahead of our own). However, in microcosm, I think our direct problem comes from disconnecting work from wealth. That's not just an indictment of the Welfare State, but of private welfare states known as families. We give money to the poor whether they work or not (we often make it easier to get help without work), but we also give money to the rich without work (it's called inheritance, and sometimes it's just called letting your deadbeat 29 year old live in the basement).*

You hear this notion of reconnecting welfare and work a lot from the conservative side of the table. I think there's real value there (so long as we recognize the genuine pain such a transition will cause for those who've been taught to operate in a culture of dependence over the course of generations, and make proper, gracious preparations to work through it). What those advocates sometimes forget is that the same notion behind connecting wealth and work for the poor is the notion that led to things like inheritance tax or the 90% tax bracket (things that group is generally against). The idea is that no one should unduly benefit from someone else's work. I'm not saying I agree with those principles and practices exactly, just pointing out they come from the same place.

There is a real racial argument to be made, at least in the US. There are some who say welfare, which goes disproportionately to African Americans, is the least the country can do for a people who've been so badly abused over time. "Our mothers and fathers have already worked for this money. We're just getting it now on their behalf." It's a similar argument to that of inheritors: "My parents worked hard to make this money, it should stay in the family (if they so desire)."

Both of those claims may be true. I will readily admit that self-determination is an important right for all individuals, however, I don't believe society has the responsibility to always make it easy. I don't have the right to determine right and wrong for you, but we as a group can decide what's right and wrong for us as a group. You don't have to like it and we can't force you to follow it (or we shouldn't, at least), but we also don't have to make it easy for you to step out on your own.

We fail as a society because we don't recognize work as a human right. It's more than just making sure people are accountable for the thing they're given, there is a basic human need to work. When we incentivize not working - in whatever ways we do, rich or poor - we dehumanize each other.

As a Christian, I take scripture seriously (or I try hard to). Genesis chapter 2 say pretty clearly humans were made to work. That doesn't equate to painful, unending, backbreaking toil, but there's something to be said for getting one's hands dirty on a regular basis (even if it's just proverbial dirt). We're designed to be actively engaged in caring for the world (and that's not just environmental claptrap, we're all a part of the world. Work is an integral part of what it means to be human. I think that if we can reclaim work for the good it is - and not just as an economic necessity, we can begin to tackle our demons, or at least avoid creating any more.

*I've got nothing against charity or generosity, in fact I think we need more of both. Beyond that, I believe we need to give to undeserving, disrespectful, irresponsible, and uncooperative people simply because they're people. I'm fairly confident we can provide for people without enabling them; I think most of us have experienced exactly that at some point in our lives. The big problem is that such provision requires a relational investment - we put ourselves, our lives on the line. That's generally seen as above and beyond the call of duty. It's a shame.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


So, Advent is my favorite time of the year. I grew up in a typical evangelical congregation, we light candles in the wreath each week, but Advent was basically a countdown to Christmas. There were carols in worship and it was, essentially, a sanctified version of the busyness most people engage in between Thanksgiving and December 25th. That may not be what was really happening, but it was certainly my perception.

Later on, in Seminary, as I began to explore the broader tradition of the Church, I came to understand Advent in its uniqueness. It has always been my favorite time of the year (not least because it almost always includes my birthday). I like the anticipation of it. I'm an anticipation guy. I'm usually much more excited for the build up than the event - and that doesn't just apply to Christmas, but to almost anything. I'm far more excited about the road trip than the destination.

Advent is a time of anticipation.

Part of that is recognizing the world around us. I often preach from the Old Testament passages during Advent because I like being reminded that the world is imperfect, that we're waiting for something. The problem is, often these sermons can be a bit of a let down. Too much focus on hope and fulfillment and it feels like I'm shortchanging the unsettledness, the anticipation of the season.

I think I've been missing a step. To those who've sat through those often conflicted sermons of Advents past, I apologize. I will get it better next time.

You see, I've always tried to make Advent special, to set it apart from Christmas - and that's important - but what I've failed to do is place that special, separate season within the context of the larger Christian narrative. We have a "Church Year" for a reason - because the individual seasons are a part of a larger story. I've often missed that.

Advent is about digging deep into the well of sorrow, about recognizing the pain and confusion and hurting and wrongness that exists in our world. That's absolutely true. But it is also, absolutely, about taking that depth of pain and from it painting a glorious picture of hope. We all have an idea, even if it's vague and shadowy, of what the world should be.* Advent is a time to immerse ourselves in the yawning gap between reality and possibility. We're intended to use this season to create a vision of hope, peace, and love so impossible large it overwhelms the senses.

This is a season for dreaming big - about all the things we're too scared to dream of the rest of the year. This is when we dream of families reunited, of wounds healed, diseases cured, hunger satisfied, and abuses reconciled. Advent is the season of impossible dreams, dreams we believe possible only by the thinnest, most outrageous strings of hope and faith.

We do this in preparation for Christmas. So that when we encounter a crying baby, in a cold crib, in a forgotten house, among lowly animals, we are bowled over by the juxtaposition.

We need a grandiose Advent to prepare ourselves properly for the shocking revelation of Christmas - that this giant, impossible dream of everything set right, hopes fulfilled becomes possible because of an impoverished infant, born in a lowly manger, two thousand years ago.

The contrast is jarring, especially in a world where power gets things done. To think that God's plan for bringing earth-shattering (literally) transformation is the weakest, most impossible little baby. It's such a confusing reality that we spend the rest of the year attempting to wrap our heads around this apparent paradox.

Advent is already half over this year - but fortunately it keeps coming back around. Remember, as you struggle to slow down, relax, and wait at a time when everyone is rushing to Christmas, that love really does beat power, weakness tops strength, that beauty really does save the world.

Be present this Advent and don't forget to dream big!

*My friend Justin McRoberts wrote a great piece about Advent Hope this week - check it out.

Friday, December 06, 2013


Nelson Mandela died last night. He was well into his 90's and had lived more life than just about any human being who's ever lived. There is no tragedy in his death; only celebration. From various Facebook postings, I came to realize that we have a large segment of young people with no real understanding of who this great man was.

A lot of good things have been written - I found this eulogy particularly moving - so I'll not recap the history here.

Nelson Mandela became President of South Africa in 1994, about the time I was really becoming conscious of the world around me. I missed Apartheid. I have no memories of the boycotts or the stories; it still seems unfathomable to me that such official, systematic, overt racial oppression could be taking place during my lifetime. It's surreal.

I remember Nelson Mandela more for the novelty - a man who was imprisoned for nearly thirty years is freed and then elected President. In my youthful naivete I couldn't imagine good people being in prison or former prisoners being elected to anything. Those ideas didn't compute.

As I learned more of the story, the transformation of South Africa was mind-blowing. White oppressors turning over the government to those they'd oppressed - and even black and white Presidents serving together. I don't recall the fear of reprisal even entering my mind - just the sheer uniqueness of the situation itself wowed me.

I continued to learn more and the powerful example of the Truth and Reconciliation process boggled my mind. That people, that a people, a nation, could be so forgiving did not compute. I was a fourteen year old kid whose slights in life were beyond minor, but I knew forgiveness was hard. This kind of story seemed too good to be true.

Then, I came upon more details of Nelson Mandela's life and I learned, perhaps my most valuable lesson. He was human.

I was raised in a very conservative, evangelical, religious environment. I certainly had the impression that good things were done by good people - and good was often defined by adherence to a strict moral code of lifestyle and belief. What's more, amazing things, miraculous things, could only be done by Christian people, because without God's help, great things didn't happen. At some point I discovered that Nelson Mandela had been married three times. He wasn't always the best husband or father. He'd violated some of the bedrock moral principles I'd been raised to use as judgments of good and bad.*

Obviously I'm a bit older now. I've faced the world in many different ways and I'm much more comfortable with both ambiguity and diversity. I'm still an evangelical and my life is pretty religious, but my idealism has also been tempered with realism and with grace. I continue to be blown away with the out-sized representation of the Gospel that South Africa represents. It's certainly not perfect - Mandela didn't create a utopia - but it's history is testament to a profound love of enemy. Mandela led the nation in valuing all people for their humanity, even if they chose actions which dehumanized themselves and their neighbors. There is no getting around the outrageous, miraculous nature of this reality.

Now, what makes it more impressive to me, is not that great things were done through the leadership of a great man, but that great things were done through the leadership of a man.

Yes, it takes more perseverance than most to endure backbreaking labor for three decades. It takes an unusual resolve to move, during that torture, from a position of violent anger to one of peaceful forgiveness. It takes wisdom beyond measure to lead a nation from the pits of ugliness without bloodshed. But at the end of the day, that perseverance, resolve, and wisdom were cultivated and accepted by and in one human being, no different from you and me. What's more, millions of ordinary human beings saw the value in his words and example, and followed him in extraordinary reconciliation.

I suspect the true gospel lesson of Nelson Mandela is not the profound power of love and forgiveness, but that this power resides within each of us and it's expression is not only possible, but realistic, for each and every one of us.

Great things come not from great people, but from ordinary (read: flawed) people willing to open themselves to great love.

*I always need to make a note here that my parents are not entirely to blame. I don't recall much overt teaching in this direction - and that which I do recall didn't come from them. My understanding and perceptions had much more to do with my environment generally than my parents specifically - and also with my own immature assumptions in attempting to make sense of a world I wasn't quite capable of understanding.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Patriotism and Paradise

I preached this past Sunday about Shalom. It's a Hebrew word often translated "peace," but with a whole lot more depth of meaning. It's describing a state of "right-ness," a place/time/atmosphere/reality where things work "right" for everyone. A place where everyone is welcomed and cared for and content. Some people call it heaven, some people call it the Kingdom of God, some call it paradise, others call it utopia. It's been the vision of everyone from Buddha to Thomas Jefferson to Karl Marx. I suspect we all want a place that feels like home (in the best sense).

This notion easily gets merged with Nationalism in unique ways. I've seen in play out in the US, but I haven't really been exposed to other countries - it may be the same there or manifest in different ways.

The US is pretty divided these days between conservatives and progressives - people who want to "get back to when things were right" and people who want to "get on to when things can be right." They might not agree this describes the opposing position, but both are examples of Patriotism in their own right. I think they're both examples of this search for Paradise as well.

Our nostalgia of the 1950's is very strong in this country. The place where Mom kept the home in order and Dad came home on time everyday from a fulfilling job that provided well for the family. Throw in two, mostly well-behaved children and you've got a Normal Rockwell painting. It's an idealized paradise we create in the past. Others go further back, to the founding of the US and all the democratic, capitalist ideals those Founding Fathers planned for this great nation. In either case, the "conservative" patriotic paradise tends to be in the past - something we must reclaim.

Others recognize the very real injustice that has always existed, whether in the US or some other idealized state earlier on (Christians are fond of treating the "early Church" the same way), and they reckon that the true destiny of this country lies ahead and they strive to create the idealization they see in their heads. This, too, is Patriotism - a patriotism of the progressive variety, but one, again, based in this search for Paradise.

Part of this is the Nationalist mechanism through which we see the world. The powers that be recognized at some point that keeping people in competition with each other was better for the powers that be and worked hard - and quite successfully - to limit our understanding of public life to government and rule of law, shutting out other avenues of public discourse (like the economic unity envisioned by Marx - and obscured by Lenin).

These alternative views - which recognize, at their core, that no political entity can every be the foundation of Paradise, can ever provide the Shalom which we all seek - simply do not fit into the tight little box contemporary society has constructed.

The idea being that humanity itself is at the center of our ideals. Marxism, at its core, is one of human egalitarianism - the people, if given the right conditions, can create Paradise. I'm not sure anyone's really give that a fair attempt, but I also suspect a fair attempt won't work out too well.

I am more and more enamored with what is known, for better or for worse, as the Anabaptist tradition - one in which the Body of Christ, Christians, exist as an alternative political entity - not an alternative government or an economic class, but simply as a companion to the other formations of society.

This is also a humanist philosophy - but humanism through the lens of Jesus Christ, the infusion of deity with humanity that embodies Paradise in a person. Figuring out how we relate to and then live in response to that person is a whole separate adventure in itself, but one that makes more sense to me than the well-meaning, but ultimately fruitless versions of Patriotic Paradise we see played out around us everyday.

This difference is that Patriotism tends to be shaped by our own ideals. We imagine the past or the future in ways that make sense to us. In essence, we build our own Paradise and become offended and defensive when others don't share our vision. This is why Patriotism itself can be both a powerful motivator (when it brings unity) and a deadly diversion (when it causes dissension).

Now I am not so naive to think our Christian conceptions of life and society are free from our own inclinations, ideals, and preferences; we can't ever escape our biases. I do hope, however, that there is some measure of selflessness in building an ideal around the life and teaching of someone else, in this case a someone else who was all about selflessness.

Even amongst us Christian alternative politic folks, it's real easy to allow our conceptions of Paradise to creep in - to accentuate the history and scripture with which we resonate and to marginalize those we find untidy or inconvenient - much the same way the Constitution is held up only insomuch as it reflects our Paradise.

The answer, and it's not much of one, I suspect - for both Church and State - is to be constantly incorporating the competing vision into our own. If conservatives are actively seeking to include progressive visions of the future into their own conception and progressives recognizing the value if history and tradition in shaping the future, we become less likely to see ourselves on different teams, as opponents.

If the Fundamentalists and the post-Christian dreamers would stop trying to eradicate each other and attempt to live together, we're going to find more space for everyone. It may not be pretty - in fact it will likely be real messy - but I suspect we'll be a lot closer to Paradise than we could ever imagine (and it probably won't look like any Paradise we've ever seen).

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

An Honest Assessment

No lessons or lectures or clever turns of phrase this evening. It's been a rough day. I've been off for a few weeks now, ever since we got back from my college reunion. That was sort of the end point of a very busy six months, during which I'd been pretty disciplined and focused. The weeks since have been a mess.

When I have smaller projects to do, I'm pretty good about setting schedules and making progress. In their absence, I'm left with the big project. I created a Facebook page for our little experiment here in Middletown, which makes it look like there's "stuff" going on when there isn't - at least not in the traditional understanding of "stuff."

There's a lot happening. We're becoming really good friends with some of the people who live right around us. That is awesome. It's what we came here to do. There's also a hodgepodge of local organizations and causes I've been able to be involved with on some level - people and groups doing good things for our town.

Still there's been little cohesion. I tend to look at things from the big picture. Our place in the world is to participate in the good God is doing around us - to live into "the Kingdom" - this crazy new way of living that Jesus introduced and that continues to emerge. I want to live a lifestyle that exemplifies some of the core foundations of that Kingdom - the dignity and value of all people for their own sake; radical love, compassion, and forgiveness; reconciliation and peace-building. I really do believe we have to get along with one another - not because we really need to do it, although we do, but because the whole of eternity is us, all of us, living together in love. It's an eternity I think we need to practice now.

That beings said, some things are really missing from my life.

I haven't had friends - real, deep, hang out on a regular basis and completely relax around friends - in a long time. I have a lot of people I know pretty well, people I like and whose company I enjoy - good neighbors who are becoming friends more and more each day - but it's difficult to move beyond the superficial to the real in those relationships and I'm terrible at it to begin with. I never know quite how to read a friendship and say what's appropriate at the right times - I also (despite my plethora of pronouncements and opinions) have a pretty dim view of myself as a person. I need affirmation more often than you'd expect and I just don't often feel I have much to offer in terms of friendship that people really want.

I am not all that down on my life. I really believe in why we're here in Middletown. I love my family and I enjoy most of every day. Yes, I am an extreme introvert and I could probably get along just fine holed up in the house all day every day scouring the internet for more and more information (random and otherwise). Technically, I could live a rather contented life that way.

The problem is that Kingdom impulse again. I do have this innate belief that life is more than just contentment, more than just getting by. I firmly believe we're meant for something. Life has purpose.

I've been recognizing lately (and especially today) that all the proper intellectual commitments in the world mean nothing if they're not being lived out amongst friends. It is in the cauldron of relationships that life happens - in the midst of our messiness and insecurities and awkwardness and inadequacies that we really do live out whatever it is we believe.

I am a pastor a minister and so "ministry" is sort of what I'm supposed to do. There are a lot of perspectives on what that means, but usually it entails doing some series of actions for a specific purpose - preaching or praying or serving or singing (usually among friends, but directed towards strangers) for the purpose of making more Christians.

I'll be honest. I'm not really in the mood to talk about God or life with people I'm not friends with. By that I mean the longer I live and the more I think about it, I'm tired of talking about important things with people I barely know. When that happens, the things we know, the opinions we form, the subjects of our conversations become the central element of the relationship, rather than the relationship itself. The way we view and care for one another should be paramount. Watching out for each other, welcoming each other, supporting each other despite our failures and disagreements - that should be the baseline, bedrock foundation of not just relationships, but life itself.

To me that's "ministry." It's really just life: treating the people around you like family. It means making sure your friends know they're your friends, no matter how crazy they turn out to be (and hoping that commitment works both ways).

So, for those who live near me - those people in my life on an almost daily basis - if you're still reading this far into the post, take this as an invitation to be as real as you want to be (or even more real than that). I need people in my life to talk about big things with - life and love and pain and fear and God and depression and whatever - and I'm not always the best at starting conversations.

I'd love to have regular (not necessarily scheduled) time to sit down and talk with people who want to talk about real things, important things. I need that to stay sane. I really do.

I also need people who like playing RISK or Trivial Pursuit or all those other games that take hours to play and normal people despise. And people who are equally excited about the World Cup or the Winter Olympics or any of the other odd sports I happen to like. And just for the record, those don't all have to be the same people.

Above all I need people who will prioritize relationship - see me as me and not a conglomeration of my actions, thoughts, and ideas. I'll do my absolute best to do the same for you.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

One Light Still Shines by Marie Monville

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. My integrity is not for sale. Those who know me well are aware I would relish the chance to give a bad review in exchange for a free book. If I've failed to do so, it has nothing to do with the source of the material and only with the material itself.

Although she might dislike the characterization, this book is most easily described as the memoir of the wife of the Amish schoolhouse shooting. In reality, it is the compelling narrative of the forced maturation of a young woman in the midst of tragedy. The fact that national attention-capturing tragedy is the catalyst for this transformation is really tangential to the ultimate story, but also the reason it was published in the first place.

The first half of the book is "before" - the tragedy and immediate aftermath through the funeral; the second half is "after" - the process of a family's healing and ultimately the formation of a new family as the author, Marie Monville remarries seven months after her husband's death.

The book wisely and realistically does not dwell on the shooter, Charlie Roberts. His actions, taking hostage and eventually killing a number of young Amish girls in 2006, are so discordant from the man his family knew, there really is no point in dwelling on the why. As the mother of three young kids, Monville is more consumed with coping with he loss of a husband and father.

The depth of loss, grief, and forgiveness are poignant and moving. The narrative starts off with big words and verbose descriptions that sound a bit too professional. Maybe Monville writes this way (this well), but the ghostwriter on the front probably indicates otherwise. Still, the prose is pretty genuine and you get over the polish of it pretty quickly.

A ghostwriter provides a mediated reality. While there is a compelling narrative of personal transformation, the book (any book) creates a character. While the character is expressing the author's views, they are expressed through someone else's perspective. This particular book is hyper-focused on a narrative of hope, that God is faithful in all situations. I would personally be interested in some of the other narratives that run through such a compelling story. I wonder what we're missing.

None of that lessens the value and impact of the book, however, which is a truly powerful story of faith and growth. Monville uses a lot of insider language, things that will make sense to Zondervan's largely evangelical audience, but language that will likely put a barrier between the story and readers who may be coming to the book not for a spiritual treatise, but because of her connection to the Amish shooting and who could potentially benefit from its testimony.

While I've never read any Christian Romance novels, I suspect the second half of the book may look pretty similar. The story of her whirlwind second romance is presented believably, but the choice of words is probably not most effective for a broad audience. Throughout the book the prose can be exhaustive and as a pastor, I have some serious questions about the lengths she goes to explain away her husband's tragedy, still, it's a powerfully candid book from a rare and unique perspective. That value is well worth the extra hundred pages for those interested in ways people face and process difficult situations.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the® book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Judgment and Justice

I was reading a passage of scripture the other day - one of those places where Jesus talks about judgment - you know, separating the good and the bad at the end of the age. Heaven and Hell stuff, for a lack of some better terms.

These passages often terrify and/or anger people. I'll admit I'm still occasionally scared that I won't measure up to God's sense of justice, which is, I suppose, a cut above being constantly scared, so I've got that going for me, which is nice. We always seem to be our toughest critic. I know I beat myself up for not living up to this ideal I've got planted in my head. Yeah, I'm not as terrible as some people, but I'm pretty pathetic most of the time. Sometimes it's tough to think God's going to see me and think, "this is what I'm looking for."

Of course, when I think like that, I'm substituting my own sense of what God's justice should be for what God's justice actually is. We're scared or angry with the concept of judgment because we just assume God is going to get it wrong. We might not think that consciously, but we're so accustomed to what passes for "justice" in the world around us, we just assume justice is not all that close to just. We've seen how tough it is to apply a strict set of expectations across the board without getting someone unfairly convicted. These experiences really throw off our perception of God.

In the end, though, God is going to get it right. That's what justice means. Just because what appears to be justice in our world is often wrong or corrupt or unfair, does not mean "justice" in general behaves that way. It's a bit of a nebulous concept and there's some measure of circular logic involved: God will get judgment right... why... because God is the kind of person who gets judgment right.

That's just how it work, though, at least in the intellectual exercise of predicting the future. I'm not sure of the details, of course, but I suspect real judgment and real justice are more about relationship than rules and laws. We humans have this innate desire to treat everyone as if we're all the same. The same crimes deserve the same punishments, every kid gets the same education, every person in the same job deserves the same pay. That kind of thing.

We're all different, though. And while we humans may not be able to appreciate the full nuances of our fellow human beings, I suspect God will. In the end, I don't believe anyone will have any problems with where they end up.* People who don't end up in heaven will really not want to be there.

That's not to say hell is an enjoyable place, but I suspect the misery of heaven could be worse than the misery of hell, to the right kind of person anyway.

It's not just paradise vs punishment after all. That stuff comes from popular religion, weak generalizations, and our tendency to make our theology reflect our culture and not the other way around. If you read scripture closely, heaven is not "whatever you love best in the world," it's not a self-indulgent, individualized Utopia. It's just not like that.

I'm not sure exactly what it is like. I'm not someone from one reality can fully appreciate another. Between here and now, something changes. I can make a lot of guesses, but they won't really get us anywhere. Whatever happens, it's going to be what we deserve and we're all going to be ok with that. I imagine, in some form, our future is going to be an extension of our present. That's why it seems pretty imperative to get our present right.

There's a lot of be said about what exactly those options are - heaven, new creation, hell, annihilation, etc - but for the purposes here we're going to say heaven and hell in the classical sense.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

The Wasted Seed

So I've been trying to put some semblance of order back into my life lately (it's gotten a bit discombobulated). Most mornings I've been picking out a few of the Daily Office passages and taking some time to rest and relax before embarking on the business of the day. As a result, you might actually get a few more calm, devotional-type posts here once in a while.

Last week sometime I was reading Jesus' parable of the sower and the seeds. The narrative is of a sower, scattering seed; it falls among rocks, thorns, packed ground, and actual good, tilled soil. When you get towards the end, Jesus explains what it means to those who really want to know.

For most of my life I've been shaped by the evangelical church in the US. It tends to emphasize spiritual success. Make converts, sin less, be good, do better. This particular parable is usually a cautionary tale in the way I've been formed. Most of the seed ends up wasted. Birds come and get it, it withers from weak roots, the weeds choke it out. Don't be like that bad soil. Be the good soil. Grow. Make more Christians. Be fruitful. Produce!

It's sort of depressing, honestly.

Anyway, I sort of had a realization last week. God doesn't waste seed. There may be some theological streams that tell you some people are destined to fail - that God throws seed their direction, but knows nothing will come of it. I just don't believe that. God doesn't waste seed.

I mean, it's not like soil gets to choose where it sits. There's nothing dirt can do to make itself more amenable to growing things. It's just dirt. (Any good Biblical scholars among you will be recognizing the connection here about now, if you have not already. If you still have not - look here - that is all the help you get.)

I'm going to out on a limb here and say most of the people I know, most of the Christians I know, if they're really honest and look at their lives, it's tough to claim they're producing a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown. That's miraculous numbers. If I'm gardening, I would be ecstatic if my crop produced double. That would be a dream come true. As far as biology goes, I think most seeds generally produce what was sown. If you're lucky you get one plant from one seed. Very rarely do you see a hundred plants growing from one seed. I'm not even sure where there would be room for all of them.

Regardless, I'm not that soil. The one that gets the good seed. That's not me. I have a sneaking suspicion it's not you either. The seeds on the rocky soil, the path, and among the weeds, the wasted seed - that's me. That's my kind of soil.

I'm the seed that gets stolen away. The seed so distracted by my own junk, I fail to see hurting people around me. My seed is careless and thoughtless and obtuse a lot of the time. I fold under persecution and I give up when things get too tough. My seed is filled often times with doubt that any seed, any soil is really good deep down. Sometimes I'm not sure anything will ever grow anywhere at all. My seed is envious of everything that looks better, smarter, easier, more successful than me.

I live my life among the wasted seed.

But God doesn't waste seed. If it's falling in my direction, it's doing so for a purpose. I feel a bit daft for seeing this parable as bad news. The only people for whom Jesus has bad news are the ones who are already convinced they're the good soil. The bad soil is still getting seed - and getting a lot of it. The sower keeps sowing where there's little chance of growth.

If there's one thing I know about the Kingdom of God, it's that things in the Kingdom don't quite work the way they seem to work in the rest of the world. That term itself is loaded, but essentially the Kingdom of God refers to those places where things work as God desires them to work, where justice is done, peace reigns, and people are loved and respected not for what they do, but just because they're people. The Kingdom of God is a place where love wins.

In this rambling parable of an analogy, the seed is the Kingdom. We may not always see it breaking through all the time - it only hits the good soil once in a while - but it keeps coming. And instead of the bad soil corrupting the seed, keeping it from becoming all it can be, well the Kingdom seed works the other way around. The seed makes the soil better.

Yes, there are times when I fail, when I forget and reject and refuse to follow the Kingdom way of love. There are times when the world beats me down. Or my lack of discipline holds me back. Or the demons in my life rear their ugly heads. But those seeds I waste, they're not the only seeds I'm going to get. The love keeps coming. The Kingdom continues to break through. And, believe it or not, those seeds are changing me. Very likely - no, absolutely, the Kingdom is coming in me in ways I just can't see. I suspect it will continue to do so, so long as I still care enough to worry about it.

You see, God doesn't waste seed. There's nothing the soil can do to make itself better. It's just dirt. It's the sower who comes along and works the ground and spreads the seed. It is love that makes something beautiful out of our lives.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013


(Um... I'm allowed to use this picture, right? Seeing as how I have no strong feelings for or against the President? I think it's a funny picture and I appreciate the satire, whether intended or not. I promise.)

So, as I've said many times, I'm no fan or opponent of this particular law. Like any piece of legislation (especially one that never went through a conference committee) it's a jumbled mess. What I am in favor of is the idea that everyone deserves health care at least as good as I expect for my family.

All along I assumed this plan was going to be intentionally unwieldy so that eventually there would be no real political choice but moving to a single payer system. A single payer system has proven, time and again, to be the single most effective, cost efficient means of providing health care around the world.

It is also decidedly unAmerican, especially if you cling to the traditional definition of American, which may or may not come sans its initial 'A.'

Since this whole debate began and I've had a chance to read up on it heavily, I've come to realize that there are likely any number of unique, original systems by which the US can keep its love of choice and competition, yet also provide quality basic care to everyone.

TIME Magazine devoted an entire issue to one such option - having the government 'negotiate' prices the way they do with medicare, but allowing insurance companies to compete for business (essentially competing for lowest overhead). This story proves, contrary to popular perception, that Medicare is both the most effective and efficient delivery system in the US (largely due to the volume of care it provides) and that doctors, as much as they complain about medicare patients and threaten to stop seeing them, almost never do (I believe 97% of doctors accept medicare).

There are other options, but their elucidation is for another time and place - since the Affordable Care Act (ACA, Obamacare) doesn't actually address healthcare directly, but only provides insurance.

We can get the problems out of the way up top. First is that whole insurance business. The ACA essentially directs an extra 50 some odd million people into an industry where their presence will do little, if anything to stop the disproportionate rise in costs. Yes, volume will keep costs lower for a time, but the underlying problem of cost inflation remains. Unless the actual cost of care is addressed, it's still kicking the can down the road.

Second, the notion that the government has any say over what plans are offered and which doctors accept which insurance is bunk and sort of mean spirited. Technically, when the President said you can keep your doctor, he was telling the truth. What he didn't mention was that your doctor might not want to keep you. I'm sure its nothing personal, but... you know... these things happen. Likely they have issues with your insurance company, which is not all that difficult to understand. In any event, the President doesn't make decisions for your doctor and he shouldn't have implied he could.

The notion that everyone can keep their plan was also pretty close to an outright lie. The ACA does grandfather in any plan in existence when the law passed. Technically, anyone could keep their plan. However, insurance companies are free to remove plans and make people switch. They do it all the time, law or no law. In this case, moving people to more expensive plans with greater coverage (even if often it costs people less, due to subsidies) makes them more money - and we all know how insurance companies make decisions; it's not about what's best for the customer, but what's best for the bottom line. (That's the main reason I'm in favor of a non-profit health system; it's not perfect, but at least my health isn't taking a back seat to money).

Still, even if the government didn't expect all those grandfathered plans to be dropped right away, for about 3 million people, there is and was a 100% absolute inevitability of having to switch plans - if not this year, then next. The ACA includes a minimum coverage requirement, and the whole idea of "grandfathering" anything means you expect it to eventually go away. They could have been more up front about these realities, but then, of course, there was a chance the bill wouldn't pass. I haven't read the fine print in one of those termination letters, but I imagine the insurance companies aren't going out of their way to vindicate the President and take blame on themselves either.

It's a messy system.

It's easy enough to argue that people on these cheap, bare-cones plans were either taking a huge risk or throwing money away on policies that would have bankrupted them anyway if they had a medical emergency - but the truth is, they weren't told anything clearly up front and this comes as a surprise to most simply because no one was willing to name the hard truth openly and honestly. That is not fair.

Now to provide a little context:

150 million Americans have insurance provided by an employer of some kind, about 50% of the population. An additional 100 million are on either medicare (for those over 65) or medicaid (for those with very little money). There are about 45 million people with no insurance at all, which leaves roughly (and these are very rough numbers) about 15-20 million people buying insurance individually.

It is this last cohort who is really the focus of the ACA. This number may grow a small amount with some very small businesses ending health coverage as a benefit (although businesses with less than 25 employees can get pretty generous tax credits - 35% the first year, 50% afterwards - for continuing to offer coverage). The vast majority of Americans will see no change.

For those 15-20 million people, though, things will get a little dicey. The fact that 45 million other people without insurance may now have access to it, while important in the grand scheme of things, is no comfort to those undergoing upheaval.

In the end, older people (those in the few years before medicare eligibility) are going to come out pretty solid in the process. The ACA limits their premium costs to three times those of healthy 26 year olds (that's way less than most of these people are paying now). The cost for those 26 year olds will be going up. However, most of them have never had insurance anyway, so they don't realize they could have been getting it cheaper all along. The people (and especially families) in the middle, will likely be paying more.

The subsidies will help in some areas (families making under $25,000 a year likely won't pay anything at all), and help less in others (target expenses as a percentage of income are not fixed rules, so some people are just going to be exceptions and pay above 9.5% of their income).

In the end, more people will be covered for more things - and the speculation about outcomes (both positive and negative) is really just speculation until things begin to hash themselves out. I'd imagine 2015 is really when we can start to take stock of what's right and wrong with the ACA.

Yes, people will complain about health coverage. Some might even wish for their previous plan. Although, I think it's a near-universal maxim: "If you're happy with your health insurance, you're probably not using it very much."

The cost side of things is still perilous. As I said, I've been pretty skeptical that this plan was even intended to work out fiscally, let alone could meet projections. There are problems - like states with only one or two insurers entering the marketplace and large insurers avoiding them altogether - but initial premiums are coming in, on average, 16% below what even the White House predicted in selling the bill. That gives me pause to at least see where things are going.

There's also a real possibility for improvement. Assuming some section of the GOP embraces pragmatism in the next couple years, there might be space for reform - to eliminate the obvious problems (like 80 year old single men having pregnancy coverage)* and address future issues (like the aforementioned cost issues).

As for my personal views, well, here is a comment I posted on a friend's Facebook status during the gov't shutdown. I think that sums it up pretty well:

First, I don't support Obamacare, necessarily. I don't think it's effective or efficient, but I'd prefer moving forward and fixing it, rather that starting over. Already, we're seeing the cost on insurance for people on these exchanges much lower than even the Democrats predicted (16% lower, on average). A lot of my neighbors are getting heath insurance for the first time. There're a lot of problems, for sure, but we won't really know what they are until it's implemented. Second, Congress isn't exempted, like everyone else who has insurance provided by their employers, they don't have to change anything because of it - my family and I fall into the same boat. This is a sneaky trick of the tongue opponents are using to make them seem hypocritical. In fact, no one whose employer covers health care (something like 50% of households in the country) is impacted by this (unless their employer stops providing health care altogether). Now, employers stopping health care altogether is why they've delayed implementation for some. I think that's cowardly and wrong. Some huge corporations have made this work already; I'm not sure why the others can't - mostly it's just greed. Home Depot is moving most of their workers to 29 hours a week so they'll never have to comply. This is one of the problems with the law - there's not really a good way to balance public and private funding of healthcare, especially for low-wage workers. Essentially handing free business to insurance companies, which is the foundation of the ACA, is a terrible idea, in my estimation; I'd frankly love to see alternatives proposed, yet the GOP leadership (definitely separate from the GOP itself) refuses to do anything, but look backward. Moderate Republicans in the House have worked on bills that could get majority support (with the help of Moderate Democrats), but Boehner and company won't let them come to the floor because the Conservative wing of the party dominates. They're preventing compromise by making demands the majority of the Congress doesn't agree with. I think the GOP has a really unique place to play in making healthcare work in this country, but the members who really care about improving things are being drowned out by obstructionists.

Two final thoughts:

The failure of the ACA website is embarrassing and shameful. Even for those who can separate the law from its implementation, it is a disaster. The Medicare Part D prescription drug plan rolled out during the second Bush administration is a nearly identical system. Yes, there is a difference between a system run and accessed by gov't and insurance company employees exclusively (as in Part D) from one accessed by the public (the ACA), but not enough difference that you can't learn from past mistakes. You've pretty much lost the argument forever with those people who don't trust the government to "manage healthcare." Even though there's really no management of healthcare involved in the ACA, you have to admit, screwing up a website does not bode well for the future - maybe you can get away with it in 1998, but not in 2013.

Lastly, to those small business owners who are stopping health coverage and NOT giving employees the money you've been spending on their healthcare to help offset their new coverage:

(I'm just clenching my jaw and shaking my head; I really have no idea what to say to you people. For shame! There may be every reason to stop offering coverage, using it as an excuse to cut labor costs is downright cold-hearted.)

To sum it all up: I'm glad more people are getting coverage. I am sorry some people are overwhelmed by the changes. I hope they improve this over time. My family is blessed to pay very little for very good insurance, but I'd gladly pay more if it meant other people could have better care.

*I get the outrage at mandatory pregnancy coverage. For a while I was on an individual plan that was very cheap precisely because I didn't need pregnancy coverage - my plan was about a fourth the cost of a similar one for females. This mandate was clearly a way to keep government costs down. By including everyone in the burden of paying for pregnancies, the costs are spread equally to everyone - those getting the subsidies and those not, but the women most likely to get pregnant are disproportionately getting subsidies, so this move saves the government money.

I've also wondered why my staunchly pro-life evangelical friends are so upset by this. Covering everyone for pregnancy means that there will be fewer abortions. That's just cold, hard facts. Any woman who had cost as a consideration will no longer have that consideration. I consider it good news - and something I'm willing to pay extra to support.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Good News in Perspective

I was reading through this great book recently - One in Christ - you might have heard of it. One of the chapters recounts the biblical story of Cornelius from Acts 10. Cornelius is a soldier in the Roman Army - representative of the invading, occupying force. He was also a God-fearer. Jews made some concessions of hospitality to those non-Jews who lived devout lives, but in the end, Cornelius could never be fully incorporated into God's people. Despite his actions and his convictions, there was little, if any, hope for Cornelius to ever be "in."

Having grown up in the Church, trained at seminary, and working as a pastor, I've got a real insider perspective on things. I see the faults of the Church far more often and easily than I see the benefits - I take the benefits for granted.

This treatment of Cornelius helped me recover the radical Good News of the gospel. Gospel literally means Good News - and what Paul has to say to Cornelius is life changing, fog-dissolving, depression suppressing news. This guy who could never, ever be "in," could, in Christ, be "in." And not just as a convert or a latecomer, a step-child, but accepted and included as a full member in God's people with as much right and privilege as anyone else.

That is radically good news.

I often lose the reality of that gospel in the very real criticism that "Christians just want to tell me what to do," because, let's face it, we do. A lot. We're infatuated with telling people what to do, especially people who've never even asked for advice.

I wonder if the "insiders" forget what it's like to be outside, feel out of place, unloved, lost, or alone. That probably means we're spending too much time with insiders.

I tend to cringe when people talk about Jesus - not because I have any problem with Jesus, of course I don't. I suppose I've just seen the Church get it wrong more than we get it right. I often assume the worst because very rarely do the words we say sound like good news.

Perhaps we get caught up in trying to explain something that can only be experienced. People have lived through too many empty "I love yous" to put much stalk in even earnest talk.

Peter had to travel a distance to get to Cornelius. He had to walk into the home of a Roman soldier, a non-Jew. He ate and talked and laughed with his family. The good news was only good news because it was consistent with experience.

Perhaps we just do away with this insider-outsider nonsense and just love people like they're worth loving - just because they're people.

I suspect being loved without condition is exceptionally good news.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Sacred Cows or How to Wipe Your Bum

"Those cows aren't sacred; they're just in the way!"

The quote above is a line from a song by the band Caedmon's Call, it reflects a story they heard in India, about a man trying to talk some sense into his neighbors. I think it may have some wider implications.

Do you ever wonder why we do some of the things we do? There are a lot of very important things in our lives that are so important mostly because of their own importance. Either because we're so familiar with traditions they provide genuine comfort or because they've been passed down from generation to generation so often it's hefty longevity has taken on substance of its own. In any event, it's not difficult for us to emphasize the importance of an idea, event, action, or memory that the actual reasoning behind it becomes overshadowed or lost.

One of my vivid early childhood memories is how much emphasis my mother put on teaching me to wipe only from front to back when I was learning to use the bathroom. I don't recall any given reasoning other than "that's just the way you do it" and "it's very important. I feel like the emphasis on its importance far outweighed any semblance of actual importance to me at the time. I suspect that incongruity is exactly why the memory itself is so strongly imprinted in my mind.

I had that memory filed in the back of my head as, more or less, an oddity until our daughter was born last year and I was given similar instructions for changing her diaper - with a similar level of import. I asked why and suddenly it all clicked into place. I suspect my mother was just passing down an iron rule she learned from her mother, and so on, probably for generations - without realizing or thinking about the difference in biology that makes it more important for females than it has been for me.

The rule had become detached from its original purposes, while retaining it's serious importance. There are a lot of sacred cows in our lives. I wonder how often we pamper them until they wither and die of old age when all along they were meant to be fattened up for slaughter.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Optimism of Grace

A couple weeks ago, I was privileged to hear Sister Helen Prejean speak nearby. Her book, Dead Man Walking, was the subject of a movie by the same name and recounts her experience as spiritual adviser to a death row inmate in Louisiana. She has dedicated her life to eliminating the death penalty around the world. She was in Delaware supporting our effort to repeal the death penalty (and we're very close).

Sisten Helen was humorous and serious. She's dedicated significant time to victims' families and in the midst of communities that produce disproportionate amount of death row inmates. I don't need to recount the night here. She speaks often and my twitter feed from the night is quite thorough (Oct 9).

There was talk about the psychological, spiritual, economic, and social ramifications of capital punishment, but in the end, the night was not about death, it was about love and forgiveness. Helen Prejean's journey has been one of downward mobility in imitation of Jesus. She moved from a comfortable suburban existence to life as a nun in urban New Orleans. She was teaching school to poor children when someone asked her to write to a prisoner.

In the end, she said, "Forgiveness is not allowing the love inside you to be overcome with hate, or else you have become what you hate," a lesson taught to her by a man whose only child was raped and murdered by the man she went with to the death chamber.

My takeaway from the evening was essentially, "No wonder the Pope is optimistic - he gets to meet people like Sister Helen everyday." Yeah, the Catholic Church has a lot of issues. They have been irresponsible and obstinate in a lot of ways. The Pope has his work cut out for him. But as many issues as exist, he still spends most of his day meeting people like Sister Helen, ordinary catholics sharing love and peace with the world around them.

You can't be anything but excited around Sister Helen. She has a way with words, a way with people that transforms the deep tragedy of death into warmth and love. I believe that is what the gospel is all about.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Because I Said So!

Contrary to popular opinion, baseball is not a game of tradition. The game itself has always and continues to evolve. Baseball looks very different from its earliest connotations, perhaps less different than other sports, but different nonetheless. Tradition, in baseball, however, is all in how the game is experienced, the unwritten rules for both players and fans.

Bud Selig, an old used car salesman and mediocre-at-best baseball commissioner announced his impending retirement lately, which means America's oldest team sport is in the market for a new leader. Those media pundits who still care have been talking deeply about what kind of leader baseball needs - specifically someone with media and marketing savvy, because baseball has lost most fans under the age of 40. It's an aging population.

I'm going to suggest the problem is not with the game itself, but with the tradition surrounding the game. Those young fans Major League Baseball so desperately wants are of a generation that won't tolerate empty tradition.

By empty tradition, I mean, essentially, "I told you so." Rules without reason. Baseball has a lot of rules. The Official Rules of Baseball is a thick book for what it is. Beyond the official rules are innumerably more unwritten rules - the tradition of baseball.

Dodgers rookie and Cuban defector Yasiel Puig caught flack from "baseball people" recently for celebrating a bit too boisterously after hitting a game winning hit in the playoffs (his first ever playoff hit, by the way). His crime? Flipping his bat towards the dugout instead of calmly setting it down as he ran. Puig knows the unwritten rules - you don't grow up in Cuba playing baseball and not know 1950's on-field decorum. Puig thought his ball was a Home Run, and such celebrations are more acceptable today, since the ball is no longer in play. I doubt he would have reacted so forcefully if he knew he had to run. In his defense, the outfielder thought it was a Home Run as well - he was so out of position, the surprised Puig still ended up with a triple.

So why don't you celebrate a big hit that way? Or a strikeout or a stolen base? You just don't. That's not how baseball is played. The next generation of fans (and players - participation in baseball in high school and college is at an all time low in the US) are asking why not - and no one has an answer.

Because I said so.

It doesn't work in the Church. It doesn't work with God. It doesn't work in baseball. The next generation (and they're, we're not all just kids anymore) think different, understands different, act different, are different.

As a pastor, there was an awkward moment when I told a parishioner, quite honestly, that, "because God said so," just isn't a good enough reason for me to do anything. I don't believe life is a mystery to anyone but the willfully ignorant. No one should be acting without reason and people should expect as much from themselves.

Obviously, I've exposed the metaphor at this point, but back to baseball. People always say, "Baseball is a game of tradition," but that's bunk. Baseball as narrowly defined by people who love tradition is about tradition. I'll admit, I am one of those people. I first became infatuated with baseball because of the tradition - the heroes the records, the obsession with statistics.

But we have to remember, the condescending way baseball purists talk today about the designated hitter or advanced metrics is the same way baseball purists talked 100 years ago about wussy players who decided catching a laser-quick, rock-hard leather ball was easier with a glove.

Baseball is a game of innovation. In no other sports are whole positions created on the fly - you ask Babe Ruth what a closer is and you'll likely hear some disgusting sexual position (although, to be fair, that might be Babe's answer to "How 'bout this weather?" too.

What doesn't change are baseball fans. Because they just won't allow it. Baseball, like all sports, began as a challenge to players and as entertainment for spectators. Somewhere along the line it became this unique thing. Baseball. Imbued with deep meaning for national identity and a 1950's nostalgia that falls short of reality.

For baseball to have any meaning (and by this point, we should be ready to substitute "life" or "faith" or any number of other important institutionalized concepts here), it has to mean something for the people watching it. Yes, we could go back to the way baseball was and it would regain much of it's value. The only problem is, that identity and value are inextricably linked to the context in which they existed. You can't have "BASEBALL" in this day and age because we're in THIS day and age.

BASEBALL is just going to be baseball. FAITH is just going to be faith. LIFE is just going to be life. That doesn't mean they aren't important, it just means they need to reflect the realities on the world in which they inhabit or they're not going to inhabit any world at all.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Sin and Redemption (and maybe evolution)

So, over the last couple of weeks I've had good conversations with a few friends about the implications of evolution on traditional Christian understandings of sin. My beginning on this course had nothing really to do with evolution, but I wound up there quite by accident when I found it dovetailed with my explorations of sin, especially original sin and redemption. I just finished a paper for a Seminary course I took on the Theology of Creation. It's a doozy (over 4,000 words), but I suspect a few of you might appreciate it. It's sort of an expansion on some of the ideas I touched upon in my Nazarenes Exploring Evolution essay. I was hoping this could be a summary of my study, but I fear it is merely a starting point.

Happy Reading!

Sin and Redemption: An Exploration of the yetser hara in the Past, Present, and Future of Creation

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Pleasant Pornography

The saga of Miley Cyrus has been fascinating to me. It is, of course, a tragic story. But the real tragedy is just how common it is. Not everyone has their life played out in front of the cameras, nor do many young people experience the extremes Cyrus has in her life. She is, however, a prime example of the ways in which our culture tries to define and compartmentalize people.

She literally grew up in "the business," her dad doing music and tv and touring. Producers and PR reps have been as much a part of her life as teachers or neighbors. At eleven, she started doing a TV show, Hannah Montana, where she played a kid rock star with a double life. It's the ultimate image of the real American Dream: money, fame, popularity, and a normal life to boot.

From the very beginning she's been steeped in this idea that who you are has very little to do with who you are, or even what you do or believe, but it has everything to do with what you project - your brand. The problem is, when you grow up in such an environment, there is nothing for you to be except that brand.

A week ago, she gave an interview with Matt Lauer on NBC, where she talked about sex and aging and wanting to get in all her partying while she's young "because once you hit 40, people stop having sex." Beyond the simple equation of sex and fun, it belies a troubling lack of self-understanding, and a real tenuous grip on reality. A tenuous grip on reality is not exactly something new for celebrities, but few embrace it so openly, naively and honestly.

I read an article once, by a Hollywood type who at first expressed his outrage that Cyrus (at the time, something like 15) was dating a 20 year old model. He said his mind was changed when he met her, explaining that a 15 year old kid who's spent that much time in the business is forced to grow up differently - they have so much to deal with and face that "normal" kids her own age couldn't even begin to understand. You're sort of a grown up, when you're not really a grown up. (People of my generation: think MacCauley Culkin.) There is so much "business" inside these kids that there's no room for normal personal development. They just don't know who they are - and you really can't blame them.

People became outraged at Cyrus' sexual breakout, during the hideous MTV music awards performance recently. I wrote a little bit about that incident earlier. A large part of the outrage centered around the sexualization of an innocent Disney Channel star - that someone who provided a wholesome role model for kids was now doing exactly the opposite.

Recently, Sinead O'Connor released an open letter to Miley Cyrus, imploring her to stop allowing herself to be prostituted by the music industry. It's naive to think this sexual explosion has nothing to do with Cyrus herself. For a girl who never really had a childhood, let alone an identity of her own, this seems a natural expression of the stage of life she's in. Again, her case is extreme to the extreme, but I am not sure it's all that uncommon. At the same time, O'Connor is completely correct. The music industry cares about making money - and sex sells and there will always be another decent singer with a pretty face they can exploit.

Pornography (I promise the title is not just eye catching) is insidious not because of the way it thumbs it's nose at our collective sexual mores, the trouble comes in its dehumanization of people. This dehumanization is exactly what Sinead O'Conner was warning about. It's very easy for us - and so much easier for celebrities - to trade our human worth for money or fame or success or whatever seems worthy at the moment.

What I think we fail to recognize is that Cyrus' Hannah Montana period is just as pornographic as her current incarnation. Yes, it better fits our expectations of decorum and propriety, but it's just as dehumanizing.

For all the pleasant Hannah Montana narratives - that Cyrus was allowed to grow up in the lush countryside of Kentucky or Tennessee or wherever it was, and be shielded from the trappings of her very real celebrity: that she's a real life Hannah Montana (they even gave Hannah's alter ego the name Miley, as if to confuse young fans and their young star alike as to the boundaries of reality) - this is not a normal or an easy life. No one has a life like that.

I can barely remember being eleven. I have memories, sure, but they are so far removed from who I am now that it's almost impossible to relate to myself as a child. I think most people are this way. Who you are is developed in your teens and twenties. Miley Cyrus has never been able to be herself.

We often criticize people because we expect them to "know how to behave," and that they're choosing to do something different - that it's some sort of willful rebellion. I suspect Miley Cyrus is in the middle of willful rebellion, except the place she's come from and the place she wound up are just opposite sides of the same coin.

No one is normal - and the notion that normal exists is really just a pleasant pornography we use to escape the realities of our own lives - it's just a bit more sanitary and far more socially acceptable than watching sex.

The solution isn't changing your image or your habits or your life - it's recognizing that emptiness is, in many ways, just part of life. We only find true comfort when we discover people who affirm and value us for the messed up weirdos we all are. It's coming together in embrace of the truly un-normal, un-cool, un-spectacular reality of us that we can discover some foundation on which to build a life.

I hope Miley Cyrus gets there some day, I just hope it is because of and not in spite of our collective reaction to her.