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.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Setting God Free

I have the real privileged to be invited to participate in a cool initiative called "Nazarenes Exploring Evolution," an attempt from members of my tribe, the Church of the Nazarene, to enter into respectful, personal discussions about creation and its implications for faith. The project will culminate in a book of essays and a conference next January for continued dialogue.

My essay talks a little about both my life journey and my theological journey to this point. It is an evolving position and something I've been working to continue to develop recently through my work in the NTS class "Theology of Creation," which I am finishing up now. Stay tuned.

In the meantime: Check out my essay here. I know the post went up last Thursday, but I already had something posted last Thursday and I like to keep my schedule.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013


The Speaker of the House of Representative is more than just the leader of the majority party, this office controls committee appointments and, more importantly, the legislative schedule. Nothing comes up for a vote without the permission and approval of the Speaker of the House.

Since Newt Gingrich, Republican Speakers have used an unofficial "rule" whereby no bill comes up for a vote unless a majority of the GOP is in favor. This rule, called the Hastert Rule (named inexplicably for Dennis Hastert, Gingrich's successor as Speaker and the guy who broke the rule most often - and not to be confused with Dennis Haysbert, noted worshiper of the god Jobu), is entirely responsible for the current Government Shutdown.

Yup, that's right. It's not about health care. Yeah, the GOP hates Obamacare and they'd love to repeal it or defund it or delay it - although the spending bills being held up right now have nothing to do with any of those things. Adding such a repeal to the bill is akin to adding an extra ten bucks to your mortgage payment and asking them to deliver a pizza.

Of course Congress does stuff like that all the time. Odd as it is, it's become common practice: to put outrageous things people don't care that much about on the same bill as something hugely important. Except, usually they combine stuff together to get it to pass. This time they've bastardized a bill to keep it from passing, all to get leverage for the next spending bill, the debt ceiling, which needs to be passed next week.

It's crazy good politics for sure. There's a sense of foresight and understanding of political realities that the current crop of Democrats could never dream of figuring out. I suspect they'll get a banner deal in exchange for the debt ceiling vote. It's also wildly irresponsible.

This is the perfect example of an "ends justify the means" mentality that I so often excoriate around these parts. Almost a million government employees are going without paychecks for a few weeks just so the GOP can get better leverage to lower spending on projects that have no real contribution to the National Debt.

In the end, we have to remember politics is politics, which means most everything anybody does is for public perception. Welcome to the land of dysfunction: there are no winners here.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Civics 101

Because I have a lot of free time not going to National Parks this week, I've been listening to the radio even more than usual. The other night, I heard an interview with one of the Republican House members who've "reluctantly" forced a partial shutdown of the Federal Government. I was interested to hear what would be said, because obviously no one can admit the real reasons for doing shenanigans like this (cough... greedy lust for power... cough). Pretty early on in the interview he said, "I wasn't sent here to shut the government down, I was sent here to run the government more efficiently."*

With that, I flipped the dial and turned off the radio. That pretty much sums up all the problems right there.

Now I'll be optimistic and say I don't think this US Congressman is under some delusion that it is the job of the legislative branch to run the country (efficiently or otherwise). I'm pretty sure he knows what separation of powers means (although there's this nagging suspicion in the back of my mind that it's just as likely 90% of our elected officials have no idea about anything beyond what their aides give them in a thin manila folder every morning).

What I'll argue instead is that Congress (and by this I mean any Congressperson of any party, not just the particular nincompoops on the hot seat at the moment) banks on two things: 1) most Americans have no understanding at all of Civics and are blissfully ignorant of what their elected officials are supposed to be doing; and 2) that they'll be able to get away with whatever they do get away with simply because anyone charged with holding them accountable is functioning in the same opportunistic manner.

If you recall third grade, or maybe the 8th grade refresher course, the US government has three branches: Legislative, Executive, and Judicial. The Legislative Branch (Congress) is charged with making laws. The Executive Branch is charged with carrying out (executing) those laws, essentially running the government. As bloated as it has become, the entirety of our Government bureaucracy falls under the Executive Branch; the government may make reports to Congress, but it reports to the President.

Congress has already way overstepped the bounds of its authority - passing bills with volumes of notes and directions to essentially tie the hands of the Executive Branch, giving no leeway for practicality or creativity in carrying out the laws. Instead of providing wide boundaries and goals for the functioning of the nation, Congress essentially makes our civil service corps robotic drones, carrying out orders with such specificity I wouldn't be surprised if the font choices on government forms are codified in law.

This is also why the President tends to meddle in the legislative process so much. There's really nothing else for him (and it seems like they've all be "hims" so far - although I have my doubts about a few: I'm looking at you, "James" K Polk!) to do once the laws get passed besides sign them and avoid lusty interns late at night.

This terrible conflation of the intended order came about, inevitably, because people with power want more of it and everyone, it seems, willing to go through the public flogging of an election campaign, wants to be in charge of the world, not just one half of one third of 1/435th of it.

No one trust each other. That's really the crux of most problems in the world. And it feels like the end of the world if someone breaks our trust - so we withhold. (Maybe we need a National Psychologist to manage our collective phobias and foibles?)

On top of this, we have a Judicial system that is decidedly passive. I know that will come as a shock to all those reliably railing against "activist" judges, but our judicial system won't even comment on anything without a suit being brought. They keep quiet unless asked to speak - and even then, they're pretty, well... judicious. In some systems, if the Judiciary, especially the Supreme Court, sees something fishy happening, they'll just speak up and stop it. Here, ours only steps in if someone asks. I'm not even going to comment on which one is better, simply that our system is less than convenient - the one group that could play referee won't (partly because both warring sides are too scared to lose to even ask).

So we find ourselves with a dysfunctional system, lacking accountability of any kind, overrun by moneyed** interests and power-hungry egotists. I'm not sure why anyone is surprised by the follies that come out of DC or why anyone feels the need to defend any of them.

Just remember, the system we have is the best in the world - in the history of the world - it might not be perfect, but it's better than any alternative. In fact, don't even bother researching or experimenting with any alternatives, just take our word for it, this system rocks. Even with all its faults and failures, it's the best we're ever going to get, the pinnacle of human achievement. Seriously. I promise.

*I included the final clause "more efficiently" to accurately quote the man, obviously the focus and heft of the statement is on "running the government."

**Did you know that's how you spelled "moneyed?" Me neither. At least we all learned something from this post today.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Shameless Self-Promotion

So, I wrote a book once - an actual book, published by an actual publishing company. You can see the cover and a link to it along the side of the page. It's a real book. You can own it.

This month, and apparently it's available now on Amazon, another book is coming out. I did not write this one, although I wrote a chapter in it. It has my name and thoughts and stuff included. It is also from a publishing company - a small, relatively young publishing company, but a really good one. If they can recoup the cost of publishing the book, I will make some small sum of money from it.

This post is shameless self-promotion, but of course, I would not have contributed to the book if I didn't think it was a good book. Quite frankly, it's a better book than I anticipated. My chapter is one of the least good parts of it - and my chapter ain't half bad.

The book is called "One in Christ," it focuses on shalom, in short. The subtitle is "Reconciliation, Justice, and Mutuality. Really it is about the Kingdom of God, the reality and future of a world in which people get along with each other, not for any other reason than because we are made to get along with each other.

The book is written in a cool narrative style - each chapter features a dramatic retelling of a passage of scripture, along with several real life narrative examples of a similar theme. The commentary and exposition is at a minimum to emphasis the evolving, relational aspect of life and faith. Hopefully, this technique allows readers to imagine the Kingdom as it is and as it is becoming - and also to imagine ways in which we can all participate and contribute to God's shalom in the world.

Christians believe in resurrection - that means we have to get along with each other, because we're always going to be here. Death is not the end; you can't wait someone out or ignore them. We need each other and we must get along with each other. That takes something special, something beyond our own abilities. We need the grace of God to be different, to be what we were created to be. Scripture helps us discover that grace and, hopefully, this book can help us better discover scripture and our place in the world.