Thursday, February 27, 2014

Challenge or Confirm

I've been excited for the upcoming Noah movie since I first heard about the idea almost two years ago. Darren Aronofsky has been among my favorite directors since I had the shocking pleasure of being utterly confused by Pi (and wondering why the Hassidim were ruthlessly beating a crazy man with a brain tumor - seriously, see that movie, it's nuts!). He's the mind behind Black Swan and the thought of him tackling Noah was/is almost too good to be true.

There's so much to the Noah story that can be explored. It's set well before there is an Israel or even really much defined relationship between humans a God. There's so much history and mythos and speculation about even the reality or extent of the flood. The story crosses cultures (there's a flood story among the ancient tales of Peru, even) and Aronofsky is also a smart, creative, unique mind - raised Jewish and steeped in Hebrew Scripture. Noah's been his favorite biblical character his entire life.

I'm less than impressed by the trailer, but I still have high hopes for this one.

Then, of course, Entertainment Weekly came in the mail. There's a pretty lengthy (for EW)story about the biblically themed movies coming out this Spring (also Son of God and Ridley Scott's Exodus). Much of the article centered around the controversy Aronofsky is sparking among "Christian" moviegoers (whatever that means) and the ways in which movie studios have (successfully or otherwise) attracted Christian viewers.

Everyone's making nice now, but they screened five different cuts of Noah and it sure sounds like Aronofsky is walking the company line. I hope they release the movie he wants to make.

The main objections are the extra-biblical elements that necessarily have to go into a Noah movie. Scripture says scant little about Noah - and the things it says are less than flattering. Aronofsky has to make things up to flesh out the narrative. A lot of Christians don't like this.

I get the perspective that says "the Bible is perfect and if we touch it we're being sacreligeous," even if I don't necessarily agree with it. It's even more complicated with Noah, who exists, essentially, in pre-history. There's a lot of anthropology and history that can be brought to bear - stuff that often challenges the traditional interpretations of Bible life.

"Christian" at the movies seem to like very simple things. They want a story that affirms what they believe - and there is very little demand for quality film-making. I can't begin to tell you how terrible most of the movies that get pitched to churches really are. Awful, unbearable things - that most people I go to church with seem to like just fine. I'll never get that (and it's why I'm scared to death of Son of God).

I want movies that challenge my faith. I want to be exposed to different approaches and perspectives on biblical stories and themes (so long as their done intelligently - looking at you, Ridley, and your rock-star, Christian Bale Moses who might have been "cynical about the idea of an afterlife," - and all the Hebrew scholars groan). I like to challenge my thinking, my perspective. In my view, that's what faith is all about.

A faith that doesn't want to be tested is no faith at all. Maybe that's the real problem with mainstream evangelical culture - perhaps its more participation in a system of belief than any actual faith at all? Do we really lack security of our beliefs to such a degree that we're desperate for any sort of confirmation, even if it's weak and shallow? I sure hope not.

Yesterday, when I was sending out feelers for topics for this post (sorry I didn't actually take any of them), my cousin suggested "why old-school Christians aren't the enemy." I didn't follow up on that because I wasn't sure exactly what he meant by "old school." I'm not sure it's a matter of old-school vs new school, because our preferences always change and we tend to rebel against what's gone before out of sheer novelty. I see "modern" Christians and "traditional" Christians operating in this same mindset with a different kind of window dressing.

I don't see more or less value in modern or traditional or whatever accountrements we use to dress up our faith. I'm primarily concerned with a faith that means something, a faith that has been tested - a faith that is willing to be tested. Whether that hesitancy to question and challenge faith comes in fancy new packaging or entrenched in the "old-school," I hope it gets called out and confronted. Real faith is an unwavering belief that things will work out in the end. Being scared of every movie coming down the chute just doesn't match up.

I could care less if Noah is faithful to the modern, Sunday School version of Noah - with the cartoon animals having a grand old ball on the wooden cruise ship of a hardworking, upstanding citizen - because that version is mostly crap. I'd love for Aronofsky to infuse some cultural elements into the narrative that more appropriately place it in the proper historical context than in our modern-revisionist view of the Bible.

Because, in the end, my faith is stronger than a cinematic expression. It has to be able to stand up this kind of challenge (if indeed there is any challenge at all) or it's not really faith.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Freedom (2014)

I know I've written about this before (and before), but I woke up to more than a few quotes about "freedom" in my Facebook newsfeed - and I have nothing else pressing on my mind (for the first time in months), so here it goes:

Freedom is the right to do what you want.

I have a history degree. There's a lot of civics involved in my education and I know the proper American definition of freedom is the right to do what I want without repercussions. It's the problem we get into as a society, when we make it easy to exercise freedoms that are generally unhelpful or downright bad. I believe there's a not-so-fine line between providing the freedom to act and making it easy. We don't have to defend freedoms that way. But, as I said, I've written about that before.

I've also written that religious freedom is something to be exercised for conscience alone - damn the consequences. If you believe something strongly enough, do it - and don't whine if you're hurt by your choice.

I'm just not sure when shunning or shaming regained traction in our culture. I know they're big other places and I've been to enough 17th century re-enactments on elementary school field trips (remember when elementary school kids got to go on field trips?) to know at some point, people in the US apparently were put into the stocks and had rotten tomatoes thrown at them (on second thought, maybe the educational value of those field trips left something to be desired). I thought, though, that we'd largely banished our shaming to the realm of privacy in this day and age.

It seems as though we're now using religious language to defend a return to public shaming? I suppose it's funny enough when it's a youtube video of some naughty child holding a sandwich board of their sins on the side of a busy intersection, but it's not so funny when you have to defend your moral choices to get a non-fat soy mocha.

The last time I checked, singling one group of people out for special treatment (of the negative variety) is called discrimination. Which is almost the opposite of freedom.

This sort of thing works out really well while it's your own moral position that's being codified. It works out decidedly worse when you become the object of such decisions. I'm not sure every person who celebrates the "right" of an employer to decide which kinds of birth control are covered for their employees would also celebrate an employers right to refuse all coverage except for spiritual healers or ban psychological coverage or refuse to pay for employees to see doctors of the opposite sex - all real and sincere religious beliefs held by employers in the good old, US of A.

The result of these targeted bills is insidious and vile. If you haven't figured it out yet, I'm talking about the attempts at legal discrimination by businesses against homosexuals en masse. If you're going to allow religious objections to trump discrimination laws, please, let it be religious objections in general and not very specific ones. That would ,at least, give some semblance of creedence to the idea this is about religion.

Ultimately, I'm not entirely opposed to a more general moral allowance on business policy (obviously not one singling out a particular group). However, I think the idea of real freedom should apply. Any policy of any business should be posted in big letters on the front door - "we won't serve ________ here," so people can make up their own minds about what kinds of establishments to frequent. At least allow customers the same kind of freedom the business owners want.

In the end, though, I think most of us recognize the ignorance and overreach this kind of thing turns out to be. It might be more blatant in this current incarnation than it has been in others. I don't even know many evangelical Christians who ultimately think this is the right thing to do.

I wish more of them would say so.

We need to get out from under the idea that you'll betray your beliefs about who people should have sex with if you advocate for allowing those same people to buy flowers or get a hamburger. Shaming doesn't work. It never has. It dehumanizes people and it defines them by their actions rather than by their inherent worth as human beings. Yeah, I'd love every person's actions to fall completely in line with my understanding of proper ethics. I'd love it. And if somebody is making a rude, obnoxious, or callous display in your place of business, by all means kick them out.

But you don't get conformity by enforcing it. Shaming is the worst kind of peer pressure. We're better than that.

Freedom - real freedom - means showing as much grace as possible in all situations, and being satisfied with none in return.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Relationship and Reality

TIME Magazine had a fascinating story about how millennials are prioritizing friendships over romantic relationships. This is likely easier in the age of hookup culture, where the temporary satisfaction of our physical desires is divorced from relationship, but it provides a great launching pad for discussion nonetheless.

The bottom line was simply: Our friends know who we are; we have to meet the ideals of a date. There is an inherent dichotomy in the competitive nature of our romantic life. We have to compete with every other girl/guy out there for the affection of our date. We have to live up to some expectation. (It's a system which doesn't work out long term - eventually we'll be who we are and our partner better appreciate that - but that's another post altogether.)

This plays out on Facebook, where people have to work to balance an accurate portrayal of themselves with the kind of person they wish to project themselves as. In the end, we have to learn that we can't just whitewash out image. We are who we are. This is wise counsel for matters of faith - well, for life in general (Tim Suttle talks about this well), but specifically when it comes to faith.

We want people to be doctrinally sound (we want people to believe the right things) because our beliefs shape our actions and our actions are important. But this priority inadvertently demotes the importance of genuine faith. We don't intend for people to claim things they don't believe, but that is how it too often comes across. It's like faith dating. People like us and want us to like them, so they put on the image we want to see, whether it reflects reality or not.

It's this sort of attitude (again, usually with the best of intentions) that keeps people from asking questions (and when they get answers elsewhere, they right you off as a source of authority). It is the reason we keep secrets - not just that we have done disappointing things, but that we are disappointing (or it appears that way if we're not the people our loved ones want us to be).

I guess I'm advocating a sort of open acceptance that I usually feel is weak and unhelpful. I think the difference is it must be paired with ongoing, honest dialogue - relationship. If you and I disagree about the value of factory farm beef, we can discuss it, learn about each other's thought processes and decisions and come to an understanding, even if we continue to disagree. We're ultimately looking for people to be earnest.

The difficulty comes when we don't believe the other person is earnest. That's tough. I suppose what's required them is real relationship, not just dialogue. We have to trust one another.

It can't just be about prohibition and lines of demarcation.

If everything is about a prohibition, rather than a specific rule of life (in which we voluntarily adopt and avoid certain practices), there is no freedom, value, or individuality. WE are not respected as individuals, but only so far as our individuality matches that of the other or the authority. Peter Rollins talks about this in a number of his books - and illustrates it well in a hilarious story about duck hunting and kicks to the crotch.

It's a natural reaction to defy authority - to want to do something other people tell you can't be done (or shouldn't). It's a sign of maturity to recognize the value of another opinion and change your mind. The whole thing is easier to navigate when there's no ironclad prohibition hanging over our heads (which is how, often, relationships with disagreements - vocal or internal - end up operating).

Yes, it may lead to more mistakes and heartbreak than we'd like to see - but there's that trust thing again. We might save our friends and loved ones some heartbreak if we could just convince them of our correctness, but I think we've got a better chance of getting them where they need to be if we let them figure it out on their own. (Again, not remaining silent, but also not demanding or insisting on our own correctness anywhere but in our own heads.)

So often we try to make blanket statements applicable to all people at all times - and we get into fights. Whereas, if we focus on ourselves and our situations - if we enter into relationship with the people around us and discuss real scenarios and real options, we can address real life. We can work together to figure life out (and maybe live with disagreements).

My last post was received more graciously than I expected. I think you for that. At the same time, Peter Clarke pointed out an important element:

For me, your statement "Scripture is not a list of rules and laws, but an authoritative narrative pointing to relationship with God." sets the direction of your whole case. If a person does not truely understand the implications of that statement, they will not (probably cannot) come to the faith-mature position you've come to. I think most people would agree with the statement, but thinking it all the way to the end, admitting the limits of our perspective as you have, standing up for those with the purest desire to become like Christ despite whatever internal struggle they have found themselves with, takes a lot of courage.

This is exactly the point. Do we trust God (or conscience, if that's your thing) to work in the lives and hearts of people or do we assume, if they don't agree with us, that they're somehow refusing to hear God (or reason)? I prefer to assume the best and continue in conversation about our different beliefs and the reasons behind them.

We can only do this if we're willing to both be really ourselves and accept people the same way. No preconceptions. No conditions.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014


I've been putting off this third installment of the Marriage, Gender series for a while (a year), mostly because I suspect everyone who reads this will be disappointed in some way. But, given the news of UMC minister Frank Schaefer recently, and a host of other similar conversations, it seems like the right time. There are at least a dozen of you to whom I promised a more in depth answer. Well, here it is:

This will not be a post with in-depth discussion of the various biblical passages addressing homosexuality. There aren't a lot of them and you can find intense dissections of all of them with varying conclusions at the drop of a hat. I find many arguments compelling, but none compelling enough to settle the matter resolutely. Like most attempts to find answers in scripture, we get more guidance than command. We have to delve the depths of conscience and context and make judgments. Scripture is not a list of rules and laws, but an authoritative narrative pointing to relationship with God. Things are not always so simple.

I have no problem believing people are born gay. Why? Because I'm not gay and I have to accept the word of those who are - honestly and openly, no matter how dubious the claim or how skeptical I might be. I have no other choice. At the same time, I have to accept the word of those who claim miraculous changes in sexual orientation, no matter how dubious the claim or how skeptical I might be. I believe that it's likely a trauma or abuse in childhood could affect someone's sexual orientation - psychological crap does crazy things to people all the time. I also think it's silly to assume every gay person was somehow abused into it.

All that being said, we need to make clear that reparative therapy - essentially attempts to undue perceived trauma or abuse with further trauma and abuse is categorically evil and should be condemned, even if it's entered into willingly. If indeed an individual believes their orientation is changable (and needs to be changed), there are healthy, therapeutic ways to approach counseling, you know, overseen by trained professionals.

The bigger question for me, especially as someone who takes the Bible seriously, is whether God intended gay people to be that way, or if there was some problem. I don't think there is anything wrong with gay people, nothing less than ideal or sub-optimal - at least not any more than any of the rest of us.

If you're looking from a purely evolutionary perspective, homosexuality is an anomaly. Evolution is driven by a desire to pass along DNA to a new generation. Breeding that produces offspring is important to that end. Homosexuality is both natural and unnatural. Natural in that it is largely genetic, unnatural in that it doesn't line up with biological determinism.

I don't believe God designs any individual. I don't think God chooses our hair color, eye color, our addictions, our immune system, or our sexual orientation. I believe God created the world in the same way I can be said to create cherries by planting a seed. I believe God set in motion various forces in the world that led to creation as we have it. More and more I believe God intends for things to be different, even counter to what might be called ideal precisely because God wants to communicate love to all creation regardless of individual merit. I wrote more about this here.

I don't think God makes us in any particularity, but that God loves all of us equally, regardless of any preconceived disability or deficiency.

As humans, some of us are naturally cautious. We were born that way. Others tend to act before they think. There may be some evolutionary advantages to both inclinations, but it seems like our society favors the former. Evolution favors the cautious - or at least it did when we were mostly prey. I'm a cautious person and I understand completely why it's better to be cautious and I can provide you any number of reasons to back that up - because I have a lot of time to think about such things while I'm not having the kind of fun the adventurous types have most of the time.

I'm not about to say, though, that either of these inclinations is anathema, unintended, inappropriate. The point of life is not to be the right way - to become cautious or to be less so - the point of life is to figure out how to live in spite of (or because of) who you are.

I recognize that people have many different definitions of what it means to live rightly in the world. I want to affirm everyone's right to figure that out and decide for themselves what it means to live rightly. I have no desire to impose my perspective on anyone else in any way. I will defend the right of any adult to make their own decisions for themselves and I believe any discrimination, public or private, based on sexual identity or orientation is a terrible tragedy. From here on out, I speak from my perspective as a Christian about how I think Christians should answer these questions.

As a Christian, my purpose is defined by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, whose message of self-giving, sacrificial, radical love shapes and informs everything I do. Because of that, I look to the history and tradition of God's people to figure out how to live. Scripture, the Bible, is the main way in which I do that.

When it comes to homosexuality, there is just one question for the Church to answer: Can people of the same sex participate in marriages that reflect God's love and faithfulness in the same way heterosexual people can?

You see, I still believe (as explained more deeply in the Marriage post) that lifelong, committed marriage is the only proper, healthy avenue for sexual expression. So the question is not "can a person act on their attraction to the opposite sex," but "can gay people get married?" The rest sort of takes care of itself.

As to marriage, yes, Genesis says a man shall be united with his wife and they shall become one flesh, but to read modern concepts of marriage into verses like this do disrespect to history.

Throughout history, many societies have had accepted, if never mentioned examples of homosexual relationships. Men would often take younger proteges as lovers. This partly developed because of the oppression of women, who were never considered equal and were (are) treated as sub-human in many places - a regrettable necessity for procreation. We must remember that marriage, for most of human history, had nothing to do with affection or love, it was designed for social stability, for making babies, and for consolidating status and power. In societies where male-male relations were the norm, usually for the elite, these were occasionally the most affectionate and loving relationships men had.

The Judeo-Christian ethic of marriage arose in counter to these societies. Scripture is pretty clear that the sexual ethics of God's people are specifically to set them apart from the societies around them. I'd argue though, as I have in the Marriage post, that primary among this counter-example was chastity and fidelity. You marry a wife and you stick with her, care for her, and turn - neither emotionally or physically - to anyone else.

Obviously the people of God weren't great at learning or keeping these values. There was a lot of polygamy and prostitution was as rife in Israel as anywhere else. But the principle remained the same - and eventually was (mostly) adopted by God's people.

In neither case was gay marriage even a matter of thought. You married for procreation, for social standing (maybe to ensure the continued subservience of women), but not for love. You married a women because you needed kids - life could not exist without offspring - they were the essential lifeblood of society.

Things are different now. There are plenty of offspring in the world. We've also vastly changed the criteria by which we choose marriage. It's almost exclusively based on affection, at least in the Western world (the only world I really know). Which is why we face such a dilemma.

Can people of the same sex participate in marriages that reflect God's love and faithfulness in the same way heterosexual people can?

Some Christians answer no and ask gay Christians to remain celibate. Others say yes, and call those gay Christians who believe marriage is part of God's call on their lives to marry with the kind of self-giving, radical love to which we (often poorly) call all people. The gay christian world has named these two responses Side B and Side A, respectively.

I recognize the importance for an organization to have such an opinion - a general guidance for members, but for individuals, I'm not sure such categories are helpful. Each person has to navigate the challenges of integrating their sexuality and their faith. People are different. We're all different. We will (and should) have different ways of working life out - hopefully with the guidance of a loving community.

Some gay Christians will seek and receive "healing," others will choose marriage to a member of the opposite sex (hopefully with the full knowledge and support of their spouse), others will choose to remain celibate, and still others will choose Christian marriage. Hopefully these choices are reached at the end of a thoughtful process of discernment and supported by the Christian communities around us - communities who challenge us to reconcile our conclusions with reason, tradition, experience, and scripture.

I believe there's a scripturally consistent defense of either answer - Side A or Side B - although I do think many of the most vocal supporters of both sides should be furthered challenged to do a better job of their defenses.

My denomination has chosen side B, at least in theory. We've affirmed that sexual orientation is not a choice (at least for the most part), but we've called gay Christians to celibacy. However, we've done a terrible job of actually living that out. There are few Churches of the Nazarene where even a celibate homosexual would be welcomed and included. I doubt many pastors would take such a person into membership and I suspect an openly gay pastor, committed to celibacy, would not find work in the denomination and would likely have their credentials challenged. Our attitude and our actions do not match up. If we're going to take the position we've taken, we need to really take it - as uncomfortable as it might make us.

Part of our difficulty comes because we've not addressed marriage and sexuality well in relationship to the call of God on our lives. I believe firmly that a Christian's commitment to God trumps everything else; there's nothing we shouldn't be willing to sacrifice if we believe it necessary to fully participate in the Kingdom of God. We've rarely included marriage as part of this teaching.

If we're adamant that God created us human, that there is no distinction between male and female (outside the biological, which is what I argued in the Gender post) - then it really doesn't matter who you're attracted to. It matters whether you're willing to give up the right to partner and marry if it serves the Kingdom of God.

I am extremely committed to the authority of my denomination. The Church of the Nazarene is the tribe that birthed me and raised me. I am committed to her core idea of holiness - that we can have the kind of relationship with God that we were created to have right here and right now - that we don't have to wait for heaven to fully be the people God has called us to be. That's what my denomination is about and I am excited to be a Nazarene.

I won't leave my denomination because of our stance on gay marriage. But I also wouldn't leave if it changed.

Quite frankly, it's really only a matter of time anyway. It might be fifty years down the road, but I think it's coming whether anyone around today likes it or not. I don't know anyone under the age of 35 who's really passionate about defending our current position. There're certainly lots of Nazarenes who agree with our stance, but I don't see (m)any who are really going to make keeping the Church of the Nazarene Side B a priority in life. I see a lot of young Nazarenes who are exceptionally passionate about changing our position. In the end, I think passion will win out.

Regardless, I'm here for the long run. I'm sticking with my denomination because I believe God is in control. I believe that the Holy Spirit of God is living and active. I believe that if someone is following Christ honestly, in communion with brother and sisters who all declare together "Jesus Christ is Lord," that God will work it out in our lives. We will receive guidance and direction and discernment and we'll figure it out together. Even if we end up some place totally different than we thought when we started.

As for me, personally - there are a lot of heterosexual couples I would not marry. I'd want to know them in a pastoral way - to know their lives as they live them and not as they present them to me in a few meetings. I'd want to know they are committed to the radical love Christ calls us to in marriage. I'd want to know they could or least wanted to live out marriage as an example of God's love for God's people. I'd need to be satisfied they'd wrestled with the call of God to give up everything - even marriage - before I'd feel comfortable marrying them.

I'll gladly pray at any wedding at which I'm asked to pray. People can always use prayer. I want to pray blessings on every wedding and every couple; marriage isn't easy and we need all the support we can get. I'd pray at a wedding I'm diametrically opposed to happening; I believe that much in prayer.

I also believe I have no right to marry a gay couple, even in protest. This could, of course, be challenged in court, I suppose, but if the denomination who gives me my credentials tells me I can't marry certain people, I'd have to forsake those credentials to do such a wedding - and thus would no longer have the credentials to do it.

Sadly, as a minister in a conservative, evangelical denomination, I've not come across many gay Christians. Our paths don't cross much. Most of the gay people I know have been so hurt by the Church they want nothing to do with Christ. For them, this is a moot issue.

I know it's a cop out, but I don't see much point in answering a hypothetical question when I don't face the real situation. I can't marry a gay couple, nor do I know any who want a Christian wedding well enough to even consider it. I'm not in a position to vote for any sort of change in my denomination and I don't expect I ever will be. I'm not even entirely sure we should be making straightforward designations at the denominational level: we marry these people and not these. I'm perfectly happy to be part of my tribe while we do the hard work of figuring things out. There's a lot to figure out and a lot I just don't know.

What I do know is that God loves everyone. Jesus Christ died to show unconditional love and forgiveness to all people. I know there is peace and joy in our future and I long for each and every person alive to experience those things here and now. I know that we're called - all of us who claim Jesus Christ as Lord - to walk together in love and grace, when we agree and when we disagree.

My denomination must live up to its words and embrace gay Christians as brothers and sisters. We all need to stop demonizing and condemning those brothers and sisters who disagree with us about the place of marriage in the life of gay Christians. Whether we agree about marriage or not - we agree about Christ - and I have faith God can work out these differences. In fact, my faith depends on it.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Awakening Faith by James Stuart Bell and The Book of Saints: The Early Era by Al Truesdale

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of these books 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.

So, apparently people are actually reading these book reviews since I keep getting asked to do more of them. Oddly enough, a few weeks back I found myself starting at two different devotional books from two different publishers, each focused on quotes from Early Church Fathers. I've been looking for something to change up my pattern of devotions and I much enjoy the Fathers, so it was a great moment. It also provides an opportunity to review them together (I hope the publishers don't mind too much).

Zondervan's Awakening Faith is a pretty straightforward devotional in the typical mold. There are 366 pages (you wouldn't want to make a devotional book that's obsolete every four years) each with a topic, a title, a scripture, and an extended quote from a great Christian thinker. The latest I saw was Theodore the Studite who dies in 826, but most were from much earlier.

I'm sure the order was carefully vetted and planned, but I did not discern a pattern in how the authors, topics, or readings were arranged (nor is there really a need for one in this format). There's an index by scripture reference and a short biography of each Father in the back. It also comes with a snazzy, attached cloth bookmark, so you can keep your place.

By far, I think, the strongest part of this collection is the diversity. A wide range of Fathers are used, including those, like Origen or some of the latter Eastern Fathers, who have never been all that favored in Western or Protestant circles. I don't expect Bell has chosen any tremendously controversial excerpts for the books, but I appreciate a willingness to broaden perspective.

The Nazarene Publishing House offering, The Book of Saints, is the first of (so far) two volumes: The Early Era and The Middle Era. As the name suggests, it is decidedly more chronological. Divided into five sections, it is a bit more academic in nature and not a traditional devotional book. There are nineteen fathers, grouped into those with common context, covering 163 individual devotionals (I imagine there are either 203 in the second volume, or a third volume is yet to come).

Each Father is introduced with a short biography and all of the devotionals with their writings come in order. There is a quote from the Father, an historic prayer of some kind, and then a series of scripture references "for reflection."

I appreciate the more historical and liturgical organization. Too often devotionals can devolve into personal self-affirming charades; The Book of Saints makes this less likely. On the other hand, it may seem very foreign to people less comfortable with open-ended spiritual inquiry.

Having used both of these books for a few weeks, I came to the realization that this kind of devotional just isn't something I connect with real well. I've found it difficult to get over the passive connection between the scripture and the writing in a traditional devotional like, Awakening Faith. In this case the Father is almost assuredly not referencing the scripture used and, as a pastor, I'm a little uncomfortable with that connection, even if it is not overt.

As for The Book of Saints, it allows the reader to connect (or not) certain passages to the chosen writing, which allows for more thought and discussion. In the end, both seem designed for a shorter period of focus. I imagine more people want something they can engage with deeply in fifteen minutes than those, like me, who desire something with more depth.

I'd say both books have real value, so long as you know what you're getting into. The Book of Saints seems more promising to me, mostly because of the novelty and depth, but Awakening Faith is certainly among the best of its genre. I am glad to have both in my collection and look forward to continuing to incorporate them into my meditation and devotion going forward.

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, February 11, 2014

Identity and Place

I've been reading stories lately about the social upset over rents and tech companies in San Francisco. A lot of Google and Twitter and Facebook, etc employees are moving into geographically compact San Francisco, forcing rents through the stratosphere and resulting in many, many long-time residents having to move. There have been protests at the special bus stops the tech companies run to help employees commute out to Silicon Valley. It's a big deal.

Reading the article immediately made me think of Israel. Both are struggles over how we handle land and, more specifically, how we claim and identify with a particular piece of land.

It's fairly foreign to me. Delaware is the tenth state in which I've received mail in my life. I like to be comfortable in my home, but I don't altogether mind moving from place to place. I've sort of had to be good at it.

Don't get me wrong, I want to stay where I am. I'm happy in Delaware and ten states is more than enough. At the same time, if I found myself priced out of the community or driven away at gunpoint, I might be upset for a day or two, but I'd get over it. I'm not at all connected to place in that way.

Some people are.

What does it mean for someone to be connected to a place? The complaintants in San Francisco argue they know no other neighborhood, something should be done to allow them to stay. Our economic system generally states that housing is sold for market value and if a lot of people want to live in a small space, you either have to build up or raise the prices.

But is there something deeper than economics at play?

For all the reasons I mentioned above, I never really got the theological significance to the land in my Old Testament studies. I recognize it's importance and the ways in which Hebrew society and religion centered around this concept of land - it's the same motivation that makes Israel a difficult place to figure out today - but I never really got it. I have no comparison.

Maybe San Francisco is a start.

I've never been to San Francisco. I think I only know a half dozen people who even live within 100 miles of it. At the same time, I can sympathize with people forced to relinquish part of their identity. I've never been associated with a place all that much. When we moved to Colorado I was "the kid from back east" with all the cultural and social oddities that came with it. I went to college in Boston in 1999 as "the kid from Colorado;" I was the only one on campus. I wasn't a fan of being lumped in with my (temporary) location.

But I can understand a little those people who have no choice, but to associate themselves with a place. If you've never been anywhere else, or you spent significant time in one place, it is part of you. I suppose that's why so many place names in the US mirror those from the old country. My identity, in a way, has been formed as a man without a country, so to speak. In the absence of a place, I'm defined by no place.

I think, and I'm not sure I like this intellectually even as I believe deeply in its truth, that our places do influence us in profound ways, ways that cannot and should not be so callously disregarded.

I spent six years in Vermont. Any Vermonter will tell you, that's about six generations too few to be a "real" native. Yet the nuance of place has forever seared Vermont to my psyche. I still expect winter to start in October and last until May, even though it's been 20 winters since that's been true in my life. I can only eat pancakes with real maple syrup (in a pinch I'll take stuff from Quebec or New Hampshire, but not New York!). As much as I've moved and changed and adapted and been shaped by all sorts of varied geographies and experiences, the place in which I lived during many of my formative years was, in fact, formative, in profound and in real ways.

I can only imagine that runs deeper and thicker and more important with greater years and longer family connections.

I wonder if our reluctance, as a society, to attach real, permanent connection to place comes from our unseemly history. A lot of us (our genetic forbears, anyway) gave up place to come here. It was a sacrifice of identity to forge a new one. Those people were brave. Unfortunately, part of that new identity meant ripping other people from their connection to place by force; it meant killing others and taking their place. Our historical connection to location-based identity is a mixed bag, at best.

What does it say if we grant San Franciscans the right of connection to place, given our past? What does it say for Israel and Palestine - when even the historical chain of occupation is convoluted and likely indecipherable?

I don't think any of us will argue we have a right to live wherever we want. If we did, there would be even more structurally questionable dwellings dangling precariously from the cliffs of southern California. But I wonder if we don't have to accept a person's right to live where they have been living.

I know sometimes unforeseen forces make people move. Rivers change course, volcanoes happen, we dig all the natural gas out from under a neighborhood thus sinking it a dozen feet below sea level in the midst of a terribly hurricane prone marshland, you know, natural disasters and the like.

Perhaps it's time we recognize (or, I suppose, re-recognize, since our ancestors understood this far better than we probably ever will) that place matters. When people lose their identity-defining place, we must mourn. I don't think I'd go so far as to continually rebuild Jersey Shore beach-houses with federal money simply because three generations have vacationed there every summer, but I, for one, must take into account the profound effect of place on people.

For better or for worse, you are where you live - and I think we can all take that a bit more seriously going forward.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Drunk on Mistrust

There have been a raft of gun deaths recently, I suppose there always are; there have been some highly publicized gun deaths recently. I saw an article about another just today. The most controversial are those where someone is killed, purportedly in self-defense, but is unarmed. Trayvon Martin was the most famous case - and those with racial overtones obviously get the blood boiling.

Regardless, they spur heated debate over the way our society owns and handles firearms. I'm talking about guns to start with, because it was this particular issue that got me thinking today. This post is not really about guns - at least not specifically. It's more about the way society handles its own irresponsibility.

The bottom line is: people should be responsible with their guns. There is no reason guns have to be a public hazard. This is what every NRA member and hunting enthusiast says; and they're right. We may not all agree on which uses for firearms are appropriate and which aren't, but I hope we can say, at least intellectually, devoid of specific context, that guns don't have to be a problem in society.

The same is true of alcohol. It doesn't have to be a problem. There are loads of people in the world who drink responsibly. We can argue over how it's sold, marketed, regulated, and enforced, but intellectually, we can say that alcohol doesn't have to be a problem in society.

It is, though. We have massive binge drinking problems and routine DUIs that lead to destruction and death. Simply because it is not a problem for many individuals, doesn't mean alcohol isn't a problem for our society as a whole.

I am a part of the Church of the Nazarene, which has long took flack for it's unabashed abstention from alcohol (and, in it's early days, was driving the bandwagon for prohibition). I think it's safe to say our understanding of our abstention has evolved over time. Still, I think we're pretty firmly committed to it - not because alcohol is inherently evil or because people can't drink responsibly, simply because, as a society, we haven't figured out how to handle our liquor.

I suspect a lot of it has to do with our hyper-individualism. What my neighbor does is none of my business, nor is it my responsibility. Which is true right up until the point he's beating his kids in a drunken stupor or she's crashing a car into a wall of pedestrians. Then it is both our (collective) business and responsibility.

If our society could figure out how to properly interact with each other in supportive and redemptive ways that rendered alcohol unproblematic, the stance of the Church of the Nazarene would likely become irrelevant. It should be possible, it just hasn't yet been realized.

We (I'm talking society now, not my denomination) have generally recognized the real issues with irresponsible alcohol use and we've taken steps to address them. Age limits, purchase limits, accountability for bars and restaurants over-serving, the education of minors, penalties for drunk driving, etc. It can be argued we've gone too far or not far enough.

There are similar measures in place for some guns and some people at certain times. I'm hopeful that the conversation about our societal irresponsibility with guns and our collective responsibility to do something about it is moving in the direction of productive conversation. With each tragedy, it seems people are more willing to talk to each other and figure out how to bridge the gap between what should be and what really is.

In each of these cases, we have to be willing to sacrifice something valuable (usually some measure of individual freedom) for the common benefit. There's a lot of ideology mixed up in that, a lot of stubbornness and pride, but in the end, I think we'll get there. As much as we don't like it, we do (most of us) recognize that we have to live with each other.

I do think perhaps one of the biggest stumbling blocks to taking action on these two or any of the other societal problems that shouldn't be but are, is a fear that once something is sacrificed, it will never be returned. This is where the fear of big government stems from in the first place. "You take my assault rifle today, you'll be back for my hunting rifle tomorrow."

It's a fear and mistrust that works both ways.

There are plenty in the Church of the Nazarene who argue changing the alcohol stance in any way is a slippery slope to immorality. That argument isn't entirely without merit, but it does betray a lack of trust (justifiable or not).

To see this in action, at least in the US, you have to go no farther than public education. We have a long history and tradition of free public education in this country. It wasn't always universal or mandatory or even popular, but it is part of the cultural fabric.

At some point during the last century, the powers that be realized that education was vital for the next generation to succeed; there were just less opportunities available for an uneducated work force. At the very least, the minimum standard needed to be raised.

That didn't go over too well in some places. This, coupled with the economic and racial disparities across the diverse landscape led to increased control and organization on a federal level.

This was an important and needed change - a sacrifice of freedom (often unwilling) to ensure a sea change in the perception and impact of public education. Local communities should be able to educate their children effectively. It just wasn't happening.

Nowadays, though, people generally understand the importance of a basic education. There may be cultures or families or individuals who don't believe they have a chance to really receive such an education, but no one denies it's value. The movement has succeeded.

Now, instead of local communities fighting higher authorities about public education being a waste of time and money, local communities are fighting to increase and improve their educational experience.

Issues of money and equity and all that still need to be figured out, but it might just be time to give local communities control again - return the responsibility. There's a pretty good chance, at least in this instance, the thing that should be happening, might actually be possible.

This post doesn't exactly have a neat conclusion. I was hoping to illustrate the ways we do, and fail to, trust each other; the problems inherent in our society; and the need for sacrifice and interdependence. Our problems are our problems, even if they're not our (personal) problems. I think solutions work the same way.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Wrestling with Fairness

So you see it all over the place these days. The stereotype of the millennial generation: they're coddled and soft and expect the world on a platter. To me it's a generation obsessed with fairness. I see it encapsulated in grumblings birthed from the broken dreams of their forebears, "these kids, they think they deserve to earn a living doing what they like, why can't they wake up and face reality?"

And it's difficult to argue with that sentiment. Surely the world in which we live is unfair. Although, for most middle-class, white Americans, they've never known an unfair world. Our schools and daycares are obsessed with it. Colleges and workplaces are becoming so obsessed... precisely because their cheap labor is demanding it.

We've created this world.

You don't want to crush that vision, though, do you? I mean, we all want a world that's fair - or at least more fair. Maybe there's a few bitter old souls who say, "it wasn't fair for me, it shouldn't be fair for you." But for most of us, we want to keep the dream alive - that's why we created the fairy tale fairness world for our kids in the first place.

The problem is, a lot of those kids grow up completely incapable of dealing with an unfair world. That's why there's so many kids living in their parents' basements and you can never get you order right at McDonald's. The high-functioning, intelligent kid who found himself behind that register after unfairly missing out on a more fulfilling, better-paying job just decided not to work at all.

Some kids don't have that luxury - which is really unfair.

One thing I realized while pondering all this, though, is that, by all rights, I should be one of those kids. I hate unfairness. I hate things being out of order (or whatever seems like order to me). I exhibit most of the signs of mild OCD on a pretty regular basis. I abhor change. I've come close to nervous breakdowns over things even I will admit are ridiculously unimportant (I just can't help it).

So why do I have an uncharacteristic acceptance of the unfairness of the world?

Don't get me wrong, I still get unreasonably upset with unfairness that seems like it's addressable. I tend to fixate on those unfairnesses that seem to have solutions. I don't, however, let the overall unfairness of the world rub off on me. I expect it.

This sounds silly, but my conclusion as to why I've somehow found sanity (in one small area) against all odds, is due to a happenstance. At some point, in my early teens, I fell under the influence of one Vince McMahon.

Yeah, he's the head of the WWE (formerly WWF, until the World Wildlife Foundation got brand-savvy). Again, I know it comes off as trivial, but I think there's some real merit here. For one thing, pro wrestling will disabuse you of your innate sense of fairness in two matches or less.  (Oh, you didn't think the title, or that picture, were metaphorical did you?)

Whether it's a concussed referee or a hidden metal folding chair, at some point in every wrestling match, someone is going to cheat. Sometimes the cheaters get what's coming to them, but more often than not, the cheaters get away with it.

Wrestling is entertainment. It's athletic and competitive, but it's more akin to the Real Housewives than it is to the NFL. And like most forms of entertainment, it's a reflection of the world. (If you think otherwise, ask all the bank executives who went to jail over their company's criminal behavior of the past five years... of wait, you can't ask them, because there aren't any.)

Yes, like my mother always said, if pro wrestling is the only narrative by which you're shaped, your morals will be pretty sad. This particular reflection of the world is not really something to be proud of. But I'm not sure it's all bad. In small doses. With proper supervision. And plenty of alternatives.

For me, at least, it was a helpful counterbalance to the notion that everything should always be fair. There's plenty of critique over our societal understanding of "fairness" anyway, but that's a topic for another day.

You don't have to sit your kids in front of Monday Night RAW (which would actually be hard for us, since we don't have cable), but perhaps consider allowing them to experience the utter lack of fairness present in the world before it really matters in life.

We don't want to crush the optimism of youth or the dream of a better world - that is the stuff of faith and vitally important. At the same time, we want the unfairness of the world to be a speed bump and not a road block (or a suplex or an armbar or a powerbomb off the top rope).

Do you smell what I'm cookin?