Tuesday, June 30, 2015

I Disagree!

I disagree... and that's a good thing.

Why does it feel like we always secretly hope, no matter how nice and accepting we are of other people, that they'll some day see the light and think like us? Yes, I suppose, on some selfish level, life would be easier if everyone thought exactly like me, but, really, if we're thinking about it, life would also kinda suck.

For one, there would be no one to tell us an idea is stupid until AFTER we've done it. Everyone would think it is a great idea and be really encouraging, right up until the point it goes horribly wrong, then they'd be all, "that was a terrible idea." Yeah, thanks. I got it.

We really need people to be different and think different. It's good for us. It's good for the world. We need to disagree. We need it. It's that important.

Now, of course, there are going to be some fundamental things that we'd like everyone to agree on - things like, "don't kill Ryan," that's a big one for me. Perhaps more generally, "don't kill people," but honestly, we don't really agree on that one anyway. The best we can hope is to be sincere in our desires, willing to change if our conscience leads us to do so, and respecting when others think differently.

I don't get this notion that my sincere beliefs should be those of other people. Yes, it's nice to have the validation when people do actually accept my reasons for belief and we do all need people who agree with us at some level for community and support, but why do we really expect everyone to agree?

This is especially troubling among Christians - who have (supposed) unity in Christ. It's not like we're coming from vastly different foundations when we disagree, we're essentially choosing different beliefs for the exact same reason.

I'll just call it out - my denomination responded to the Supreme Court ruling this week with a pretty well-worded conservative statement (as expected), explaining that its position has not changed and generally wishing good will towards all people. Great. But it ends with the line, "We pray that God will help us be examples of His truth in a world that needs to see God’s love demonstrated in word and deed more than ever."

This line could be construed just as it says - longing for truth - but earlier in the paragraph, truth was defined as a particular view of gay marriage. Now, I'm not expecting my denomination to change its stance over night (in fact, I think we ask the wrong questions and focus on the wrong things - as I've written about before), but it might be nice to be charitable and humble.

We're essentially saying, "We disagree and we hope God uses us to bring other people around to right thinking." I guess it's honest, if nothing else, which is good, but it's also sad.

I don't have a problem with what we believe (although I wish we'd talk about it better). I do have a problem with us assuming our convictions are definitive of a "Christian" of "faithful" position. It reeks of arrogance and it turns my stomach.

We also believe that we shouldn't drink alcohol. That's a Nazarene distinctive. We do it not because alcohol is inherently evil, but because we desire to be open to all people, even those who struggle with alcohol addiction or were hurt by its effects on their family, so we choose to forgo it as a means of supporting those people. Other Christians choose differently. We don't demonize them or use this veiled "truth" language to insinuate they're somehow wrong.

We just disagree.

As I said, I don't mind disagreement. It's a good thing. But we don't have to do it self-righteously. We also don't have to do it apologetically. Wouldn't the statement have looked better if instead of closing with a prayer that all people would be converted to our way of thinking we said something like, "We pray that God will help us be example of His truth in the world, that all people, ourselves included, would be converted to the Way of Christ, even if it means changing our long held beliefs."

That, to me, is the crux of real, healthy disagreement. I believe this, but I might be wrong. If I am, forgive me, but I can only do what I think is right. Let's keep talking and maybe one of us will change their mind, but if not, that's ok, too.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Berenstain Bears' Harvest Festival by Mike Berenstain

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've never been a big fan of the "Christian" commercial market, things marketed specifically to Christians, so I'll admit a natural bias towards this new incarnation of the Berenstain Bears which seem intent on outright evangelism. I always thought the old books captured important life lessons without potentially alienating an audience that might be averse to religion.

At the same time, these books are relatively innocuous as far as evangelism goes. The Harvest Festival is exactly as it sounds, a book about a church festival at Farmer Ben's celebrating the harvest. The bears pick apples and have a hayride and pray before dinner. It's an interesting story, but nowhere near as involved or interesting as some of the Berenstain classics. I'm still not I'm still not sure the point of a book like this is, but if there are more Berenstain Bear books coming down the pipe, my three year old will love it. Her review: "I love it because it's so fun."

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze.com® 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.”

Thursday, June 18, 2015


So there's been a lot of talk about identity lately - between Caitlyn Jenner and the booming transgender conversation and now this insane saga with the NAACP in Spokane - it's like we're just not sure how to define anything or how to classify people. Do individuals get to decide which box to check or is there some objective standard to be applied?

I wonder if the real problem is our need to classify people in the first place? I heard a lot of conservative people decrying how terrible it is that Bruce Jenner had so many problems he couldn't see any other option but to become a woman. Those hypotheticals that rang out all over the internet became comically un-hypothetical when Rachel Dolezal said those immortal words, "I identify as black." What do we get to choose? It's more difficult to say, "but she's not black," if you're also on Team Caitlyn, isn't it?

I think we all know a Rachel Dolezal - maybe not someone who might potentially, allegedly, lied about her race to enhance her social position (and quite possibly the first American to ever "pass" the other direction... on purpose). But we know that white kid who grew up in a largely black neighborhood and identifies (perhaps subconsciously because I didn't think anyone would have the stupidity guts to say it out loud) as black.

They do that, though, not necessarily because of a race thing - it's cultural. When we have a society so thoroughly segregated - like we do in the US - it's almost inevitable that these cultural identities get associated with race. It's "black culture" not because there's anything specifically African-American about it, but simply because it's a culture with which a lot of African-American identify. From there, though, things get all jumbled up as we choose to identify race and culture together.

(Now, just to be clear, I am not condemning or condoning what Dolezal did - I simply haven't followed the story much because it seems like a really totally crazy waste of time - I had to even look her name up to use it here. I just think it's an interesting interjection in the larger conversation of identity we're having in this cultural moment.)

I've always been a fan of removing labels, getting rid of boxes - in fact I think I wrote about this very thing a couple months back, and to some extent in the Jenner piece a couple weeks ago. Maybe my perspective has shifted just a little bit with more time to think, but it seems like the issue with identity is not how we see ourselves, but how we're taught to see ourselves through the lens of culture.

We define man a certain way - and it really has very little to do with genitalia. Even when you hear personal accounts from transgender people, you don't hear, "I felt like I shouldn't have a penis," you hear, "I felt like I was in the wrong body." That can be a subtle difference, but the difference is real. They feel like they're in the wrong body because culture has told them they should feel a certain way based on the body they have. It's not that they objectively look at themselves as "wrong," but that seeing themselves through the lens of the larger society, things don't match up.

Now I certainly believe identity can get irreversibly intertwined with body over time. I can see where someone like Caitlyn Jenner could not feel like her true self if she's still a man - but so many transgender people can't afford the kind of surgery that might make that true - even so, it's still playing the box game. I'm not box A, like you think, I'm box B. Eventually, though, Box B will come to be defined in such a way that some people feel incapable of living there and we'll need box B1 and box B2 and we'll fight over those definitions as well.

Why can't we just let people be people?

Maybe that's a ridiculous pipe dream. I certainly don't see how its really possible in any society at all. Very few people are overtly creating boxes for others (although we do do it subconsciously) - but there are just averages. Stereotypes are what they are because they adequately describe some measure of the population. There are like two or three white guys out there who can dance... sort of. A cultural definition becomes what it becomes because it's largely true.

For most of human history you could say, "Most women have children," and be completely correct. Actually, you can still say it today and be correct, but the latest numbers have it at about 53-47 percent, so it may not always be true. There was a time, though, when a childless woman struggled with whether she could be called a woman at all. It was hard to feel secure in that box without having kids.

What it means to be a man or a woman largely changes from one culture to the next and across generations. Yes, there is still the biological element of things, which works at a very high success rate, but why do we make that the end all and be all of definitions? The sad truth is because we like boxes. Our minds are wired to categorize. We feel comfortable when we can define others. It also allows us to compare (I might not be very manly, but I'm macho star athlete, Bruce Jenner compared to that guy).

Perhaps this is why (in the Bible) Paul talks about Christians being neither Jew nor Greek, Slave nor Free, Male nor Female? To be a Christian is to forget identity altogether. No comparison. No competition. Now, the Church has historically been about as bad at this as you could possibly be, but that doesn't change reality. For Christians, we're supposed to see Sam as Sam, not as man or woman or white or black. It may be difficult for us to step outside our cultural definitions and categorizations, but it is what we're called to do.

To me, one of the best explanations of this whole idea is a story I heard or read sometime in the last few weeks. I have no idea where I saw (or heard) this and i'll be largely paraphrasing. I couldn't nail it down well enough to even find it on google - and I'm pretty good when it comes to internet searching.

It was a story about a mom scolding a child in a department store (or some such place), the child may have been wearing clothes of the opposite gender or just doing something odd that caused embarrassment for the mom. She said to her kid, "why can't you just be normal?" A bystander happened to overhear and addressed the mom saying, "You're not describing normal, you're describing average, and I'd think most moms want their kids to be something other than average."

On pure numbers, it's likely true. The average man might be a sports nut who likes cars and tells the occasional dirty joke, but that doesn't make this definition normal. It's just average.

Yes, I think it's silly for a woman to say, "I identify as black," when she's not really black (although our means of determining such are pretty culturally conditioned as well - that Skip Gates TV show taught me pretty much everybody in the US is a little bit black: for example, does me calling him "skip" slide me a little farther along on the "black" scale?). I have a little harder time making judgement on identifying as a man or a women against mostly because it seems like there's a lot of biology and psychology there that experts don't know much about, let alone me.

I'd prefer we really just allow people to be themselves. If we were better at this, perhaps these news stories of the last month wouldn't be stories at all - they'd just be people trying to figure out exactly who they are and express themselves more fully and honestly - and, in the end, isn't that all any of us wants to do anyway?

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Evolution and Sin (Part II)

So, from Part I we've established the theory that God always intended Adam and Eve to sin. Free will requires an exploring of options, even those that aren't ideal for the world as God intends. Perhaps that first sin wasn't what John Wesley would call sin (even if they knew it was disobedient, they really couldn't have understood the consequences and implications), but in any event it created a rift in God's purposes and in the relationship between Creation and Creator. The tragic problem arises as these humans reject the reconciliation God has waiting for them, thus expanding the rift and the consequences of their sin.

I came to this belief (and when I say "belief" I don't mean so much a necessary tenet of reality so much as perhaps my best explanation for things we may never truly or fully understand) mostly as an attempt to avoid explaining the incarnation of Jesus Christ as a response to human sin; I don't think it should be seen as an afterthought and this better keeps that from being the case.

But, as I've gone through life, it really seems this fits better with what we experience. I've come to view the message of scripture concerning our eternal destiny a bit differently that it was explained to me as a child. I don't see our purpose here on Earth as escaping the world. Whatever heaven awaits us will most certainly be here, on Earth, when it's remade as God intended - or perhaps, when it's become all God intends.

Our experience as people is one of growth and development. As Christians we believe God works in our lives and through our lives to make us into something more than we once were. Our process of spiritual development and discipline brings real change in our lives - but it's not a reclamation of something we lost, but a growing into something to which we're destined.

There is a lot of debate these days about how judgment and eternal life work. The traditional view held our development to end at the end of the world - those worthy at this point would move on to heaven, those unworthy to hell. There's been a recent re-emergence of the notion that those who choose not to be a part of heaven (however it's defined) may simply be vanished, disappeared, eliminated - they might simply cease to exists, since a loving God couldn't rightly torture anyone for life (and also that torture might not be the most God-appropriate way to "encourage" someone towards repentance.

This last point hints of a notion that I tend to believe is best, even though it works against our traditional theology and reading of scripture. What if our chance to follow God, be holy, become the people we're intended to be doesn't end when our "regular" life ends. Someone once asked me, "What if the world to come is the same for everyone, but for those who've been touched and changed by the love of God find it heavenly, while to those who remain in their selfishness, it's hell?" I don't know the specifics of such a world - and I wouldn't want to venture a guess - but the idea that life will continue after resurrection much the way it does now (but with a the full reign of God's love in and through the world) makes a lot of sense to me.

It also brings with it, though, the notion that people might have eternity to come around to God's way of love. People might get forever to be rebellious and chance after chance after chance to reconcile. If it really is an eternity, then there's plenty of time for God's love to win over everybody. I still believe strongly in those scripture passages that seem to indicate not everyone will be saved (so maybe annihilation is the best option), but I'm also willing to admit I don't quite get the ramifications of eternity. An eternal world, ruled and infused with God's holy love and going on without end sure seems like the kind of place that will eventually win over everyone.

I'm not sure that isn't the best way to look at the world.

What this means, really, if we put both Part I and Part II together, is that God created a world in which people would choose selfishness as part of their inherent nature, but would, over time, given eternity, eventually learn to embrace the reconciliation offered by God, fully realized in Jesus Christ, and eventually become the kind of people who reject selfishness for an ongoing life of mutual, interdependent love. That's certainly a faithful, coherent, beautiful description of life that both maintains God's non-coercive love and human freedom.

That's a little shorter than Part I, but it seems a good place to stop for now (I promise, we'll really, actually talk about evolution in Part III).

Thursday, June 11, 2015


Systems are interesting. Complex, organized, inefficient, unpredictable. Systems are usually perceived as broken, unfair, unfeeling. That's likely right.

My wife took the Myers-Briggs test online today. She's done it before, but it's always interesting to see if things change. I took it too. I'm pretty much the same all the time (INTJ, if you care). Anyway, the explanation for mine talked about how people of my personality like to attack systems (usually in a good way) loaded with idealistic pragmatism. We have an unwavering belief things can work better and an irrational confidence we can do something to improve things. That's likely right, too.

I, along with about 80 others, were invited today to be part of the listening process for the strategic plan of the local school district. IO was, of course, flattered when I received the invite; less so when I found out how many people would be there. That's all ego. I didn't have high expectations that they'd really get anything concrete or specific out of the group. I'm not sure they did. I'm not sure they were planning to. (We provided some good general directions and we'll see how that translates to action later this summer.)

But one thing that did strike me as important was just how many people were there to generously and sincerely contribute to the process. There were a lot of people there - at least half weren't being paid to be there. There were a lot of diverse opinions and perspectives, but things were really positive and civil. People whose positions lead to our making assumptions about motives and character got a chance to be people. That was good.

It was also a chance, as I reflect, to really understand systems better. As much as my idealistic pragmatism wants to make me a tyrant, using my specific skills to improve the world around me (or some small part of it), things don't really work that way. Providing a strong education to 10,000 students requires, by necessity, a relatively complex system. It's going to be big and it's going to include people. It's not a problem to be solved or a puzzle to be cracked.

Yes, systems are problematic, but they're also necessary. Most systems, even dysfunctional ones, are made up on good, well-meaning people. Those people might act or react in less than ideal ways, but often that's in response to some systemic issue - the machine isn't working quite right and the parts are breaking.

I'm still a pragmatic idealist (I doubt I'll ever escape that) and I'm still an iconoclast when it comes to respecting tradition or authority (that was another character trait from my INTJ description), but I think I have a better appreciation for the necessary mess involved in systems. It bugs the heck out of me, but deep down there was a real recognition of broader understanding.

Whether it's a school district or a worshiping congregation, a family, workplace, or neighborhood, systems are what they are. They can be better, but they're never going to be depersonalized.

That might not sound like news to you, but it was my satisfyingly profound revelation for the day.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Evolution and Sin (Part I)

So it all started with something simple. As far as I can tell, Christians have held, almost universally and quite uncontroversially throughout history, that the incarnation (that's the Christmas story - God coming to Earth as a man, for those of you without the inside scoop on theological mumbo-jumbo) of Jesus Christ was the plan from the beginning. It's easy to see how sending Jesus to die as a solution for sin might appear to be a reaction to the actual sinning we humans did - but the Church has never believed that (this is part of a more complex discussion of God's knowledge and power - which may be better left for Part II... or III).

It's a rather unassuming assumption, really, but it has some pretty profound implications. If God was always planning to come to Earth in the person of Jesus Christ how does sin affect that plan? The traditional understanding of the beginning is that Adam and Eve were born perfect and immortal, but once they ate the forbidden fruit they became imperfect and mortal. One, that leads to a whole lot of difficult questions in light of actual history, human behavior, logic, and even just physical coherence. It's certainly a possible explanation for things - a simple, elegant one at that - but it's not very satisfying, at least for me.

It's possible God always planned, had things worked out better for Adam and Eve, to come as Jesus and just stay - that the Incarnation would essentially be the start of heaven. We have an Earth full of faultless loving humans and now God joins them in life. Beautiful. Encouraging. But, somehow, it just didn't seem right. Especially since human history did, in fact, play out much differently.

I've always been told that Adam and Eve were given free choice - to eat or not to eat - and certainly in a moment I believe that's true. We always have a real choice. I don't believe in determinism. But over time, I'm not sure the choice between obedience and disobedience is really a choice unless both are chosen. If someone goes their entire life always doing the right, most loving thing, well, there's something unnatural about it.

I know this is a point where people can and will disagree - and that's ok - but for me, I came to the realization, or at least asked the question: what if God intended for humans to sin?

That brings us to a little discussion of sin, something that's been difficult for Christians to pin down well over time. At one point a lot of people might have said, "Sin is something that leads you to end up in Hell," which is a difficult definition to parse, you know, before actually dying. It's part of the reason we end up with this long list of Dos and Don'ts; people are just trying to have their bases covered.

I tend to define sin as some action which works against God's intended purpose for the world. I suppose that's not entirely different than the one above, but it does put the impetus on the moment instead of the far future. It's also not really that different from what some of the earliest Protestant reformers used. They talked about sin as anything that falls short of the mark - a major tenet of this thought is that we sin every day in thought, word, and deed (I know this doesn't reflect completely the position of the first reformers, but certainly is suited well enough to most of them). On the cosmic scale, that's a pretty good definition - those things we do which aren't helpful in bringing about peace and unity in the world are sin.

But I'm also a Wesleyan, and John Wesley didn't like that notion of sin, because it leaves us guilty of things we may never have intended. An off-handed, innocent comment might really offend someone - clearly a wrong move in the world, but more a mistake than a sin. He defined sin as "an intentional violation of a known law of God." You could certainly be doing wrong things without knowing it, but God wouldn't hold those against you.

This definition is still trying to match up with an eternal reward/punishment idea - keeping our butts covered in the event of a surprise rapture (you can look that one up) or something.

I've never really thought, though, that the purpose of this life is to get to the next one. That's doesn't make a lot of sense - it makes no more sense, really, than God waiting thousands and thousands of years from the creation of humans to the incarnation if they weren't sinning.

So I've sort of come to the conclusion that perhaps it makes the most sense, given our scriptural witness, the experience of life, and what we know of God, to believe that God intended Adam and Eve (and thus the rest of us) to sin.

I know it sounds like blasphemy, but it makes sense in a lot of ways.

Firstly, let's look at love. The Bible pretty clearly states, "God is love." I'd say the action of Jesus on the cross is the ultimate example of love (more on that later). If love is the ultimate action, goal, lesson, what-have-you, then perhaps we need to look at this whole thing through that lens.

If I were to ask what makes the death of Jesus the ultimate example of love many people would respond, "dying to save life - even the life of an enemy," and that is certainly noble. But I'd argue that the ultimate sign of love is redemption. It's not the death of Jesus, the pain and agony that makes the cross so powerful, it is the forgiveness that comes with it and the commitment to reconciliation. On the cross, God is providing a way for people who've been separated by sin to be redeemed, to be restored to relationship with full rights and privileges.

Love is love, but no love is more powerful than a love that's undeserved.

If we've done something to justify a cutting off, a breaking of relationship, and the other chooses to work for restoration, to keep loving, to work through the pain and find healing... that's the highest pinnacle of love. I believe God set out to demonstrate that love through creation. That requires, though - absolutely requires - a break in relationship.

God created humans not only with the power to choose something other than God intended, but with the understanding that they would. We can get all existentialist and ask whether a choice not taken is ever really a choice - I think perhaps it's not.

If you go back to the scriptural record, this story is told in Genesis 3. The real problem doesn't occur in verse six when Adam and Eve eat the fruit, but in verses twelve and thirteen when first Adam and then Eve blames someone else for their error instead of taking responsibility. This is the real break in relationship. God gave them the chance to repent, seek forgiveness and bring restoration. They chose to get defensive. Whatever cosmic consequences rippled out through history, I believe, happened not when the ate, but when they chose not to be reconciled.

God continues to love them, because God is love. Thank God. But the consequences of their actions, the reality of their sin, that lingers. God forgives. God redeems. God loves. But God does not take away the consequences of our actions. God walks through them with us.

I'm not sure exactly what the real plan was - the hopeful plan - but I'll venture a guess. I think God created people who would be selfish and disobedient. Those are precisely the kind of people you need if you're going to act out redemption, the ultimate act of love - they also happen to be the kind of people each and every one of us is. We're people who do stupid stuff, hurtful stuff - not always with malicious intent, either. I'm guessing God knew, planned, for us to sin in this way. This would still require an ultimate reconciliation - an incarnation - something to fully restore the separation created between God and Creation through this action.

I'm guessing the further refusal to reconcile really broke God's heart. This just made things worse. The divide was expanded and pain increased. The consequences of these actions to effect the rest of the world - the ripple down to everyone we know and love and come in contact with. The scope of restoration provided in the incarnation had to increase exponentially. Exactly as scripture tells it: Adam and Eve made life more difficult for everyone. Telling it this way, though, makes it a lot more understandable for us - it lines up a lot more with the life we recognize and the world in which we live.

That's probably enough for now. More to come in the future (I didn't even mention evolution yet)...

Thursday, June 04, 2015

A Fellowship of Differents by Scot McKnight

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.

Scot McKnight is a pretty popular author, although I've not read any of his other books. I've read blog posts and articles from time to time and I respect his suggestions greatly when it comes to biblical commentaries. He's a top-notch scholar and I was excited to read his new book, A Fellowship of Differents, a challenging look at how God calls Christians to live and worship together.

The book follows largely the life and teachings of Paul in an attempt to re-orient the often confused nature and construction of modern congregations. At the same time, McKnight is gracious and uplifting in addressing these congregations and the value of a local worshiping body in the formation and continuation of the Christian faith.

The book is difficult in places, a real challenge to what we've come to see as normal comfort in the American Church. In other places it reinfuses a love of those people who nurtured us in faith, even if we may now differ in perspective quite greatly. But overall, McKnight addresses the positive, essential attributes of what it means to live together in Christ. Chief among those is diversity, not just racially or culturally, but also theologically and politically and in every way imaginable. For him (and for Paul), the core of the gospel is making room for all people to live together in love.

It's a loft goal and as the book is fleshed out, the many ways in which that can be difficult are addressed. In the Afterward, McKnight mentions the book was once much longer than its current 250 or so pages. That becomes pretty clear as he seems to be writing the bare minimum of his thoughts in some sections. He is careful to step forward and address some topics in detail. He addresses the unique issues of homosexuality in the modern Church with grace and calm. His treatment of scripture is both responsible and full of integrity. He addresses without antagonism, those areas where he disagrees with others on interpretation and meaning, but one of my great regrets in reading the book is that he chooses not to engage those Christians who agree with him on scripture, but disagree on the ultimate course of gay Christians (marriage or celibacy).

Ultimately, though, this is one small chapter in a much larger work, which deftly maneuvers over many difficult and rocky topics without sounding judgmental or pushy. This is largely because he maintains the focus on unity, love, and mutual submission that was so important to Paul and so essential for faithful Christ-like living. This is not a book about hot topics or religious controversies, although a number of them are mentioned; it is a book about how the Church can remain unified and healthy in the midst of a world with disagreements and difficulties. For that, it is an important read.

Maybe I read it too fast - I suspect A Fellowship of Differents is best digested a chapter at a time - but there were obviously some places that meant less to me than others. It wasn't a book where I was dying to get to the next page. I thought the first half was better than the second, but largely, I think, because the first half was more general and the second more specific (as is necessary for the form it takes). Overall, it is an interesting perspective and a unique way of presenting some deep intricacies of Pauline theology in ways that are entirely accessible to the average Christian.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze.com® 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, June 02, 2015

Does God Make Mistakes?

I've seen a lot of stuff from the conservative side of life in light of the recent Vanity Fair cover. For the most part it's coming from a very specific set of definitions and understanding on how people exist and who they are. I spoke a little bit about the dangers of such grouping and stereotypes in an earlier post. In short, I think expecting anyone to be anything other than a unique individual is pretty short-sighted (not to mention cruel).

What troubles me most, though, from those conservative reactions, is the line that keeps cropping up, "God doesn't make mistakes." It bugs me not because I disagree with it. I don't. I agree wholeheartedly. What bothers me is that this phrase seems to indicate the user knows how to define someone else's mistakes.

If my wife asked me to move the clothes from the washer to the dryer and I didn't do it, there are three basic explanations - throwing out some unforeseen occurrence physically preventing me from doing it, we're left with 1) I remembered, but was too mean or lazy to do it; or 2) I forgot. Only the latter is a mistake, but from my wife's perspective, there's very little way to truly know if it was option 1 or option 2. She may be able to guess given my past performance at such tasks and what she knows of me as a person, but she can't really know.

I say all that to say, whether God makes mistakes or not, we don't know that Olympic hero Bruce Jenner believing from the time he was very young that he should have been born a woman is, in fact, a mistake. Even if we go so far as to say such transgender persons (along with anyone else whose biology and inclinations don't line up with religious or cultural norms) are sort of evolutionary byproducts (this sounds really harsh, but hopefully I explained it a little better and in more depth elsewhere), there's no indication that anyone turned out differently than God intended them to be.

No, there's no more reason that what I've just said is "right" when describing God's intentions than those who believe Jenner suffers from a comic mistake - and that's precisely the point. Invoking that notion in this context, as if there's some absolute understanding of God's intentions is trite and irresponsible. I get that some people believe there are very specific gender and sex roles - it's a valid opinion because people hold it - at the same time it seems proper to at least allow for a difference of opinion when it comes to judging the intentions of almighty God.

I tend to see a lot more of God's purposes in a world where people are different from each other. In fact, it seems one of the big contributions of Christianity to the world is the notion that radically different people could possibly live and worship and love each other without ever becoming like each other. I don't happen to believe the kind of uniformity hinted at in this particular use of "God doesn't make mistakes," really represents a Christian understanding of God at all. You are, of course, free to disagree.

What it seems to do is downplay the notion of identity and our responsibility to act. I know they got in trouble showing this in our local high school this year (and perhaps, in context, with good reason), but Hank Green really breaks down some of these identity pieces quickly and simply in this video. If you watch it, you'll see a visual aid used with two people - one representing identity and the other representing action.

It seems to me the heart of any conversation between people who care for each other should involve some real discussion of how we act and why we do what we do. If we love people, we want the best for them. Having a person to think through our actions with and providing that same sounding board for another is really key to living life well. For Christians, this is sort of the ideal goal for relationships - something mutually beneficial and beyond the superficial. But, of course, this is only possible if we accept the person for who they are. We can't be going around harping on that left hand person if we expect to have any influence on the right hand person - we can't be skeptical of who people are, if we want to have enough respect to be invited to speak on how people act.

Yes, I get that there are some legitimately dangerous identities out there - various body dysmorphic issues that will kill people if not addressed. (I also get that some people believe a homosexual or transgender identity falls into the same category of dangerous.) But even if you disagree with how someone identifies (and there are certainly good reasons to do so), making this known or a priority in the relationship is foolish, because, well, if you do that, there is no relationship. You can't help someone with anorexia by telling them they look great. If it were just as simple as changing how one feels or identifies, they'd've done it already.

The notion that someone must fit into a box I've created is pretty ludicrous. The retort may be, "I didn't create the box, God did," but of course, that's up for debate (and you better bring something better than, "see... the bible says it" to that fight if you don't want to get laughed out of the ring.

I imagine, a God who is so powerful as to make no mistakes is also powerful enough to let people know when they're outside the box. People may need nudging now and then to listen to that voice, but it's a nudging they ask for once they know someone loves and accepts them completely.

Call me crazy, but it seems like the kind of peace and calm people like Caitlyn Jenner experience when they're finally true to themselves to friends and family (and maybe the world) is pretty close to the kind of peace God intends for all of God's beloved creations. Yes, as a pastor, as a Christian, I've got a lot of opinions about how people should act - what things might be wise or unwise, helpful or harmful, having positive or negative effect on the world. I love sitting down and walking through future possibilities both in my own life and in the lives of others - it's part of why I feel called to be a minister. How do we act? How do we live rightly in the world? Those are important questions. I'd love to talk to you (or anyone) about them. I think it's the most important conversation in the world. I have opinions about how we should act in the world.

I don't have opinions about who we are. I can't. I know God doesn't. All people are perfectly loved and infinitely accepted just as they are in the eyes of God. I'll shout that one from the rooftops and defend it to the death. We are who we are. That doesn't mean there aren't parts of ourselves we have to work around, compensate for, or learn to discipline - nobody's perfect. But those are actions. They are the way we respond to who we are. The faults and failures that comprise our identities are no less mistakes than the blessings and successes that make us who we are. We may make mistakes (a lot of them), but no one and no part of anyone is a mistake.

As for Christians, we're never going to have a place in the world, never going to be able to influence people or support people or help people, unless we learn the difference between identity and action. Choose your words carefully. Don't back down from what you believe... even if it's different than what I believe, but, please, choose your words carefully.