Sunday, December 10, 2017

Advent 2: Centuries ahead of his opponents ...

Reading Matthew's account of Jesus' conception and birth, the second chapter recalls prophecy after prophecy of God's plans for the age of the Messiah. Centuries before, the prophets wrote: "born of a maiden ... called Immanuel (God-With-Us)", in "Bethlehem of Judea". But if Jesus was to be King of the Jews, then the man who held that title wouldn't keep it forever, or pass it to his own descendants. So he set out to kill an infant.

At that point in the narrative, it is easy -- and right -- to look with disgust on someone who would kill a child. We see a lot of evil in this world, and if we didn't already know how that story ended, it would be easy to worry if enough evil could overcome God's purposes for the world's redemption. How could God make so much depend on a baby who couldn't keep himself safe? Joseph and Mary were not incredible super-heroes. They were no match for the soldiers dispatched by a murderous king.

We know what happened: in a dream, an angel warned Joseph to take the family to Egypt. But the soldiers didn't know the exact identity of the child, and still killed the remaining boys of similar age in that town. And ... centuries before, the prophets wrote: "out of Egypt I will call my son", and "a voice is heard ... Rachel weeping for her children, and will not be consoled." God knew. He knew the evil of his enemies. He knew their plans. He knew how low they would go. While his enemies were trying to undermine God's plans, in reality they were fulfilling prophecies as God foresaw how they would try -- and fail -- to undermine his plans. So even their attempts to stop him were confirmations of God's predictions.

One reason we can worry about evil is because we have a suspicion that it could get out of hand. We worry that it is out of hand already. We recognize that the level of evil in our world is sometimes beyond our ability to overcome it (as it was beyond Joseph and Mary). We worry -- in some quiet, unrecognized part of our minds -- that it is beyond God, that things have gotten away from him. (That thought is behind some streams of atheism, as the common answer for why they do not believe in God: it's the evil in the world.) Almost all Christians agree on this: evil is contrary to God's will, by definition. If God does not desire evil -- and here it comes anyway -- does that mean that things are beyond his control?

I think that is one reason why God tells us some events in advance. He knew what his enemies would do then. He knows what evil is doing now. He knows what evil will do tomorrow. He told us in advance, centuries in advance. Evil has not outsmarted God, has not taken him by surprise, has not thwarted his plans. At this point in the world's story, it is easy -- and right -- to look with disgust on the evil in the world. But if we have listened to what Mary and Joseph's -- and God's -- son said, we may be a little less self-righteous, a little slower to blame God for not having eradicated us yet. We may begin to suspect that God is not a slacker, but patient. We may find ourselves trusting him.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Advent 1: The peace-bond

I think sometimes we forget, those of us who live in "melting-pot" countries, how much of human history has been lived in tension with people of different nations, where different bloodlines and different tribes meant the risk of war, where the enmity ran in the blood and was part of the cultural heritage. The ancients had a way of creating peace, of cementing a bond between two nations: to join the bloodlines. And in our melting-pot age, we generally only notice negative things about these alliance-marriages. But if we can drop our modern arrogance towards earlier cultures, we can see how an arranged marriage looks through their eyes:
                           ... The highly-famed queen,
Peace-tie of peoples, oft passed through the building,
Cheered the young troopers; she oft tendered a hero
A beautiful ring-band, ere she went to her sitting.
Beowulf, XXIX: 54-57
The woman became both queen and ambassador. And her child changed the relations further: the future king of the tribe had the blood of both nations. No warrior of either people could take up arms against the other without turning against their own.

In creating peace between God and man, Jesus is that child. He is the Word of God, revered by the angels, and the Son of Man. The ancients might see him differently, the mediator between God and man: The powers of heaven would not turn against man, because man includes one of God's own. The people of earth who acknowledge Jesus can no longer turn against God, for Jesus' sake. To turn against God becomes a form of self-betrayal now, because Christ is also one of our own.
For unto us a son is born, unto us a son is given, and the government will be upon his shoulder. His name will be called: Wonderful, Counselor, Almighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Thesis #2 On Church Unity

2. Scripture is our light in discerning the truth: not because it answers every question that we wish, but because it contains all the words known with certainty to come from God and from Christ, and because no disciple is above his master.

Again, while it is tempting to add some of the more obvious corollaries to that, at this point they might introduce less clarity instead of more.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Thesis #1 on Church Unity

1. Visible, acknowledged unity of all the followers of Christ is desirable: not because the See is infallible, but because fellowship is indispensable.

So tempting to add more right now, but here and now I want to focus on only this thought. 

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Thanksgiving: Foretaste of the Feast

My thoughts are turning to next week's Thanksgiving celebration, and to which favorite dishes I might prepare, or someone else might. One thing is sure: those of us working in the kitchen sample the food as we work. Anticipation is part of the celebration, and we take a foretaste of the feast to come.

Communion, or the Lord's Supper, is said to be a foretaste of the heavenly feast. As we come together, as we remember Jesus, we have one watchful eye turned toward the feast to come: the table and the gathering guests and the festive preparations. The wait is so long. We gather for a foretaste now, and next week, and again the week after ... like we did the week before, back for our lifetimes. The wait lasted through our parents' lifetimes, our grandparents', back into generations where the names are dim memories. The great saints of prior ages took the same foretaste as we do; we are joining them. The chain goes back unbroken to that upper room that Passover long ago: our Lord, on the night in which he was betrayed, took bread and gave thanks and broke it and gave it to them all. He took the cup and gave thanks and gave it to them all, and said he would not partake again until the kingdom of God had come.

The Lord has been gone a long time. It is tempting to adapt the Jewish Passover refrain: "Next year, in the Kingdom!" It is hard for us to imagine "forever", a kingdom which never ends, and never fails. It is hard for us to understand "eternity" in a way that is possible for God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal. I think we can get a glimpse of the feast to come, and the depth of time in "eternity", when we realize how many lifetimes have come and gone in the time that it takes for preparation.

May I remember to anticipate, and not grow tired of waiting. Anticipation is how the joy of that celebration is drawn forward to brighten the holidays, so that they are not just a day but a season. 

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Objective Morality and the Narcissist

Awhile back, I was introducing a short series on reasons why I believe the concept of morality (a right way to treat each other) is intrinsic to our existence, and why I believe morality has an objective foundation in the value of life itself.

In the comments section, Kevin -- one of the neighboring bloggers who knows how to have a good conversation -- brought up a counter-argument that he'd seen. I'll post parts of it here for reference; if you'd like to see what else is in the longer version, that's in the comments to the post mentioned earlier.
There is only one question pertinent to the discussion of intrinsic morality: Do you believe everyone else's life is as valuable as your own? When we're born, the answer is simply no. ... We're all born narcissists. ... The one question, though, we must answer before we can talk about intrinsic morality is, "Is my pain more important to me than anyone else's?" If the answer is no, then all morality is intrinsic and we need no laws. If the answer is yes, no morality is intrinsic and every law is a tool to give the weak a fighting chance in this dog-eat-dog world. 
It's interesting how deeply we disagree from square 1. In this view, there is "only one question pertinent"; on my view, I'm not sure it's a relevant question. I don't think my life should be as important to you as yours is to you; I don't think my children's lives will ever be as important to you as your children's lives are to you, and I don't think they should be. To make sure my point is plain: I think it is right that you value yourself and your family more than you value acquaintances or strangers. It doesn't make you immoral, it means you have skin in the game. (We'll be back to a related point on that before we're done with this post.) For now, the opening point is that there is a self-care and self-responsibility that, far from being immoral, is actually our job. I don't expect my life to be as important to you as it is to me; but I do expect you to have it cross your mind that my life is as important to me as yours is to you.
... [Early childhood development] The world exists to help and hurt me. People exist to feed and train me. Everything is my toy or my obstacle ... Along the way those pains may open our eyes and we may begin to figure out that other peoples' hurts are as important as our own. If this happens, we may become caring people in place of our native narcissism.
You may know that I belong to a support group for people who were raised by addicts. I know some clinically diagnosed narcissists. I come from the opposite end of the spectrum, those of us raised with so much neglect that we have trouble developing a sense of self. On this end of the spectrum, far from thinking that everyone else exists to serve our wants, we have made ourselves nearly incapable of recognizing our own wants, and dissociate ourselves from the awareness of wanting or feeling in general. There's a lot of dysfunction in the world, but it's not one-size-fits-all. Recognizing both our own humanity and others' humanity are normal stages in healthy human development. I'll grant you that there are plenty of us who miss those normal stages of healthy human development, but I wouldn't want to argue from a narcissist to the lack of real morality, any more than I'd want to argue from a blind man to the lack of real sight.

The picture painted above, viewpoint of the narcissistic child, is very ... zombie-chic, with a post-apocalyptic feel. It ignores every redeeming human experience. In this omni-bleak world, nobody has ever curled up next to another for warmth, or shared a clean laugh, or traded stories over a cup of coffee. No one has ever basked in a moment with the kids, or enjoyed working with a friend on a project, or high-fived each other over a shared success. No one has ever shared a genuine human connection and enjoyed it for its own sake. Our narcissistic child never met up with love, or the desire for meaningful companionship. Even some deeply dysfunctional childhoods have more warmth than that, every now and then. (I've heard it said that narcissists don't have relationships, they take hostages. That's not a meaningful relationship. Think Beauty and the Beast as a tale of someone outgrowing his narcissism to become human. And "human" is defined in terms of being able to enter a meaningful relationship: when the beast understands that -- apart from whether the other person is useful to him -- the other person is valuable in a way that is worthy of celebrating, and that there is pleasure in valuing someone else's goodness.)
Is my pain more important to me than anyone else's?
Perspective. If I hold up a quarter just so, it can block out the sun. I've been in enough pain that it has blocked out the sun. We are finite, and the number of other people is (for practical purposes) infinite compared to us. So I believe that your pain should be important to you, as mine should be to me -- not in a way that is heartless towards others, but in a self-compassionate way that prevents "morality" from being an excuse for being heartless towards ourselves by losing us in a sea of other people that we haven't even met and don't even know.

Does it threaten morality that the speck in my eye -- or quarter, if you'd rather -- blocks out the sun? Well, it certainly carries a risk ... not only because some people are narcissists and sociopaths, but because we're all capable of being overwhelmed by our own pain (or desire or anger or ego etc), and because what's close to us will always look larger than what's at a distance.
... every law is a tool to give the weak a fighting chance in this dog-eat-dog world ... 
Let's go with that as a premise. That means, whenever a society adopts laws, it means we want to give the weak a fighting chance. We want a level playing field, and hope for the weak, and people signed up to advocate for them and give them that fighting chance. We have a streak of decency in us. The zombies haven't won.

Do not do to others what you would not have done to you. - Confucius
Do unto others what you would have them do to you. - Jesus
What if it's healthy when we are infants that we start with just our own perspective? What if that's just the limit of our mind at that point? What if healthy development, and healthy morality, leverages that perspective -- not in a way that makes us lose connection with ourselves, but in a way that makes us gain a connection others?

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Jesus' messengers: Sent out together (Part 2)

This weekend, my church is celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. In the sermon, Martin Luther was the main focus; Jesus was mentioned once. (I have no idea whether that's typical of other pastors in my denomination. I actually suspect it's not typical, but that it might be accepted just this once ...) The risk that the early church warned about -- "I follow Peter, I follow Paul" -- is well in evidence today. Once we are not focused on Christ, where is our unity? I know that church divisions began long before the Reformation, but they've definitely accelerated since then.

Last week I focused on a specific way in which Christ undertook to bless us when he gave us each other, and sent out the apostles in pairs. There are blessings when we are united in his name: his presence, each others' love and fellowship, an ever-widening band of community that encircles the earth. All of those things are damaged or compromised now. Each and every day, we are affected in ways we hardly notice, at depths we hardly reckon with, that our nation is not unified, our neighborhood is not unified, our family is not unified, our international allies are not unified, our voice in the public square is not unified and we are easily played against each other. There is hardly a voice anywhere in the public square which people trust. We spend much of our energy against each other instead of towards our goal. How did we get here?

To read Luther's original 95 Theses, his main focuses were purgatory and indulgences. He wanted to abolish the fundraising abuses, curtail the embarrassingly-questionable theology that he was no longer willing to defend from his teaching post, and return to a Scriptural foundation for church teachings. Luther did not accomplish what he set out to do. "Speak the truth with love." Luther was an incendiary. We'll never know if Luther would have accomplished more if he had approached the problem in a more Christ-like way, or if his opponents had approached his criticisms in a more Christ-like way. For our own part, we have glorified an incendiary, made a role model of an incendiary. What is the fruit of that? Many more have followed in his footsteps. We live in an age in which incendiary people are seen as heroes. We are almost to the one-year anniversary of an election in which the political rhetoric was full of hatred and contempt, where it was a struggle for many people to figure out which was the lesser of two evils (or lesser of four, if you include the minor parties). We can expect that the same crew that organized riots last year after the election will probably be unconcerned (last year, I believe the right adjective was "satisfied") if their planned anniversary "demonstrations" again become violent riots; "rage" is encouraged.
That kind of satisfaction comes from a contempt towards peace, and an indifference towards whether we ever reconcile with the other side, that we have spent half a millenium rehearsing. That includes those who are just sure that "the other guys" are at fault and "the other guys" won't listen. Whether we recognize it or not -- whether those who hate us recognize it or not -- we have set the tone and the pace here by accepting divisions, promoting firebrands, encouraging indifference towards reconciling with each other. We justify our inaction by rehearsing the problems with the other side, while they do the same. It's an ironic thing we have in common, across the divides.

To heal divisions of this long-standing, at this depth, will take saints and miracles. In the early days, the theologians and saints of the church were often the same people: they lived the life of Christ's people and servants in this world. These days, the theologians are often arguers or hair-splitters rather than those who love Christ and his people; they are not at risk of becoming saints, and that means their theology will never be truly great. There is a greatness in Scripture that they believe is beneath them, when I wonder if it is over their heads.

For today, I think the best I can do is recognize that Jesus sent us out together, and to treat all of his people as my people, regardless of whether the various firebrands and their apologists ever call a cease-fire. We are in great need, I believe urgent need, to have the blessings of unity that Christ gave us. Wherever we are gathered together in his name, he is with us.