Sunday, October 15, 2017

How To Be a Furniture Salesman to the Glory of God

I've written before about what I believe is the biggest scandal in the church: the fact that, on most days, we don't live lives of such active compassion for others that it dwarfs the news that, yes, we fall short of our own ideals and are at times embarrassed by bad leadership. After Hurricane Harvey there was a huge shift, as people on the ground here in Houston know: there were countless thousands (I wonder did it cross over into 'millions'?) of Christians spending their days and resources helping in an organized way. Sure, there were some non-Christians who also showed compassion on people -- but the Christian community definitely shone brightly. It's still going on, though in quieter ways that don't really draw cameras: people still providing meals for people who lost their kitchens, or helping with the re-installation of sheet rock ...

The way that the media works, they pick one person to tell the story. During the height of the crisis in Houston, the news media chose Mattress Mack (real name Jim McIngvale), who is already well-known in the Houston area for furniture sales outlets, and even better known for giving back to the community cheerfully and generously. When the waters rose, he saw his fleet of trucks as rescue vehicles. With people needing a place to shelter, he saw his showrooms and warehouses as places with plenty of extra room and extra furniture where people could lay their heads, and sit down in a safe place. Because his heart is willing, he found the way.

We live in an age where we tend to delegate things to specialists. We are called to remember that living out our love is not for specialists, it's for all of us.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Does faith in God lead to lower or higher self-esteem?

Over at CADRE Comments, there has been some discussion of how religious beliefs may affect self-esteem based on academic studies which found a relationship between skepticism and low self-esteem. I thought the conversation interesting enough that I'd like to continue it here.


On the one hand, the question "What belief leads to highest self-esteem?" has some problems. It sounds as though we're trying to measure the health of faith in God (so far so good) by saying it will always lead to higher self-esteem. But what about narcissists? I've met a few. I expect that mental health would mean an increase in self-esteem for a self-loather, but a decrease in self-esteem for a narcissist. For a narcissist, I think the relaxed self-esteem would be more honest, less aggressive or defensive, more peaceful, and in the end healthier. So raising and lowering self-esteem, in isolation from any context, isn't a good measure of mental health, much less truth.

And then whether a belief system tends to raise or lower self-esteem would depend on what kind of view that belief system as a whole has on humanity, and the value of people. Consider two different belief systems: one teaches that humanity is in the image of God who loves us, and the other teaches that there is a god who is a flying spaghetti-monster (or might as well be) and has no particular bond with us. The stakes are about the nature of the Big Scheme of Things, about whether Reality has meaning and takes an interest in our well-being. So whether a belief system says that God made us in his image, or whether it teaches that any god might as well be a ridiculous monster, it necessarily leads to different views of the value of existing, and of being human.

The Skeptic's Perspective

A skeptic involved in the conversation presents these as sample messages from Christianity:
After all [and since I came from Christianity I will use that as an example], what type of messages does Religion send it's believers?

- I am not worthy of your love, Christ.
- Why do you love me?
- I'm a sinner.
- Jesus died to save my sins, therefore I deserve to burn in hell.
- I must humble myself before the Lord.
- Pride is a sin.
A Quick Point

Before I respond to the skeptic's list -- which really deserves a response -- I'll have to say: I have a suspicion of where our skeptic got those ideas. There are actually some Christians running around who practice self-loathing. Now, I think most Christians generally see the self-loathers as needing guidance, sometimes simply immature, though in worse cases it seems to be a bid for sympathy, hoping for someone to contradict them, which might happen more often if it weren't so manipulative or being used as bait for an argument. But they do their damage and it's more than just their own private form of self-harm.

This conversation started with a study showing that religious people generally have better self-esteem; it's because religious people generally have healthier messages than the ones shown above. But there are those who use religion like a cutter uses the blade in her purse, just a way to draw blood with another round of self-hatred -- and like a cutter can become addicted to the self-inflicted pain with its adrenalin rush. The self-loathers have the same relationship to self-love that an anorexic has to food, and will convince themselves that they have too much of the thing when they're starving for its lack. It's rare, but I think most of us have met a cutter, or an anorexic, or a self-loather. In gentleness (so that we don't make the problem worse) it's necessary that we are still firm when we tell a self-loather: it's not healthy, it's not spiritual, it's not Christ-like. We can show them a more excellent way.

The Bigger Picture

So when we get back to the skeptic, I'm going to work from the point-of-view that this person wants to make an honest argument, and isn't making a deliberate effort to distort Christianity, and may have even come by their distorted view honestly by meeting some self-loathers along the way. Regardless of how that view was formed, it's still a significantly distorted picture.

First let's take a general look at the things the skeptic mentions: they are a mixed collection, not all of them actually taught by Christianity. When it comes to that list, the best I can say is that, even when a particular point may be a message of Christianity, it is still distorted. For example: "Pride is a sin" sure: spend some time with someone who is arrogant and it's clear that pride is the enemy of love. But for the distortion, it omits the fact Christianity teaches that love is the foundation of all morality, that self-love is a good thing: "Love our neighbors as ourselves." We couldn't even begin on Christianity's basic moral teachings without self-love. Other items on the skeptic's list (e.g. "Why do you love me?") aren't teachings of Christianity in the first place. So the writer may have had some private context there, but not knowing that context I can't speak to it. The skeptic has selected things that show how Jesus' teachings lead us away from pride and towards humility, with an unspoken assumption that pride is the same thing as self-love, and that humility is the opposite of self-love. Those assumptions aren't true. We've already discussed pride. Humility is gentle by nature and isn't spiteful or harsh with anyone, least of all ourselves.

When it comes to the question, "Is that a distortion?", we see the most telling point when we compare the things that are mentioned against the big picture of what could and should have been mentioned:
  • "God so loved the world" (etc) is on the short list of most-quoted Christian teachings
  • He loves the whole world which includes each of us
  • We were made in the image of God
  • God considered us worthy of his friendship and compassion
  • Because we are his, we are from a source that is wholly good, and no matter the depths to which we sink, we are redeemable
  • There is joy in heaven over us when we reconcile with God
  • God's own Spirit lives within us
  • We living human beings become the living Temple of God
  • His love is greater than our sin
  • We will be holy and blameless in his sight
  • We will shine like stars in the universe
  • He will wipe every tear from our eyes
  • The point of the kingdom of God is for God to be with us, and us with him
It's tempting to keep expanding the list, but the size of the list isn't the point. The point is how impossible it is to separate the message of God's love from the message of Christianity.

A Distaste for Acknowledging Sin

That's still not the whole picture, though. It's not all about lists and counter-lists and big pictures. Here I speak as a perfectionist: it bothers me that I have any faults. There's a temptation to think that having any real fault makes me unworthy. And there's a tendency to be defensive, to see any suggestion that I have faults as an attack or a threat or a put-down. And it doesn't help that there are people who use it that way. But Jesus was very matter-of-fact about it: "It's not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick." If I replace pride with self-love, I can be healed.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Why it matters that God is personal

There are philosophical understandings of God as the Ground of Being, the Unmoved Mover. These are often presented in contrast with the idea of God as a Heavenly Father. Some call the personal image "primitive" or some other pejorative to bar it from serious conversation. Here I write not only to defend that it is acceptable to understand God as person, but to affirm that it is essential and irreplaceable to a full understanding of God. If the purpose of study is to gain knowledge, and the purpose of philosophy to gain wisdom, then recognizing God as personal opens doors to understanding that are simply not available with impersonal abstracts.
  • If God is not personal, then it is ultimately unimportant that we are personal. With an impersonal deity, we're left with something like Eleanor Roosevelt's questionable claim:
Great minds discuss ideas,
average minds discuss events,
small minds discuss people.
That view stems from a deeply non-Christian premise: that ideas are the things of greatest importance, events are less important than ideas, and people are the least important of all. In that aphorism, "minds" stands in as a replacement for people -- or we could say it reduces people to their minds -- in order to maintain the view that people are the least worthy of serious consideration. Contrast that with one of the more striking art forms of recent centuries: the literary novel, in which the deeper themes are incarnated in events, and their worth as wisdom is tested by how they live out in the lives of people. If the art form of the novel per se has any meaning, if the format itself has any basic premise to communicate to the world, then the existence of the novel as art says that people are important, that we matter, that it is not small-minded to care. As a reprise to Mrs Roosevelt, I might offer: "Great thinkers generate great ideas, great doers cause great events, great hearts affirm the value of people." And to affirm the value of people, we have to believe that people matter, that being personal matters. If we see God as personal, this instills in us the sense of the value of being a person. We could not imagine the same extent of value with an impersonal God. We cannot disown the personhood of God without devaluing personhood in general, and ourselves in the process.
  • If God is not personal, then there is no point in praying. After all our prayers are said, the Unmoved Mover is ... unmoved.
  • If God is personal then divine revelations make sense. But if God is not personal, the concept of revelation is in doubt. If God is not personal, is it possible for God to reach out?
  • If God is personal, only then would we turn to him, relate to him, involve him in our lives. But if God is impersonal, then there is no personal connection to God to be found in religion, no meaningful distinction between religion and philosophy. Religion is reduced to philosophy-plus-ritual (some would say "plus superstition"), or philosophy-plus-moral-code; it loses the idea of a transformative connection with a Divine Person.
  • If God is personal, then being in the "image of God" affirms our own personhood. But if God is not personal, the "image of God" portrays us as copies of an abstract ideal, and assigns no particular dignity to the human condition. Without the idea of a person as the image of God, there is little basis for redemption of the person. 
  • If God is not personal, then the foundation of morality and its true nature cannot be love. Love is the unique province of beings who are aware, who value, who connect, who care, who have a stake in the well-being of each other. If God is not personal, God is not love.
I have (for this post, anyway) set aside the questions of how we know that God is personal, and what we mean by that. These are good topics in their own right, but among Christians those conversations have generally already taken place, even if they might bear repeating.

Instead, my focus is here: The idea of personhood is necessary to a full understanding of God. Our understanding of God is incomplete or misleading if we lose sight of that. Setting aside the personhood of God is a disservice not only to "primitive religious" types, but also to true knowledge of God, and true knowledge of ourselves.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Deeper into the Beatitudes

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you, when people revile you, and persecute you, and falsely accuse you of all kinds of evil, for my sake. Rejoice, and be glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so they persecuted the prophets before you. (Matthew 5:3-12)
The beatitudes are the heart of God. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus' teachings begin and end with images of the Last Day, of the kingdom of God fully realized. Here, at the start of his teaching ministry, he shows the Last Day as a day of blessing. There are blessings reserved for the innocents. There are blessings reserved for those who have known grief. Blessings will be poured out on those who have suffered injustice, and on the kind, the merciful, the peacemakers. We have heard the decree of God's healing for this world and for all that is good in it.

When we accuse God of injustice, we accuse the wrong person. We will see the unjust brought to account. Instead of our false accusations, we will see the charges that were right and true.

Between now and then, may I stop myself from adding to the injustice. And may I stop myself from adding a second injustice on top the first, by accusing the wrong person.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

"800-year flood": Crisis and the real-life value of virtue

Here in Houston, we are still in recovery mode. There is an often-quoted number in our local conversations: some commentator has estimated that rain on that scale is a once-in-800-years event for our area. (I hope that means I've paid my dues.) As a pass-time between cleanup, repair, or volunteering stints, we trade stories of floods and rescues, clearing out homes, and waiting in the expectation that some day the garbage collection services will actually make an impact on the curbside debris piles. The standard greeting has become "How did you do in the storm?"

It has been interesting to see the different reactions to a catastrophe of this magnitude. I know someone who had over four feet of water in her home, and calmly waited her turn for boat-rescue, having changed into her swimsuit. I know someone who did not get water in her home, and was so overcome with anxiety that she was vomiting from the stress. (No, neither one of those is me. For my own part, during the worst of it, I was blissfully asleep. If worse came to worst, I'd rather start well-rested. Though the second night, once it became clear what we were up against and the roads were already impassably flooded, I'd packed a "just in case" bag with a couple of changes of clothing, and placed it on top of a chair where it would stay dry longer.)

It has been interesting to see different reactions to all the work that needs to be done. Some see an opportunity to remodel, some see an opportunity to help, some see an opportunity to make a quick dollar flipping flooded houses. And some are just quietly grateful that it wasn't them. Almost all of the people working at the shelters, distribution centers, and meal prep centers have a genuine compassion for those who were badly flooded. I have only met one person at a city-run distribution center who had an attitude other than compassion: the attitude was fear that we would be unable to help some people, leading to anger at those who tried to take more than the very modest limit. Fear and anger can make it tricky to enforce limits humanely and with respect.

Through it all, the genuine, down-to-earth value of virtue has become clear to me:
  1. Hope is not merely shallow wishful thinking. Those who work from hope instead of fear behave in more rational ways, and less self-destructive ways, during a crisis.
  2. Compassion is the most motivating force in a time of need. Compassion has moved an incredible number of people here locally to stand beside each other in our time of need.
  3. Kindness makes a difference. When the need is great, it becomes plain that even the simplest actions can help. Almost everyone has it in them to be a hero, when the opportunity presents itself.
  4. Fellowship is indispensable. None of us gets through this alone. Community also forms naturally when people get together.
I have seen more hope, compassion, kindness, and fellowship these last few weeks than I have seen in a long time. It's not that they were absent before, but the scale of these has had to grow to fill the size of the need.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The still, small voice of God

God came through earthquake, wind, and fire to Moses at the mountain. I expect most people who will read this know that story, and this one too: when Elijah took refuge there again, there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. There was a mighty wind, but the Lord was not in the mighty wind. There was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. (Some people seem to like the earthquake, wind, and fire approach. But it's not the only one.) There was a still, small voice of calm. God was in that voice. (Elijah recognized God's voice. Someone who knew less of God's ways might have tried to give some sort of meaning to the earthquake, wind, and fire, and even claim to be speaking for God.)

Why would the Almighty be gentle? We misunderstand power if we can ask that. There is power in calm. There is a time for a voice that is not raised. There is a time -- it seems about now -- when we have all had enough of earthquake, wind, and fire to last a long time.

Bless the Lord, whose voice also creates calm.

Monday, September 04, 2017

For The Record: What Can We Predict?

I've long noticed, living in southern Texas, that it doesn't snow often. I've also long noticed, living in southern Texas, that when it does snow, it often happens in the winter just following a hurricane. So we just had a hurricane, and here comes winter. Is that enough to predict snow this particular winter here in southern Texas? My experience leads me to expect snow, even though it's rare here.

Some things are more predictable than the weather. One is that disasters, oddly, bring out the best in the people who go through them together. The basic compassion of shared humanity is in full bloom, and all the petty divisions disappear for a time. The just-drained neighborhoods (the backdrop for newscasts of daring boat rescues a week ago) are now filled with hundreds of extra cars: people who came to help tear out wet sheet-rock, pull up wet carpet, and move wet furniture out of the homes. The too-crowded streets have church relief trucks passing out sandwiches and water to people they never met, who are too grateful and too hungry to turn it down. I saw one relief truck get nearly mobbed in a neighborhood that is within a few miles of the rain gauge that set the new national record, and one young woman nearly brought to tears by some watermelon after a week of eating cold dry goods or things from a can. In some places the cleaner debris becomes a makeshift picnic-table: a door set across the washer and dryer out by the curb. And everyone has more friends and neighbors now than when we started.

It makes me oddly optimistic. Even the apocalypse doesn't seem entirely bad, from a certain angle. It's not that the predictions of doom and gloom have been entirely wrong, just that they leave out the power of compassion.