Sunday, January 30, 2011

In unexpected places

A Christian might not normally look for inspiration or insight in the Gospel of Philip, one of the non-canonical "lost scripture" type writings of the early church. To me, it does not make sense to think of the "Gospel of Philip" as a lost gospel because when you read the text, it makes no attempt to be a biography of Jesus. Calling it a "lost gospel" is to misclassify it; it is more of a reflection on the sacraments, the Scriptures, and occasionally on Jesus from the early church, from a portion of the church we would find a little ... off the beaten path. It belongs in the "unorthodox patristics" section of the church library, not in the "lost gospels" section.

I have called the writing unorthodox, so I will explain what I mean by that before I mention what good I have found in it. Here is a quote to ground the discussion in the actual text:
The world came about through a mistake. For he who created it wanted to create it imperishable and immortal. He fell short of attaining his desire.

It is one question whether someone may sympathize with this thought; it is another question whether it reflects a mainstream Christian understanding of the book of Genesis. This reflection on Genesis is fairly far outside of the historical mainstream of reflections on Genesis when it calls this world a mistake. Genesis describes a world that was originally Paradise, very good in every way. Mainstream Christian thought then does not consider the world to be a mistake or a matter of God missing the mark and falling short of attaining his desire. (It's entertaining to me that some people will not allow that this text is Gnostic because it finds some good in the material world where an "orthodox" Gnostic text would not ... but the same writers often have no trouble classifying it as a Christian text even though it is not an "orthodox" Christian text. I think the Gnostic-orthodox purists will eventually have to acknowledge there was such a thing as being unorthodox from the Gnostic point-of-view as well as from the apostolic-orthodox perspective.) But on the main point, when I classify the text as unorthodox, that is meant to describe where it lies in the spectrum of early Christian beliefs: it lies outside the mainstream of what was believed in the early church. That mainstream was formed by those who took their cue from the earliest church, the apostles, and the preceding Jewish thought in the synagogues from which the Christian church originally arose. The Gnostic writings tended to form in cultures where Jewish thought and Jewish understanding was not the starting point when interpreting Scripture. Those cultures may have had a fresh take on Jewish Scripture due to their relative unfamiliarity with it, but the established Hebrew-based camp also considered the non-Hebrew readers to make beginners' mistakes on some basic points. At any rate, that interpretation of Genesis is not valid from outside of the Gnostic perspective, so other perspectives would necessarily find it "unorthodox".

I'm not writing this to criticize the Gospel of Philip even if I do take some time to say why I'm quoting it and what type of writing it seems to be. My point is that the Gospel of Philip does belong in the "unorthodox patristics" section of the church library. It has some useful things to say.

Here is an insight that would be at home in any Christian sermon:
Faith receives, love gives. No one will be able to receive without faith. No one will be able to give without love.
Here the Gnostic writers have reflected on what the New Testament teaches about faith and love. It distills many of the teachings of the New Testament into a memorable saying that is valid from more than just the Gnostic perspective.

Or here again:
An ass which turns a millstone did a hundred miles walking. When it was loosed it found that it was still at the same place. There are men who make many journeys, but make no progress towards any destination.
That's good sermon material there, an illustration which is not limited in appeal to those who share the same dogmatic presuppositions as the Gnostics. The analogy we might use now is a "treadmill", which is the closest we get to the old-style mills with lots of effort but going nowhere. The caution is that we shouldn't mistake movement for progress; apparently it was just as much a problem for Gnostics in the second or third century as it is now.

And here is one last example of something interesting in the Gospel of Philip. The first part looks like an example of the ancients not really understanding genetics, but by the end it has made a useful point despite it all:
The children a woman bears resemble the man who loves her. If her husband loves her, then they resemble her husband. If it is an adulterer, then they resemble the adulterer. Frequently, if a woman sleeps with her husband out of necessity, while her heart is with the adulterer with whom she usually has intercourse, the child she will bear is born resembling the adulterer. Now you who live together with the Son of God, love not the world, but love the Lord, in order that those you will bring forth may not resemble the world, but may resemble the Lord.
I think if we found this passage in any other commentary on Scripture from the second or third centuries, we would bear with it patiently and take it for what it is worth. And that is basically my point with the Gospel of Philip.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Carmen on Ice: When we wrestle with sin, who's winning?

I love to watch ice skating. One of the most mesmerizing ice-skates I have ever seen was a performance of Carmen on Ice starring Katarina Witt as Carmen. In an early scene Carmen, a walking trouble-factory, has been arrested and is being escorted to jail.

A guard has tied Carmen with a rope and walks her along holding the other end of the rope. But the guard is an inexperienced and naive young man. Carmen sees something the young official does not see: as he holds the other end of the rope and is bound by duty, the guard cannot escape from her any more than she can escape from him. And so she begins to toy with him. Even though she has been arrested it's clear from the way she carries herself: she is in charge. The young guard has little idea how far over his head he is.

It's easy to underestimate sin as an opponent. Whenever we wrestle with sin or temptation, even if we merely wrestle against another part of our own minds, we find ourselves up against an experienced and crafty opponent. Ever find yourself praying to forgive someone, and find yourself instead remembering the wrong and inflaming the resentment so that the resentment is worse than before? Or ever find yourself praying about a sin, only to find you've just given it your full attention by focusing on it? We're the naive young guard, and we can easily find ourselves over our heads. And like the guard, the problem is that we're not entirely sure within our own minds; one part of us would rather have the trouble.

Evil often tries to use us that way: even if we think we have it on a leash, it may be the one leading us around. And Jesus paints a similar picture: that we are slaves to sin. If we struggle with sin but then resentfully and reluctantly do things we do not want to do, then sin owns us. We're the prisoner, we're the captive -- another analogy that the Bible uses for our situation.

Consider how often Saul of Tarsus has been repeated in history: he sets out to stop what he is sure is evil, and instead finds himself doing terrible things and making excuses for terrible things. Or consider how easily justice becomes revenge, an infinite excuse to abuse someone who is hated, provided they have ever done something wrong. It's fairly easy for our good intentions to be turned around on us.

Jesus showed us how to do the same thing to evil: how to reverse things so that evil's opening move is turned around for the good, and for evil to find itself the one being outmaneuvered. He said to bless those who curse us. There is no shortage of people who curse us these days; is it really so hard to return a kind word? He said to do good to those who hate us. There are probably some around who hate us, and we know who they are; it is easy enough to find something good to do for them. He said to pray for those who persecute us, and he encourages us to greet more than just those who would expect it of us. These are more than inspirational words; they show us how to take evil's opening move -- or even an evil status quo -- and turn it into a reversal for evil, where all its plans backfire, and the harder it tries, the more thoroughly defeated it becomes, the more thoroughly its plans are frustrated.

Like Carmen we should know: the rope is in our hands. The question is who is more experienced and determined.

Here's a link to that segment of Carmen On Ice, if you want to watch. The segment starts with the fight that leads to the arrest, and then includes the arrest scene.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Making the simple wise

When I was typing up the previous post with the Psalm about God making the simple wise, I wondered: How many ways can you take that? When God's word makes the simple wise -- specifically focusing on how it does that for the simple -- does that mean it does nothing for those who are already wise in their own eyes? Is it saying that the ones who can be made wise are the simple ones, the ones who come as little children, teachable and open? That the things of God are hidden from the "wise and learned" and revealed to little children? The Bible keeps saying not to be wise in our own eyes. When we are wise in our own eyes we are not teachable; it's a matter of pride. It's spiritually dangerous to be impressed with our own wisdom. Learning follows from humility.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Follow me (dismissal for an order of worship)

Here are some new worship materials. I suppose these would best suit the dismissal portion of an order of worship. Here I have three versions of this for different occasions: a basic version for ordinary use, a version with Psalms, and a Lenten version.


P: Jesus calls, "I am the way."
C: "Follow me."

P: "I am the truth".
C: He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

P: "I am the light."
C: He who has eyes to see, let him see.

P: Jesus calls, "Follow me."
C: And he will make us fishers of men.

With Psalms:

P: Jesus calls, "I am the way."
C: "Follow me."

P: He leads me beside still waters.
C: He restores my soul.

P: "I am the truth".
C: He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

P. The teaching of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul.
C: The testimony of the Lord is sure, making the simple wise.

P: "I am the light."
C: He who has eyes to see, let him see.

P: Your word is a lamp unto my feet.
C: And a light for my path.

For Lent:

P: Jesus calls, "I am the way."
C: "Follow me."

P: "I am the truth".
C: He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

P: "I am the light."
C: He who has eyes to see, let him see.

P: "I am the way."
C: "Take up your cross and follow me."

P: Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.
C: For you are with me.

General note: I like something like this as the dismissal because it's too easy to see the dismissal from worship as leaving behind the things of God, and better to see it as following Christ out the door and into the world.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

What would better journalism look like?

Every once in awhile I wonder what various industries would look like if they were run according to Christian standards and principles. Recently I found myself wondering about journalism. It's difficult to get quality information on many subjects because you basically get either left-wing or right-wing political propaganda, depending on the news outlet. Sure, I try to keep up with the talking points of both sides, but the irritating thing is the debate stays really shallow, and there isn't a lot of in-depth coverage out there.

What would Christian news look like? It would speak the truth with love. It would also follow the wisdom of Solomon: "The first to present his case seems right until someone comes forward to question him." Both sides would be heard, and both sides would be questioned.

Let's take a hot-button topic, and I'll show you what I mean. Let's talk about the criminal justice system: the concerns over convicting the innocent or acquitting the guilty. The usual stances are: the left accuses the right of being too hard on criminals, being too gung-ho for justice, and risking convicting the innocent -- and, of course, racism. The right accuses the left of being too soft on criminals, being more pro-criminal-rights than pro-victim-rights, and acquitting the guilty.

What could a reporter do?

  • Calculate and publish the conviction percentages by judge. Check if there really is a difference in conviction rates between Judge(D) and Judge(R).
  • Is there a particular judge whose conviction rates are way out of line -- much higher or much lower -- compared to the others in the group? Spend some time in that courtroom and figure out why.
  • Check and publish mistrial rates.
  • Check and publish the plea bargain rates, and the typical differences in sentences.
  • Stay in the courthouse for a week or a month and take a survey after every acquittal. Pay the former defendants $20 each to tell you, anonymously, whether they were really innocent or guilty, to get a handle on the "acquitting the guilty" rate. If you're really feeling bold, ask them if their lawyer knew they were guilty before entering that "not guilty" plea, and ask them what factors enabled them to get away with it.
  • Check for overturned convictions or known cases of convictions later proved false. Research and write up the factors that led to the miscarriage of justice. If possible, get enough cases that patterns can be detected.
  • Interview the judges, prosecutors, public defenders, defendants, police, and victims about the different questions that come up during the background research.
Some would take financing; others would just take some good solid research. Ever seen a piece of reporting like that? I haven't. And that has a direct bearing on the quality of the political conversation. Fairly often it's the reporters who set the tone of political discussion in our country. The shallow and one-sided approach is poor stewardship of the public trust and of the public role of a reporter in our society.

Let's take just one more hot-button topic. Let's talk about illegal immigration -- or more specifically, the reporting on illegal immigration. The boilerplate stances are, on the left, that the poor from Mexico deserve a chance at the relative prosperity in America, that immigration enforcement and border security are just a cover for racism, and that the U.S. should provide a path to citizenship for those who enter the country illegally -- or from the right: that millions of illegal aliens are taking jobs that millions of Americans really need and adding a high burden of social service costs, and that the drug war in Mexico is too dangerous to leave our borders as they are. The reporting rarely gets deeper than that. That means it's not really reporting as such, it's more a matter of position papers being put out by the news affiliates of the two main political parties. People looking for real solutions are left without enough information.

What more could a serious investigative reporter find out?

Here are things that could probably be found with some background research. This first batch of items is limited to things where there are probably official statistics available, or that where statistics could be gleaned from existing sources with some effort. Because this first group of questions has to do with laws, statistics, and budgets, the subject matter is relatively limited, dealing with things that are covered by law or tracked by statistics.
  • How many people are in the country illegally?
  • How many jobs are held by people in the country illegally? What kinds of jobs? What are the typical hours in a work day? In a week? What is the typical pay? Who are the typical employers?
  • What are the typical living conditions?
  • Is there any estimate on what percentage of illegal residents have jobs that are intrinsically criminal (e.g. drug smuggling), what percentage have regular jobs, what percentage are day laborers, what percentage are unemployed?
  • How much money does the average illegal worker send back home to a dependent family in the average month or year?
  • Which public-funded service programs serve people regardless of citizenship or legal resident status?
  • How many publicly-funded students are in the country illegally? What percentage is that? What are the percentages on the high and low end of the spectrum for different neighborhoods, cities, counties, states? (Scope depends on the level at which the reporter works.)
  • How many illegal-resident students receive publicly-funded special services such as bilingual or ESL / ELL programs?
  • How many illegal-resident students receive free or reduced-price school lunches?
  • How many crimes are committed by people in the country illegally? Is there an estimate of the financial or human cost of the crimes?
  • As a percentage, how does the rate of criminals for illegal residents compare to that of citizens and legal residents?
  • How many people in the prison system are in the country illegally? What is the cost of incarceration? Who pays it? What percentage of the people in the system are in the country illegally?
  • Where does an illegal resident go to get health care? Who pays the bill?

After the basic statistics and background research had been done and the reporter has a clearer idea what to ask, they could start lining up interviews. I bet every one of my readers could think of good questions to ask. Here are types of people I'd expect would make good interviews:
  • Day workers
  • Illegal residents with regular permanent jobs
  • Employers
  • Apartment managers / landlords
  • Police
  • Immigration officials
  • Money transfer / wire transfer workers
  • Coyotes (professional people-smugglers) if available
  • School officials: admin; BIL/ESL workers
  • Hospitals, doctors' offices, local health officials

Here's the thing: if I sit around at a blog and can think of this, I know that a professional reporter could think of this, and better, if they tried. And it's not just these particular issues. Almost every issue of any depth could and should have someone do some serious reporting on it. The financial crisis, unemployment, recent frauds, an expose on how Congress really works ... all kinds of possibilities.

My point is not that a Christian would be (D) or (R); I think political point-scoring would be shunned as dirty pool by someone whose first priority is following Christ. A Christian approach to reporting would go beyond the slogans and canned talking points and get to the people really involved, with an eye to both love and justice.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The letter to the Galatians as an example of spiritual direction

I have wondered sometimes, "Is there a good example of spiritual direction in the Bible?" For all the talk about spiritual direction, I still sometimes wonder: does this have anything to do with what Jesus asked of us, or what any author in the Bible asks us to do? How Biblical is spiritual direction, really? And do we have any Biblical examples to use as a standard so that we can check if others go astray from that, or fall short, or are right about what that direction should be?

Chalk it up to another episode of missing what is right in front of me, but it took me awhile to realize that many of the letters in the New Testament are intended to be spiritual direction. That is, they are meant to instruct people on how best to live our lives in light of what Christ has done.

What happens if we look at one of the epistles as a crash-course of spiritual direction from Paul to his readers? What were Paul's priorities? What were the first lessons they needed? Looking at the letter to the Galatians, here's what I see:
  1. The most vital thing, given first priority, is to make sure they understand the good news of Christ. He explains from many and various angles why this message is to be trusted, and the message is that our righteousness consists in trusting God's righteousness that is revealed in Christ. Roughly half the epistle is devoted to this, and nothing else is considered until this has been firmly grasped.
  2. There was a strong warning given against false rules and false religiosity, against the "keeping up appearances" kind of religion, or the "earning our righteousness" kind of religion, or the "keeping the holiness code" kind of religion. He tries to get them to see religion in a new way, not as a matter of keeping the law but of living as children of God.
  3. He challenges them to see the law as fulfilled in this: loving each other. He challenges them on whether, with all their rules and observances, they have actually loved each other.
  4. He instructs them on recognizing the works of our sinful nature, the sinful acts, attitudes, and outcomes that have no place in a Christian life. He challenges the people to "crucify" those. His listeners lived in an age where crucifixion was a reality, not a historical curiosity. We might have the same reaction if we were told to give our sinful nature a lethal injection, or to put our sinful nature in the electric chair. We remember the cross as where we meet Jesus, where we seek his place at the heart of the matter. But we remember the cross with an understanding of what Paul meant: our sinful nature is not to be given amnesty, but executed, to die with Christ.
  5. He instructs them on what a spirit-filled life looks like. He describes a goodness that fulfills and surpasses the law without giving itself a pat on the back for how favorably it tallies against the law, without trying to justify itself by what it does, without trying to condemn or show up anyone else by comparison.
  6. He shows them how, as a community, to work together when there is sin. He shows them the particular temptations that come for the corrector: to be arrogant or conceited or harsh, to be self-deceived about his own status, or to be ungenerous toward another's burdens. He shows them the particular temptations that come for those who steadily persevere: to grow tired of doing good.
  7. He explains how each person has the responsibility to test his own actions.

I know more of the epistles and much of the New Testament could be re-read from that same point of view. What I hope is that eventually we can answer this question: what are the Bible's instructions about our spiritual formation? Paul already gives a short answer here: to become children of God, to clothe ourselves with Christ.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Ten Boom family: an iron resolve for kindness

Corrie ten Boom, her sister Betsie and their father Casper spent decades of their lives perfecting one thing that many of us never master: the art of being kind to all people, no matter what. Then came World War II; their beautiful Holland became Nazi-occupied Holland. When the occupying army began persecuting, even refusing food ration cards to Jews, their quest to be kind to all people -- no matter what -- was now a dangerous calling.

They faced questions they may never have imagined. What if keeping your neighbor fed and housed put you on the wrong side of the law? What if it put the police on your trail? What if you could be arrested for it? What if you could be placed in a Nazi concentration camp for it? Would your kindness stop, or would it stay with you in prison? Would there come a point when you cut your losses and stopped the kindness? Or would it transform the cells and barracks of the prisons where you were confined? Would it extend even to the prison guards?

Reading about their lives makes us understand: the reason the family succeeded in being so unfailingly kind in the early, peaceful part of their lives was not because it was easy. Theirs was not simply a kindness of convenience, a politeness of habit that could be interrupted by a break in the comfortable pattern of their lives. It was because they already possessed that iron determination that nothing could turn their path away from loving their neighbors. For us, even a disrupted schedule or an annoying neighbor can sometimes be too much for us and throw off our resolve to be kind. Their lives shine a spotlight onto our own lives: How determined are we to be the kind and welcoming face in this world?

Casper and Betsie ten Boom paid with their lives, dying in the concentration camps. Corrie survived to tell their tale.

Monday, January 10, 2011

J.R.R. Tolkien, Professor of Ancient Beauties

Professor Tolkien once said that a new word should be created, something that meant the opposite of a catastrophe, the opposite of a disaster. He wanted a word for when, against all odds, when all hope seemed lost, through an unexpected turn of events the good triumphed anyway. He suggested "eucatastrophe" for this word.

But Tolkien's work also leaves me searching for a word that I cannot find in our language. He is so determined to entice and allure with the goodness of the world, and the appeal is so strong and insistent, that the closest word I can find is "seduce". But "seduce" is always used of the appeal of bad things: the appeal of the bad is so strong that it corrupts our minds, our will, our character, and leads us down the wrong way to disaster. Tolkien has achieved what few others have done: he has shown the good in all its beauty and desirability, so that the appeal of the good is so strong and alluring that it un-corrupts our minds, our will, and our characters, and leads us down the right way towards health and sanity. When we have finished reading Tolkien, it seems genuinely unthinkable to lie or to betray a friend, or even speak too harshly with our neighbors. Aren't we supposed to be off somewhere helping to heal the world, or building a thing of beauty, or sitting with our friends and raising a toast?

Tolkien creates a world with layer on layer of history, each age leaving its own traces behind. Ancient poems in forgotten languages, hauntingly beautiful, are sprinkled through the pages. The landscape is scattered with the ruins of monuments of earlier ages. And the possibility is never quite gone: someone might take up those songs again, or take the empty throne again, and the crumbling ruins will then become the placeholders for rebuilding the glory that once was. The enchanting past never quite loses its sense of possibility, that it might have a living part to play in the future.

And so the good professor's works inevitably leave us with the impression that he was, after all, talking about this world. They leave us with a sense of unfinished business.

Professor Tolkien invites us to love what is good, what is just, what is pure, what is lovely, those things that are worthy of praise, and to think on these things.

Title for scholars:
Professor of Ancient Beauties

Other holders of the Tolkien chair:
C.S. Lewis
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Friday, January 07, 2011

Saints: The missing epistles of the New Testament

The God we proclaim is not an idol carved from stone or an imagined philosophy; he is the Living God. Even his Word is the Living Word; God's full self-expression in this world is not as a book but as a person, Jesus of Nazareth. Christians down through the ages have proclaimed Jesus as the Word of God made flesh. His word is meant to be lived.

We carefully study the letters of Peter and Paul in the New Testament because we think here we have something written by the Spirit of the Living God. There we read:
You are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the Living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of the human heart. (2 Corinthians 3:3)
Consider carefully what Paul is saying. Not all the epistles written by the Holy Spirit are written with ink; not all of God's words are carved on some stone tablet. It is a perfectly legitimate thing to be inspired by those around us who live by the Spirit of God. It is a perfectly Biblical thing to recognize that the Bible is meant to be lived, and to find inspiration in those who live it. More than that, if we read the Bible rightly it writes on our own hearts, so that we may be living letters from God.

Many of us in the west are Protestants, very much put off by Rome. There's some history of antagonism there, a distrust of all things Roman -- including knowing and honoring the lives of saints. Worse, we may not even recognize that God's word to us may be written in the lives of other followers of Christ, may not acknowledge that the word of God may be written on tablets of the human heart. We miss God's message, the people whose lives are epistles from God, but not written with ink. In every age, there are living epistles of the New Testament. In our quest to follow Jesus, these letters from Christ should not be missing.

I will be posting a few things about the living epistles of the New Testament that have inspired me greatly:

(Note: Updated with links to Tolkien and ten Boom.)

Monday, January 03, 2011

Mary of Bethany, Doctor of the Lilies of the Field

Some of the great saints of ages past have been reckoned "doctors" of the church. It seems to me that Mary of Bethany had a lot to teach. With that thought in mind ...

Of all the people of the New Testament, among the merely mortal, possibly my favorite is Mary of Bethany. The story has gone down in history about the day that Jesus went to Mary and Martha's house.1 Martha worked double-time to get everyone served. Mary just sat at Jesus' feet and listened. When Martha appealed to Jesus to press Mary into working, Jesus appealed to Martha to see the value of not worrying so much, and sitting and listening more.

Mary showed the way for friendly, joyful contemplatives -- not hermits, not recluses, not removed from daily life. She was devoted to treasuring up Jesus' words in the middle of her home and family.

I have heard many sermons over the years about Jesus' visit to Martha and Mary's home. They're usually about how Mary needed to learn to work, and Martha needed to learn to relax, in order that they both learn from each other and find the right balance. But Jesus said nothing of the sort. He didn't say a word about Mary becoming troubled about many things. We miss Jesus' point entirely if we insist on defending Martha's hectic stress; Jesus' words to her were far closer to an invitation to put all those worries aside. Jesus said Mary already had the better of it.

We rush to defend worries as "responsible" and a hectic schedule as "productive"; we rush to justify ourselves. Many people simply cannot let Mary be the good example in that story. Do we insist on Martha's right to her misplaced priorities? Otherwise our own might be challenged.

Mary is the living example of what Jesus said, "Seek first the kingdom of God." She found the kingdom of God in her living room. "Consider the lilies of the field. They do not toil or spin. And yet not even Solomon in all his splendor was arrayed like one of these."

We're embarrassed, determined not to be seen as silly by the world, so we do not actually consider the lilies of the field -- at least not very seriously. I think that Mary was not ashamed -- not after what Jesus said -- to take what he said seriously, and consider the lilies of the field.

But along the years there are those who have thought about what Jesus said to Mary, and have chosen what is better.

Titles for contemplatives:
Doctor of the Lilies of the Field
Scholar of the Rose

Other members of the order:
Francis of Assissi
Therese of Lisieux

1 - Luke 10:38-42