Friday, December 31, 2010

Best of the Blogroll: 2010

This year again I'm keeping the tradition of closing out the old year by celebrating the best post(s) of the year from various blogs on my blogroll. Welcome to the Best of the blogroll, 2010 edition:
Please welcome to the blogroll starting in 2011 a long-overdue update to include Thin Places and The Pocket Scroll.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Holy, holy, holy: How ancient is that song?

I have one more note in the series on holiness, a comment on the praise of God's holiness in the ancient song "Holy, Holy, Holy" in our worship. Exalting God's name and hallowing it does not reduce to this song; but this song has played an important part through the ages in hallowing God's name. I was surprised just how ancient and widespread that is in our worship.

The song "Holy, Holy, Holy" is part of the most ancient church services. In the ancient Latin liturgies, the song goes by the name Sanctus. In the ancient Greek liturgies, a similar prayer goes by the name Trisagion (thrice-holy), though in its form it is not so closely tied to the vision of Isaiah. But the place of this song in the worship service seems to be older than the Latin or Greek forms. When I went to my niece's bat-mitzvah, there in the service it was a long-expected friend: "Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh, Adonai Sabaoth!" (Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord of Hosts!).

The most ancient parts of the liturgy are inherited from Judaism: the Scripture readings, the lectionary to order them, the Psalms, the sermon, the fringed shawl worn by the leader, and at least this one song: Holy, Holy, Holy. Then again, the Hebrews do not suppose that the song originated in their liturgy. From the vision of Isaiah, they believe it to be part of the eternal song of heaven, and our liturgies merely participate in that. Some of the older Christian liturgies introduce this song by reminding the people that here we are joining the eternal song: "Therefore with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify your glorious name, evermore praising you and saying:".

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The hope of the nations -- and of the Christians, and of the sinners

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwell in the land of the shadow of death, on them the light has shined. ... For unto us a child is born. (Isaiah 9:2, 6)
So as I mentioned before, "business as usual" is living in darkness and the shadow of death. I've read lots of words today (Christmas; I'm scheduling this to post the next day). Some of the words have been encouraging, but some have been words in which people rehearse their hatred towards other people, or criticize others for celebrating Christmas in a way they don't approve (like with all the sparkly lights), or justify thoughts that they are, after all, more knowledgeable about Christianity than most others. Sometimes it gives the appearance that knowledge is used to put down others; if one person has more facts about the historical background of the day, then the brother or sister in Christ they're presuming to instruct had best stop talking back and admit the superiority of the other. Even if they're as right as they imagine about facts, who is exalted? Business as usual is walking in darkness for all of us. Sometimes the temptation is for us to think we're the light, the "star". We're not.

We're Christian writers, right? I expect we all would like to see these things we write as righteous acts, or at least as our best efforts at it. Which brings into focus something else Isaiah taught us: our righteous acts are filthy rags before God, and it rarely occurs to us that "Chief of sinners" applies to us and our righteous acts, especially in our religiosity, especially when we're most sure we're not the problem -- especially when we're sure we're the light, the star. That was what convinced Saul of Tarsus, after all, to go full steam ahead with his wickedness back in the day: it was precisely his religiosity -- his certainty that here, he was in the right and the others were wrong, so no holds barred in opposing them -- that led him to be chief of sinners, that led him to shed innocent blood, that led him to be arrogant and cruel and ruthless, to lose all sense of perspective. Perspective comes with humility. It is often when we're most convinced that we are the light (the enlightened ones, or the stars) that we are in the deepest darkness. It's not about us. It's really not.
For unto us a child is born. Unto us a son is given. And the government will be upon his shoulders. And his name shall be called: Wonderful, Counselor, Almighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there shall be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that day forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this. (Isaiah 9:6-7)

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas, interrupting business as usual

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwell in the land of the shadow of death, on them the light has shined. ... For unto us a child is born. (Isaiah 9:2, 6)
All year long, we go about business as usual -- and often, "business as usual" is living in darkness, and the shadow of death.

God interrupts business as usual. And God in his wisdom did not send mere words but a child, who in his wisdom did not come to condemn but to forgive. And there lies our hope.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Holiness begins here: "Hallowed be your name"

As we saw before, all the holiness in this world depends on the holiness of God. In a world with no knowledge of the holiness of God, nothing at all is regarded as holy.

We live in an age of disrespect. Too often, derision and mockery are accepted; reverence is not. Too many times, people have marveled at what our culture has become, how low we have sunk, and often the shock is voiced with these words: "Is nothing sacred?"

That which gives purity, beauty, meaning and dignity to our lives is holiness. In "holiness", we find part of the mystery of God. If you ask people, "Where does the world come from?" some will say the Big Bang. The Big Bang lacks two things, compared to God: personhood and holiness. Some will say the world was caused by Intelligent Design but the designer may not be God. The Intelligent Designer, thought of in this way, lacks one thing compared to God: holiness.

Holiness is at the core of the mystery of what it means to be God. The holiness of God is, time and again, associated with his glory and particularly with beauty. Another symptom of this sickness of our age is that our artwork has lost its beauty. It seems this began about the same time that the holy was thrown out of favor as a rightful theme of art. (Should the "Age of Enlightenment" be re-named the "Age of Disenchantment"?)

God's holiness affects more than just himself. It affects us and the world we live in. It is not by accident that the very first prayer we offer each day, each night, is "Hallowed be your name." Jesus taught us to begin with this, to make this the foundation of our petitions, the prayer on which all other prayers rest. Without this petition, the next petitions are impossible. God's kingdom come, God's will be done on earth as in heaven ... What kind of kingdom does not honor its king? And how is his will done -- who sets out to do that will, where God is not honored? It begins with reverence. To hallow God's name is to take part in his kingdom.

If we want to reclaim this world as hallowed ground, it begins with hallowing God's name. Our own holiness does not begin with ourselves, or our personal purity, or our obedience or steadfastness or clean records. It begins with hallowing God's name.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Holy, holy, holy: Degrees of holiness

In the Bible, some things are called holy. Fewer are called most holy (in the Hebrew, typically "holy holy"; in English, sometimes "Holy of Holies"). As far as I can tell, God alone is called "holy, holy, holy" (Isaiah 6:3, Revelation 4:8).

The things of this world, or the places, or the people, are called holy when they are of God and for God. When God calls his people, he declares that his people should be holy, for he is holy. This is something like a refrain in the book of Leviticus: be holy for God is holy (11:44, 11:45, 19:2, 20:7, 20:26, 21:8, 22:3, 22:32). Again, for us holiness is not mere separation from the impure in the world; it means drawing closer to God.

Relatively few things in the Bible are designated as most holy. Most often, the "most holy" things are the altar, certain offerings reserved for the priests to eat, and the inner sanctum -- the Holy of Holies -- in the Temple. The altar, among the most holy things, had a special blessing: it would make holy whatever touched it (Exodus 29:37). The Holy of Holies within the Temple was also unique: there was the very presence of God, manifested in a way that was rare in the world, but expected at that place.

And then there is one striking reference to something "holy holy" -- striking in the possibility of a double meaning, and in its implications:
Seventy 'sevens' are determined upon your people and upon your holy city: to finish transgression, to make an end of sins, to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy, and to anoint the Most Holy. Know, then, and understand that from the going forth of the decree to restore and build Jerusalem until the anointed ruler ... (Daniel 9:24-25)
What, exactly, is anointed? Are they discussing the Temple and anointing the Most Holy place, or are they discussing the anointed ruler?

I know there are those who insist this has nothing to do with the Messiah. But I'll tell you plainly, the ancient Jews believed "All the prophets prophesied only for the days of the Messiah" – Berachoth 34b, and again, "All the prophets prophesied only in respect of the Messianic era" – Sanhedrin 99a. So the thought of referring this to anything and everything but the Messiah is not in keeping with ancient Judaism.

Instead, here we see a possibility: that the Messiah has a unique connection with that rebuilt Temple, and particularly with that "anointed, Most Holy" here. The manifest presence of God on earth and the Messiah are connected in this passage; the Temple and the Messiah are blurred together. "Destroy the Temple and in three days I will rebuild it" -- Jesus identifies himself with the true meaning of that holy place. At Jesus' death, the curtain veiling the Most Holy place was torn, again pointing out Jesus' connection to the Temple and especially to the Most Holy place, the place where God's presence was found on earth.

And Jesus, true Holy of Holies, brings us to one more thing that the Bible calls most holy: the sacrifices. Among the most holy sacrifices were the sin offerings and the trespass offerings. And these -- these were given the priests to eat. Jesus is the most holy sin offering, the most holy trespass offering, given to the priests to eat. Peter understood that well when he wrote and declared that all of those in Christ are priests. Not only are we a royal priesthood, but like Christ we are part of the house, the dwelling-place, of God: "living stones being built into a spiritual house". Again, holiness is not at all a separation, except from things that are perishing. It is a drawing-in, a transformation, an ever-closer fellowship with God.

I'm not quite done with this series on holiness, but here I will leave off with this thought: the holy and the most holy are bridges between this world and the Holy, Holy, Holy Lord. All the holiness in this world depends on the holiness of God. If God is not holy, then nothing is holy.

Picking up from there next time.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Is holiness really "separation"?

In our world, conventional wisdom says that holiness is being separate, being set apart. We picture holiness as avoiding the evil, the unclean, the impure. No doubt holiness does all that. But is that because holiness wants to be a hermit, or because the world is often unclean?

If the world were clean and pure, would holiness need to be separate from it? Genesis tells the story of Eden, where Adam and Eve heard the LORD walking in the garden (Genesis 3:8). Did God stop being holy to walk among us? No, not at all; I think the world was holy -- a fitting place for God. When the world is good, there is no need for separation.

In the Temple in ancient Israel, the presence of God was said to rest in the Holy of Holies. You could hardly imagine a more separate place. It was within the Temple, in the inner sanctum that even the typical priest would never enter in his lifetime. Even the high priest was only permitted to open the curtain once a year. The point of the curtain was to make sure that the holy of holies did remain separate.
And the curtain of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom. (Matthew 27:51, Mark 15:38, Luke 23:45)
Those who have read the accounts of Jesus' life will already know: at his death, the holy of holies was torn open.

What was Holiness doing, being separate all those years? Had he surrendered the world to evil, and contented himself with a compromise of a life in exile from his own world? Was Holiness hiding in the Most Holy place, hiding from the world? Had the presence of God retreated from evil and made a fortress for itself, under siege? If so, then at Jesus' death the last sanctuary for Holiness in this world was destroyed. Then evil had broken into the last refuge of goodness on earth. God had come to reach out to man, and man had killed him.

Or was Holiness maintaining a presence among us all those years? Was Holiness giving us a rallying point for hope, that he had not abandoned us even in our fallen state? Was he saying that he stayed with us, even in our sin, even in our wickedness, throughout all the long years? Was his continuing presence saying that one day he would walk among us again? Was it a promise of redemption? If so, then at Jesus' death God's separation from us has ended. Holiness' years of biding his time in a sanctuary is finished. The last barrier, death, has been breached by God. God is no longer to be sought in the holy of holies; God is with us.

We know "God with us" as the name Jesus is given as part of God's promise to the world of his birth. Did God stop being holy to walk among us? No, not at all. God does not change. And where there is no separation from God, more places become holy.

Part of a series ... more to come.

I'm back ...

I think this is the longest I've ever gone without posting since I started my own blog. Missed you guys (all the regulars).

And the lesson I learned: Just because you can avoid the blame game at work, that does not mean you can avoid the two weeks of overtime that it takes to get the problem resolved. :)

I hope to have a real post up later today.

Monday, December 06, 2010

What is the Christian response to the blame game?

Earlier today I found myself googling to find a Christian response to the blame game, when accusations start to fly and fingers start to point. A group I'm involved with looks like it will soon be having a moment like that.

While I didn't find anything I really found suitable on the web, it turns out that Jesus did already explain it to us when he said, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." So if what we we want is to get fair credit for our contributions, and not to be blamed unjustly for problems beyond our control, and for everyone to pull together and find a constructive way forward ... then that's what to do for others. The first step is to resist the urge to defend by pointing the finger.

Wish me luck.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Behind enemy lines: Christian life in a forced-secular world

A follower of Christ has no enemies, for his own part: hates none, wishes harm to none, works for the good of all. But many others call Christ's people their enemies. And, often times, we find ourselves as Christians in territory that is controlled by those who count us as enemies. Let's face it: banishing religion from the public square does mean that the public square has fallen under the control of hostile hands; a friendly takeover would not have banished anyone. And this has occurred even though the majority of people in this country are religious, even Christian. In the public square, then, we find ourselves in hostile territory. We are behind enemy lines, in a sense.

Unexpectedly, this position behind enemy lines gives us a few advantages, if only we were to use them. Does the word "sabotage" have an opposite, a word that means the stealthy and unexpected act of "subversive" goodness? In the middle of an insult war, a gentle answer is a kind of reverse sabotage. Blessing those who curse us is an act of subversive goodness. Praying for those who persecute us is an act of reverse sabotage. Returning good for evil is Jesus' call to us. And in the midst of this unique amount of fear that so many people are feeling about the nation and the future, hope and goodwill are uniquely potent acts. We are in a position to surprise the enemy, to convert the enemy. Each kind word returned for an insult, each refusal to hate, each refusal to slander, each refusal to assume the worst of others, is planting our flag in enemy territory, the flag of the kingdom of God.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Good tidings to Zion: Handel in modern English

Handel's masterpiece, Messiah, has proved its staying power by now. But the English language has changed, and modern musical tastes are simpler. Handel's original is musically complex. I wanted an arrangement of Handel that could be sung by the congregation as a hymn or a song. Here is a simplified version of one piece from the Messiah in more modern English, something a congregation could sing:

O you proclaiming good tidings to Zion,
Go up onto the high mountain,
Call to Jerusalem, call out your tidings
Go up onto the high mountain.
Lift your voice
Have no fear
The glory of the Lord shall appear
The glory of the Lord shall appear
And all the world shall behold him!

Call out, call out to the cities of Judah
Proclaim unto the Lord's people
Oh beautiful feet bringing tidings to Zion
Call out to the cities of Judah!

Behold your God!
Behold your God!

Lift your voice
Have no fear
The glory of the Lord shall appear
The glory of the Lord shall appear
And all the world shall behold him!

The original was basically all from Isaiah 40:9 and 60:1; this works in parts of a related passage in Isaiah 52. I'm still tinkering with this adaptation, which is rough in places. Think of this as Version 1.0.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Lord's Supper: toasting each other's forgiveness

And he took the cup and gave thanks, and gave it to them saying, "Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the forgiveness of sins." (Matt 26:27-28)
Whenever we receive the Lord's supper, we receive Christ's pledge that our sins are forgiven. Many times we comfort ourselves with this -- that our sins are forgiven, that here in communion we have Christ's pledge sealed with his own body and blood.

So how is it possible for our feuds to continue? Haven't we all come together to take the same bread and wine? Haven't we all shared the same cup, and raised the toast of "forgiveness"? When we celebrate our own forgiveness, we celebrate our brothers' and sisters' forgiveness as well. Everyone who has taken that bread and wine has shared in the forgiveness of sins. Do we still keep a record of their wrongs, when God has forgiven them? I think we must be offending against Christ, to come for our own forgiveness based on his sacrifice, and refuse to forgive our brothers who have come for that same forgiveness.

The Lord's Supper is not just a fresh start for each of us personally. It is also a fresh start for all those in Christ. There is a power in that, that all the evil that has worked throughout a congregation might be undone by a single worship service. By coming together just once fully embracing what God has done not just for one of us, but for all of us together, layers on layers of resentment can be washed away in a single morning. It must be a grave insult to evil that all its work can be undone so easily, by bread and wine and Christ's forgiveness. Evil's power must be nothing next to God's, that years of bitterness and strife can be undone in a single hour.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

What is the Christian response to backhanded compliments?

Sometimes in our world we receive backhanded compliments. Some of them are basically "sugar-coated insults" to borrow a phrase that I found this morning. I wonder whether the deliverer would be laughing to themselves if I actually said "Thank you"; that depends on how much the insult was intended, I suppose. Receiving a backhanded compliment puts you in a situation where you have to decide, and usually right on the spot, whether to accept the "compliment" and therefore accept the insult and thank them for it. Ever find yourself in that situation? So this morning I found myself googling, "gracious response to backhanded compliment." It's something I've needed to work on for awhile.

The basic responses I found on-line were:
  1. Return with another backhanded compliment (this one didn't really fill the bill, as it's not particularly gracious)
  2. A polite call-out of the backhanded nature of the "compliment", for example "That's not really a good thing."
  3. An acceptance with a polite call-out, for example "I'll accept your left-handed compliment with my right hand, thank you."
  4. An acceptance with positive attention to the target of the implied insult, for example "Thank you! I think (x) was pretty good too / wasn't bad either!"
To me, #2 and #4 are the best approaches so far. I'd be interested in hearing how you all deal with backhanded compliments. I think there ought to be a way to apply what Jesus said about returning good for evil, so I think somewhere is a better solution than these. In the meantime, these are keepers even if just until a better way becomes clear; they're better than what I had done before.

Update with related post, roughly 2 years later: Christian response to backhanded compliments: Reprise.  

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The worries of this world: a call to prayer

It is impossible to be worried and thankful at the same time. One will overshadow the other, pushing it to the side. "I'm thankful, but ..." something steals the joy from us, and our thankfulness is shallow. Or, "I'm worried, but ... " I have things to be thankful for. Still we speak with thoughts that are clouded with worry.

Jesus warned us of this. "The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is he who hears the word -- and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, and it becomes unfruitful." (Matt 13:22, see also Mark 4:19, Luke 8:14)

As followers of Jesus, we take this seriously. I have heard many Christians speak about Jesus' call to watch out for wealth, for the love of money, for its deceitfulness, for the divided loyalty it brings, for the threat and temptation that it poses. We may not see as clearly that Jesus says that worries -- the cares of the age and of the world -- stand beside the deceitfulness of wealth as an enemy, no less an enemy than the love of money. They are just the same in effect: a thorn or a thistle, a thing using up our energy and choking off the new life that Christ has planted in us. The cares of this life are a snare to the faithful just like drunkenness (Luke 21:34). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls us to set aside worry.

Matthew records Jesus saying twice that the Father knows what we need: once in telling us not to worry (Matthew 6:32), and once in urging us to pray (Matthew 6:7-9). Jesus' repetition of this key fact -- that the Father knows what we need -- forges a link between our worries and our prayers.

"Cast all your cares on God, for he cares for you." (I Peter 5:7)

Jesus urges us to pray to God without useless repetitions. We should not be tempted to think that our prayers earn some reward by a show of devoutness, or imagine that God did not know what we needed before we prayed. Instead, we are urged to pray based on the confidence that God already knows what we need -- and loves us.

In times like these it may be especially necessary, before we can give thanks, that first we give God our worries and unload all of our cares.

"Cast all your cares on God, for he cares for you." (I Peter 5:7)

Monday, November 22, 2010

Seven Wonders of the Ancient World - and a problem with the modern world

The modern world has its own wonders. But they are very different from the wonders of the ancient world. The modern world has created wonders of invention, of efficiency, of communication, and of discovery. But, unlike the ancients, we have no wonders of beauty. Even an ancient wonder like the pyramid -- some in our cynical age might call it a monument to the ego of a tyrant -- even it has a beauty and symmetry that stands the test of time. I once read a description of the ancient pyramids in the days before centuries of looters; they were covered with white stone and capped with gold. They were beautiful. The hanging gardens of Babylon, again one of the wonders of the ancient world, was not only a marvel of engineering in its day, it was also an earthly paradise.

The ancient wonders highlight some things that our world has lost, things that our age does not value. There is little intent to create beauty, little respect even for the thought of it. And one distinguishing mark of the wonders of the ancient world was exactly a sense of wonder -- that is, these things were created to be marveled at, to bring delight or awe or even a sense of the holy and transcendent into this world. Our "wonders" are entirely secular wonders, or to be more exact, wonders produced by a world that only recognizes the secular as valid. When was the last time our world's cultures produced a work of true beauty, a wonder in the ancient sense?

As the vision of paradise fades from the minds of men, the intentional beauty fades from the things we create. One of the most obvious marks of secularism is a kind of desert in the culture.

Some people speak of a zeitgeist, a spirit of the age. Just as it is possible for a person to have a personality that is not well-rounded, I think the zeitgeist of secularism -- the spirit of our age -- has a very one-sided personality, one that is efficient but has forgotten warmth, beauty, and kindness. For anyone interested in psychology, I wonder: is the zeitgeist, that spirit of our times, effectively the same thing as our superego, the voice of our conscience? If so, then a distorted spirit of the age leads directly to the same thing being echoed on down through each personality in the age, and being transmitted as the new normal to the next generation.

It remains for us, then, who find our times to be shallow and cynical to do something about that. It remains for us, who are uncomfortably squeezed by the narrow and bitter spirit of our times, to stake a claim in our age for kindness and decency, for beauty, for holiness, for paradise, and for wonder. These are the echoes of Eden, these are the things that have been systematically chased out of our age, and these are the things of the kingdom of heaven on earth. People find it very easy to scoff at religion in an age where all the people -- even Christians -- go along with the cesspool of cynicism that is modern news and politics, the routine fraud and injustice in government and economics, the institutionalized mediocrity that is education. The job falls to us to create lasting families and deep friendships that are the stuff our world is starved for, to re-create the concept of fellowship in our age, and to re-introduce the holy and the beautiful into this world.

"Prepare the way for the Lord" -- it is our job to make every valley exalted, and every mountain bowed down, to make straight in this desert a highway for our God. John the Baptist did not build literal roads; he built a spirit of readiness for God.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Reflection on a funeral - and a perspective-check for militant atheists

This week I went to my aunt's funeral. My uncle lives out of state, so I was glad to see he had a huge group of people who were there for him.

My aunt's health had failed in a long and drawn-out process that so often happens with cancer. At the memorial service I was glad to hear that some of the people there -- people from my aunt and uncle's Bible study group -- had been able to come over and sit with my aunt while my uncle ran errands when she had become too weak to take care of herself. After her death, they had helped to pick the outfit my aunt would wear for the viewing; I was glad my uncle didn't have to do that alone. When all the relatives from out-of-town came for the viewing -- and all the people who loved my aunt came for the viewing -- there was a remarkably large group of people there. At the funeral home on the night of the viewing, their church Bible study group coordinated and brought enough food for everyone to have a meal, which was no small thing given the number of people. The next day after the funeral service, again the church Bible study group coordinated and brought enough food for everyone to have a meal.

The whole time I was impressed by their kindness, their gentleness, their thoughtfulness. They went out of their way to include me and make me feel welcome. They shared one good story after another about my aunt. I never lacked for someone there for me, and neither did my daughter, even though the majority of them had never met us before. And coming back home, I didn't doubt for a minute that they would be there for my uncle -- because they were already there for him, unasked, and had been there for him all along.

And I get back home and the message boards and propaganda publications with the militant atheists are all the same: Christians are dangerous and imbalanced and vicious; raising your children that way is abusive; religious people are a threat to civilization and decency everywhere. And all I could think is, "What the blazes is wrong with you people?" How can you heap that much nastiness and abuse on some of the kindest people on the planet? Or have you seriously never met religious people in real life, and are forming your opinions mainly based on prejudice and propaganda? Make no mistake, the people who behave the way these people did are the real and devoted followers of Jesus Christ. And if someone can look at those good, kind, down-to-earth people who have devoted their lives to going out of their way to help others, and think they're warped and malicious and dangerous, then what the blazes is wrong with this picture?

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The reason for Eve

Adam already had paradise. God had already created a good world. What was the point of Eve?

In Genesis, the point of Eve is that even paradise is better when there's someone to love -- and even a perfect world would be lacking something without them.

In memory of my aunt, d. 11/07/2010. I'll be in Kentucky for the next couple of days for the memorial and funeral, & won't be checking comments again until Friday.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Haiti's homes, Mexico's colonias, America's unemployment, and learned helplessness

I'm not sure I can imagine an earthquake. I can't even begin to fathom what it would be like to have a major city devastated as happened in Haiti at the beginning of this year. Immediately afterward, the news covered large populations living in tents.

Recently with a storm named Tomas going towards Haiti, there was news that people in the tent cities were refusing to evacuate. Tent cities? Still? It has been a little over nine months since the earthquake.

Once, before the "modern world" came upon us, many families built their own homes. They may have enlisted their neighbors' help, but the job got done. The homes may not have been fancy homes, but they were better than tents. I'm sure many people around the world still live in homes they or their families built with their own hands. On my father's side, I think my great-grandparents probably built their own home. These days it would probably be illegal for them to even try.

These days we expect better. We expect concrete slabs, electricity, plumbing, windows, insulation -- everything meeting the proper building code. I wonder, how much of that applies in Haiti? Is the insistence that people have better homes -- with all the right permits, and all the right contractors, and properly inspected -- is that part of what's keeping them in tents? How many attempts to solve problems have to be blocked before people give up on solving their own problems?

I look at the people who live in the colonias around the Texas/Mexico border. Their ancestors built pyramids that the archaeologists travel to study, quietly paying their respects to the greatness of the culture that was before. Our own culture has no monuments to match that. Now their descendants live in cardboard boxes made into rough shelters. What happened? Conquerors, bad governments at times in history, modern drug lords and drug wars and governments still widely rumored to be either thoroughly incompetent or thoroughly corrupt ... or relatively powerless against the better-armed and more powerful drug lords. Mexico has had it rough. How long before people stop trying?

I think part of it is something called "learned helplessness" by the psychologists. If someone is prevented from solving a problem for long enough, they can easily give up on trying. If someone does not see how they control things in their own lives, they stop making any attempt to affect the outcome. Even if circumstances change so that it becomes possible to make a difference, that may go unnoticed. Too many things have failed before.

When psychologists first started studying learned helplessness, the original animal experiments were an exercise in cruelty to animals. Not to put too fine a point on it, the animals were systematically abused. Those experiments could be sub-titled "Why PETA was ultimately necessary." And now, whenever I see people showing learned helplessness on a massive scale, I tend to look for some kind of problem with the system -- where someone is deliberately doing something that makes the problem worse or prevents escape. It's even possible for someone to have good motives, and still be part of the problem.

In the United States, unemployment has become something of a "learned helplessness" problem, in that some of the unemployed have given up on trying to find work. Much like the animals in the old psychology experiments, it's hardly their fault. Jobs that were once our jobs have been systematically shipped overseas for many years now, or a blind eye has been turned while those jobs went to our friends from the south, regardless of whether they were here legally. I mean, we could spare the jobs, right? Or we could at the time. And every session of congress, or of the state legislature, or of the city council, adds layers of regulations intended to make things always safer, always more orderly, always more beneficial. And always more difficult to satisfy all the legal requirements. For a "free country", we sure have a huge number of restrictions.

The immigrants without legal paperwork, and the employers who are hiring without legal paperwork, have shown one thing: it is certainly possible to get work still. But there may not be a way to get work legally. And if the way to get work is illegal, that does seem to mean that the laws are part of the problem. Or as others have noticed before, the laws create the black market. The size of the black market is a comment on how much real supply and demand is being prevented by the laws.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Finding employment doing something valuable

Employment may not be what you think it is. Employment is when you have a job, right? Obviously. These days many people find themselves asking: What do you do when you don't have a job? Do you go door-to-door in the local business neighborhood asking for applications? Do you call all of your contacts and see who is hiring? Do you send out your resume and post it to all the on-line job markets? Well, it's worth a shot -- but there aren't that many people hiring right now.

But we've lost sight of some basic things. There are other legitimate ways to make ends meet than finding an employer. All it takes is to see something that needs doing, a project that is worth something, and do it. Anyone with a hammer and a bag of nails can do something valuable by repairing things. Anyone with a rake or snow-shovel can do something valuable. Anyone with a paint brush or roller can do something valuable. Anyone with a sewing machine or knitting needles can do something valuable. All it requires to do something worthwhile is to leave it better than you found it. And for those who want to get money from the process, it requires finding a price that people are willing to pay for the value of what you did.

Some would call it "starting a business" -- but a lot of people don't like the sound of that. They think being "self-employed" is risky. Risky compared to what, though? People say the income may not be steady at first -- but that's better than having no income at all. And the employer you imagine finding is nothing more than someone who once took that same risk and succeeded.

So the trick is not necessarily to find someone who will sign you up for 40 or more hours a week. The trick is to take your 40 or more hours a week -- which will come all the same -- and do something valuable with them.

That's one of the secrets of real value: prosperity is created by people who do something valuable. If you look at the great treasures of history, the reason they are worth so much is simply because people took their own hands and made something worthwhile. You can literally create value with the work of your hands. And at the end of the day, that's where all human-made value comes from.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Unemployment: it's structural (built into the system) at this point

I know this isn't my typical topic -- and I don't plan on becoming an economics-and-politics blog. But there comes a time when everyone in a democracy has a responsibility to speak out, and to speak plainly. Christians in particular should step forward to make sure peoples' needs are met. And one of the most pressing needs in our day is employment -- or resolving the unemployment crisis.

One reason I don't get very excited about elections is that the two major parties are, at the moment, both unwilling to do what it would take to fix the most serious problems facing our country.

Once upon a time, not too long ago, there weren't that many modernized and industrialized nations with stable societies, lots of natural resources, a reasonably well-educated workforce, and plenty of hard-working people. The U.S.A. was positioned better than many other nations. We became a modern major industrial superpower. And for a long time, we were the best game in town for prosperity and productivity. Our current laws and society grew up during that time. But since those laws and practices were put in place, the game has changed. And in our laws and society -- now set as part of what we see as normal -- we have built in some things that are making our current problems worse, and are likely to keep our current problems going strong.

This is not either a pro-union or anti-union rant, but I do need to mention unions because they have an important part to play in the history of our labor market.

Unions have kept an eye on company profits and have tried to make sure that labor got its perceived fair share. For those who preferred not to unionize, the government basically did it for them: it enacted mandatory minimum wage laws, and (in social security and medicare) minimum benefits laws. This has the basic effect of making every U.S. worker a member of a labor union, where the U.S. federal government negotiates the rates and benefits with U.S. employers.

Most people know how unions work, but I'm going somewhere with this so it bears a quick mention. Unions work by organizing all the workers in a certain labor market. When a union negotiates a contract, it has some muscle behind it: if the negotiations cannot be concluded successfully, the workers can strike. In order for a strike to work, it must mean that none of the workers will work. There can't be people sneaking around to offer their labor at a lower rate, or the whole negotiation will fail. So unions are most effective in this kind of tactic when the whole market is unionized -- when nobody will break a strike. Union workers consider it lower than low to break a strike. Union members have gained a reputation for meeting strike-breakers with fierce harassment or even violence because strikes only work -- unions only work -- when they have a monopoly on the labor market. If there's another equally capable set of employees available who are not unionized, the union becomes powerless. If there is no monopoly on labor, the only thing the union will accomplish is to put its own members out of work by pricing them out of the labor market.

The thing is, the game has changed since the U.S.A. set its habits and laws. In earlier decades, some jobs moved from unionized parts of the country to non-unionized parts of the country to seek out lower labor costs. These days, millions of jobs have left the U.S.A. entirely. These are millions of jobs that we are sorely missing in our struggling labor market. Remember that this is not just about traditional unions with formal leaders and collective bargaining; the federal minimum wage law makes every last citizen here a de facto member of a union -- asking higher wages than the worldwide market will support. The U.S.A. does not have a monopoly on a stable economy and an educated, motivated workforce. The U.S. workers do not have the kind of monopoly on the world labor market that is required in order for such a union scheme to successfully negotiate those wages. And so, in the worldwide market, the demand for relatively high wages will simply be ignored. Employers will do what makes economic sense: they will go where they can find the best price for labor, just like you and I would go where we find the best price for groceries, if the quality is comparable. The employers have been doing this, are now doing this, and will continue to do this: they are taking their jobs elsewhere. They will continue to do this as long as it makes economic sense for them to take their jobs elsewhere.

As citizens of the U.S.A., we are -- willingly or not -- members of a union where we are required to work for a certain minimum wage, where it is illegal for us to work for a lower wage, the while the worldwide labor market routinely works for less. We are, increasingly, left out in the cold. That will continue to cause many jobs to leave the U.S.A. until our labor prices again become competitive.

Here's another thing that it's unpopular to mention because it's so politically sensitive: the minimum wage laws are part of the illegal immigration problem. There are a whole slew of factors that go into illegal immigration; the biggest factors are that Mexico is a mess and America has more opportunity than that. So the problem of illegal immigration does not at all simplify to minimum wage. But here is one way that those two things interact: the reason people hire illegal workers is so that they can pay them illegal wages. It is sheer fantasy to imagine that, if the illegal workers suddenly became legal, that they would as a whole suddenly be making better money than they are now making. Oh, it's possible sometimes that might happen, somewhere, to some few workers. But in general, if someone was hiring an illegal worker under the false belief that they were legal, then they were already paying them legal wages because they believed them to be in the country legally. On the other hand, if someone was hiring an illegal worker knowingly, they probably did it precisely so that they could pay them illegal wages. If the person became a legal worker requiring legal wages, there is a real chance they would become unemployed, and the employer would go to find a new illegal worker in order to keep its costs down. If the employer's original intent was to hire an illegal worker precisely because of the price difference, then it's a real possibility that the employer would just move on to a new set of illegal workers and create a new wave of illegal immigrants. If the employer were willing to pay full legal wages, they could have already hired one of the millions who are currently unemployed. (Though we also have our unemployment system structured badly so that it contributes to the problem; that's a matter for another day ... )

Am I proposing something here? "Proposing" isn't quite what I have in mind; I see it more as "observing." I'm observing that the unemployment problem is built into our system. Because of that, it is unlikely to get better unless we are willing to re-align our pay scales with our competition. This would, no doubt, cause or require price adjustments across the board to bring us more into line with the rest of the world.

But haven't we had previous recessions that were resolved without dropping our labor prices? Not on this scale, not since other nations have gotten so competitive in the world labor market. Not since the labor market truly became a global labor market. The game has changed. The unemployed in this country aren't going to be employed again until new jobs are created. When employers try to decide where to hire people, is there solid reason for them to pick the U.S.A. over the competition?

I will probably continue this as a short series. Why? Because I think, when we expect politicians to solve our problems, it isn't entirely realistic. And part of free speech is that we're supposed to be putting in our two cents' worth.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Seven Wonders of the Modern World

Some people say the modern world has no wonders to compare to those of the ancient world. We have no Hanging Gardens, no Pyramids, no Colossus, and so forth. People have charged that our modern world is, in some ways, inferior to the ancient past.

While there is some kind of truth to that, I'd like to suggest some wonders of our own age.

  1. Taming electricity - All of the electromagnetic discoveries, really, have been a great advance. Radio, television, cable, cell phones, lighting, air conditioning, microwaves -- our advances have put more power and quality of life in the hands of more people than previous ages.
  2. Atomics - All of the discoveries of atomic and sub-atomic theory, along with the sciences of radiation, are an advance. Yes, atomic weapons must be included here also; not quite all of our advances are benevolent. Still, we include here X-rays, radiation therapy, and other types of medical diagnostics and treatment that were out of reach in previous ages.
  3. Vaccinations - Most of the terrors of childhood illnesses have been removed; unlike my parent's generation, I never had to worry about getting polio, or that my children might.
  4. Antibiotics - Many formerly life-threatening conditions are now minor inconveniences.
  5. Air travel - Not so long ago it was the stuff of fantasy -- only barely possible -- that someone might go around the world in 80 days. Air travel has made around-the-world trips so mundane that we're more likely to be annoyed by the crowds and delays than amazed that we can go around the world. Here we can also include our halting first attempts at space flight, whether the unmanned interplanetary ships we have launched or the close-range manned operations.
  6. The Internet - It would be tempting to make "computing" an entry by itself, with all the power and potential computers have brought to everyday tasks. But that has been left far behind by what we have done with the collected power of millions of computers and the ways they are connected The Internet allows us to get nearly any piece of information in the world instantly. A large percentage of all the recordings or videos ever made, or famous photos ever taken, or works of art ever known are now accessible to us in a few minutes. If a book is in another language, it's not really a problem: there are instant translators. And where the efforts of thousands of scholars might have never found their way to niche audiences affordably, now it happens every day.
  7. Wikipedia - Wikipedia is an example of the new type of wonder that is now possible with the new tools we have available. It is probably one of the largest cooperative efforts in the history of mankind. I do not see it as the crowning achievement of our age; instead, I would compare it to the early manned space flights: it is a vital early step towards realizing what is possible.

We probably under-appreciate the ancient past; but we risk under-appreciating the present as well.

So -- any favorites that I left out?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Notes on the order of service from the letters to Corinth

  • This order of worship is more open for everyone to participate than typical orders of worship. The main portion of the worship is invitational and is shaped from Paul’s words about everyone’s participation for the building up of the church. This order of worship has open calls for hymns or songs, words of instruction, and tongues and interpretation; it calls for all to be done in an orderly way as Paul instructed.
  • A Pentecostal or charismatic congregation could use this order of worship.
  • A non-Pentecostal or non-charismatic congregation could use this order of worship, though they may choose to include the portion on tongues and interpretations only on request.
  • Paul’s focus on the gospel of Jesus Christ takes the form of a fixed time when a selection from the gospels is read, and a word of instruction accompanying it.
  • The Lord’s Supper is included in keeping with Paul’s recollection of it.
  • In his letters to them, Paul confronts the Corinthians with their sin. An order of confession is included, along with a proclamation of forgiveness in Christ.
  • The special offering for the needy follows the language that Paul used in the letters to Corinth about the special offering being taken.
  • The dismissal and mission recalls the order of confession and reconciliation and the people go back into the world.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Order of worship from the Letters to the Corinthians

Last summer I mentioned a long-term project of mine: orders of worship in which every word closely tracks Scripture. The goal goes beyond quoting Scripture throughout the service; the goal is to let each portion of Scripture shape how we worship. Because this order of worship is from the letters to the Corinthians, it has several open calls for participation from the congregation as Paul described in his writings to them. I've made this order of worship as creative commons (CC-NC-SA). If anyone uses this as a worship service, please let me know anything that may need smoothing to flow well. This version includes the Scripture citations.

Blessing to begin worship

P: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. (I Cor 1:3)
C: Thanks be to God for the grace he has given us in Jesus Christ. (I Cor 1:4)

Call for confession of sins

P: Brothers and sisters, if there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? (I Cor 3:1, 3)
Come back to your senses as you ought, and stop sinning. (I Cor 15:34)
Christ died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for him who died for them and was raised again. (II Cor 5:15)
We implore you on Christ's behalf: be reconciled to God. (II Cor 5:20)

Confession of sins

C: We have been impatient. We have been unkind. We have been jealous and boastful and proud. We have been rude, self-seeking, and easily angered. We have kept a record of wrongs. We have delighted in evil rather than the truth. We have not protected, we have not trusted, we have not hoped, we have not persevered. (I Cor 13:4-7)

Proclamation of forgiveness in Christ

P: God is reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting our sins against us. (II Cor 5:19)
C: God made Christ, who had no sin, to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (II Cor 5:21)

Call for mutual forgiveness

P: If you forgive anyone, I also forgive him. And what I have forgiven, I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sakes, so that Satan might not outwit us.
C: For we are not unaware of the accuser’s schemes.

Call for participation in worship

P: Brothers and sisters, you are the body of Christ.
C: Each one of us is a part of it. (I Cor 12:27)

P: When we come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, or a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.
C: All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church. (I Cor 14:26)

P: Everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.
C: For God is not a God of disorder but of peace. (I Cor 14:33)

The leader calls forward those with hymns or songs, two or three as it says also of the others, and the hymns or songs are sung. If the congregation decides it is best to schedule some songs in advance so that one or more musicians may practice, the person who called for the song may be permitted a brief introduction or dedication at the time it is sung.

The leader calls forward those with a word of instruction, “two or three” as it says. The words of instruction are introduced by saying:

P: If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
C: If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. (I Cor 13:1-2)

Any with words of instruction come forward to speak.

At the discretion of the congregation, this next call may be generally included, or included only on request.

P: If anyone speaks in a tongue, two – or at the most three – should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God. (I Cor 14:27-28)

Any with tongues and interpretations come forward to speak.

Attending to the gospel of Jesus Christ

P: Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel that was presented to you, which you have believed, and on which you have taken your stand. (I Cor 15:1).
For I resolved to know nothing which I was among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. (I Cor 2:2)

A section from the gospel is read, followed by a word of instruction on the gospel. Those that do not use a set lectionary may read something fitting for the day or occasion, or read through a book of the gospel week by week.

Special offering for the needy

If there is a special offering for the needy, it may be introduced with these words. This introduction should only be used on an offering taken specifically for the needy.

P: Now about the collection for the needy: On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up. (I Cor 16:1-2)
C: This service that we perform is not only supplying the needs of God’s people, but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. (II Cor 9:12)

The offering is received.

Blessing as the offering is presented

P: Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, people will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the good news of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. And in their prayers for you, their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you.
C: Thanks to be God for his indescribable gift of grace. (II Cor 9:13-15)

General offering, including offering for called workers

C: Who serves as a solider at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat the grapes? (I Cor 9:7)
Let us then give those who serve at the altar a share of what is offered on the altar. (I Cor 9:13)


P: Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort.
C: For he comforts us in all our troubles. (II Cor 1:3-4)

Prayers and intercessions may be offered here

P: Many will give thanks to God for the gracious favor granted in answer to prayers. (II Cor 1:11)

The Lord’s Supper

P: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
For whenever we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (I Cor 11:23-26)

P: Christ, our Passover, is sacrificed for us.
C: Therefore, let us keep the feast. (I Cor 5:7-8)

One or more songs may be sung while people receive the Lord’s Supper.

Dismissal and Call to mission

P: You are a letter from Christ, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the Living God.
C: Not on tablets of stone but on tablets of the human heart. (II Cor 3:3)

P: God is reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.
C: He has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making is appeal through us. (II Cor 5:19-20)

Blessing after worship

P: May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (II Cor 13:14)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Our Father:

All prayer begins with understanding these words: "Our Father". God loves us, therefore we pray.

I'm tempted to say more, but sometimes it's best to just stop. In many words, the point gets lost.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Answered prayers and providence

Recently in the blog of a long-time iFriend, Metacrock posted his testimony. At one point he described a prayer of his sister's that had been answered exactly, and in a way that looks like God's hand can be seen arranging events.

I wanted to ask: What have you all seen by way of answered prayers? Or maybe it's by way of providence. And I know, in one sense, the most important thing I pray every day may be "Forgive us our sins" -- but in the drama of the day around us, sometimes we are looking for something that meets the other needs too.

Along the same lines, I wanted to tell you all about something that happened just after I moved into my current place, probably somewhere right around 2000. It was not long before Christmas, and I had a thought to make paper cutout snowflakes. That's not really like me, so I brushed off the thought. Day after day the thought kept coming back, and I kept brushing it off. Paper snowflakes absolutely had to be irrelevant. Finally, figuring that some corner of my mind must be having a fit of nostalgia or something, I decided to just go ahead and make the blasted snowflakes so that I could get rid of the thought, which had become really annoyingly persistent. I almost gave up when I saw that I was out of regular white paper, that all I had in the house was bright orange construction paper. But regardless of how silly the bright orange snowflakes were going to look, I went ahead and made them. I set them aside and forgot about them, relieved that the thoughts had finally gone away.

Not many days later, a friend of mine called. Her mother was in the hospital -- had been for over a month, in serious condition. She really wanted to take one day off because the stress was mounting, but she didn't want to leave her mom without a visitor that day. I said I'd go. On my way out the door I thought, "I shouldn't go empty-handed." And I couldn't think what to bring; I'd never actually met her mother. So I just grabbed the snowflakes -- the absurdly orange snowflakes -- and headed out the door.

So at the hospital, the visit went well. Even though we hadn't met, we knew a lot of the same people and just traded stories about the good events in their lives. Before I left, I pulled out the snowflakes and said I'd brought them for her. She choked up. She was absolutely overwhelmed with emotion. You see, she had always made paper cutout snowflakes with the kids in her family, every year without fail. This year she was the first year ever that hadn't been able to make them. That one thing was a key part of the holidays to her, and she had been left out this year. It meant more to her than I ever would have guessed. Her gratefulness was touching, but all the while she was thanking me, I started wondering about that irresistible urge to make snowflakes that is so out of character for me.

And the walls near her hospital bed were white. If I had brought white snowflakes, they would not have shown up. The orange worked nicely, where white would have been completely pointless.

I'm not saying things like that happen all the time, I'm just saying there have been a few times when I have seen things, where I suspected there had been some direct intervention by God to bring about the result.

So I wanted to ask: What have you all seen by way of answered prayers? Or maybe it's providence.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Never will I forsake you, says the Lord

I wrote this as a follow-up to "Verses for the overwhelmed". I re-read that and realized there was so much more about those verses and about God's word for us in times of trouble. So here are other pages along those lines:

And, if you were wondering, also:
What was going on in my life at home when I wrote the original "verses for the overwhelmed"

Site maintenance note

Back in early 2006, going through a rough patch (to say the least) in my own life, I put together a quick post for my own comfort on Bible verses for the overwhelmed. Much to my surprise, over four year later it continues to be the all-time most popular post on this blog, by traffic going there. I'm flatly amazed at the amount of traffic that Google has sent that page even in the most recent month, and reading the search phrases that led people there was heart-wrenching. So I wanted to drop any readers and especially feed-readers a note on a few things:

I will be posting a round-up of other posts that may be helpful for the overwhelmed, even though round-up posts are not exactly my usual fare; and I will be updating that old post from 2006 with a link to the round-up page. The point of all this is the surprising volume of traffic on that topic. If people are ending up here of all places when searching for help, I'd like to do a better job helping.

So the next couple of updates on this blog will be a little out of the usual.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Controversies: Is homosexual behavior sinful?

Some will see this conversation on homosexuality as questionable or even objectionable, since it considers the arguments both against and for something that has been regarded as an abomination of a sin by most people up until quite recently in history -- and is regarded as something approaching an unquestionable right by many people today. Others will see this topic as quaint and behind the times even in its framing, not going far enough in recognizing the wider issues raised by the whole of the GLBT community. Still, as my purpose in writing is to map out the most basic dividing lines and see if people can see another perspective even for a moment, I believe this is the best place for me to start.

Note: While this is part of a broad series on controversies in the church, I've noticed I get a lot of drive-by comment traffic whenever I cross a hot-button issue. Many times there's no sign the drive-by commenters have read the post in question much less the series of which it's a part; typically I get a cut-and-paste comment or link. If any comments are abusive or link objectionable material I'll remove them, but use some extra discretion here in case you spot something before I get around to comment maintenance.

Normative heterosexuality

Some people believe that heterosexuality is a uniquely valid expression of human sexuality. Heterosexuality's uncontested role in bringing about the birth of each new generation back to the dawn of time is seen as a conclusive demonstration that heterosexuality's status is unique and normative. Some see a divine blessing on heterosexuality alone based on in its place in the created order. Some also view various passages in the Bible as plainly condemning homosexual practice.

Internal diversity: Some people who believe in hetero-normality have no objection to homosexual practice or behavior, and simply reserve their ideas of marriage and family for the biologically-related family based on a heterosexual coupling and any resulting children. Others have no objection to homosexual behavior so long as it is kept private.* Others have an objection to homosexuality as a sin, but recognize sin as a problem common to all people rather than something that puts homosexuals into a different class than the rest of humanity. Still others have a strong view that homosexuality is harmful and destructive, either to society or to the homosexuals themselves, or both.

Strong points: Heterosexual desire is the common experience of most people. For reproductive reasons heterosexuality can be seen as an essential part of the human life cycle. For those who hold the Bible as authoritative, the passages that address homosexuality consistently view it as sinful.

External criticisms: Critics see this view as bigotry akin to racism, a discrimination against someone for a characteristic they had at birth. From a Biblical standpoint, critics also point out that many of the Biblical laws from the same era and books condemn practices that no one in our day would condemn, and that the whole of the Old Testament has been re-evaluated in light of Jesus' teachings, or modern knowledge, or both.

Response to criticism: The charge of bigotry is seen as a false accusation, and the comparison to racism is seen as a faulty analogy. While race is irrelevant to someone's character, sexual orientation is not irrelevant to sex or procreation. While responses to criticism about passages in the Bible vary, the most common may be that the Bible's moral code -- including norms about sexuality -- are still upheld by many today as expressing both a divine ideal for humans and a proven workable model for a culture.

The slippery slope: The ancient Biblical laws upheld the death penalty for homosexual behavior. For those who uphold the ancient view that homosexuality is an abomination, is it possible to leave an abomination without a consequence? Or would you endorse a penalty? Is it possible to condemn something strongly without persecuting it? If it is impossible to persecute or condemn too strongly something that is an abomination, what about the actual people who feel homosexual attractions? What keeps them from being demonized, dehumanized, or attacked?

Uncharitable moments towards the other side: Two words: Fred Phelps. To expound a little, he is the poster-child for what certainly looks like a mean-spirited, hate-based, pseudo-religious campaign that routinely insults homosexuals. Fred Phelps is widely condemned by the Christian mainstream -- but he is, unfortunately, not quite alone in his seemingly spite-motivated actions.

Charitable moments: Those who believe that heterosexuality is the human norm may recognize that those who advocate the other side may have, first and foremost, a concern for the human beings who feel homosexual attractions.

Fair questions: If you're all about hating the sin and loving the sinner, why wasn't Fred Phelps shut down a long time ago? For those whose basic argument against homosexuality is "it creeps me out," explain: exactly how is that different from an unthinking prejudice? And, someone may say, if I was born this way and you find it sinful, doesn't that work out to you saying there is something wrong with me and wrong with the fact that I exist? Again, how is that not hatred or bigotry, or devaluing another human being? And if you're all about marriage and sexual purity, why isn't there the same amount of focus on heteros who fool around, commit adultery, or divorce?

Mainstreamed homosexuality

Some people believe that homosexuality is an equally valid expression of human sexuality. Homosexual love is seen as a positive good, worthy of unconditional acceptance, deserving of equal honor and recognition.

Internal diversity: There are some differences of opinion whether homosexuality is wholly genetic, or whether there are learned or chosen aspects of identifying as homosexual. There are also differences of opinion on whether celibacy is an acceptable call for homosexuals, whether the acceptance of homosexuality means rethinking the concept of marriage, and how to regard the phenomenon of ex-homosexuals.

Strong points: The most basic and essential reason people name homosexuality as an equally valid expression of humanity is based on a recognition that homosexual people are equally valid people and equally valuable human beings. It is, in its most basic form, an argument for the full and equal humanity of the people who experience homosexual attraction.

External criticisms: Some critics who come from a Christian perspective do not understand how so many passages of the Bible that speak of homosexuality as sinful can be set aside when there is no passage that commends, recognizes, or accepts homosexuality. Other critics may not understand how something like homosexuality can be considered equal to heterosexuality, since heterosexuality is built into the human genome as the way our kind reproduces. Other critics feel a strong instinctive disgust at the thought of homosexual behavior, sometimes to the point of feeling physically ill, that seems to them evidence of the deeply unnatural and unhealthy character of homosexuality.

Response to criticism: On the Biblical criticism, there is some difference in responses. For those who believe the Bible is worth taking into account, some believe that the best option for homosexuals is celibacy. Others believe that the Bible speaks against only certain forms of homosexual behavior that take predatory or abusive forms. Others argue that such ideas are as obsolete as the Jewish dietary laws. Still others argue that Jesus himself is the only voice that can be fully trusted and that he never addressed the issue directly, leaving each of us to come to our own conclusions based on his principle that love is the highest good.

On the argument from the continuity of the species, some dismiss it as unworthy of consideration on the view that the world already has too many people and that we should desire a reduced population. Others view that any genetics-based argument has to come to terms with the possibility that there are genetic components to homosexual identity; many homosexuals perceive that they were simply born that way.

The argument from disgust is seen as roughly equivalent to bigotry dressed up as an argument.

The slippery slope: There have traditionally been certain limits on sexual expression: a context of a life-long marriage, certain relationships that cannot become sexual (such as among those already closely related by blood), and a certain age requirement for sexual participation. Some of these have been questioned by people who identify themselves as being within the homosexual community. Which of these restrictions still make sense to you, which do not, and why?

Uncharitable moments towards the other side: Many times, those who believe heterosexuality is -- and should be -- the human norm are portrayed as unthinking and closed-minded bigots, no better than racists. It is often assumed beforehand that there is no conversation to be had; that the only possible reason for a disagreement is that the opponents are either evil or brainwashed, effectively dehumanizing those who disagree.

Charitable moments: The advocates for homosexuality may recognize that those who advocate the other side from a Christian point of view are concerned, first and foremost, with a sin that they believe debases a person. That is, they believe that the greatest service they could do a homosexual would be to free that person of that desire as an act of restoration and healing. They hope for redemption, not for destruction.

Fair questions: If the acceptance of homosexuality is seen as part of a general change in views about sex and marriage in our times, can you honestly look at society as a whole today and say without qualification that particular change has been an improvement? If the argument is that homosexuality is both normal and healthy, then what about the group of people -- regardless of what the percentage is, the group does exist -- who came to be homosexuals after experiencing some type of sexual abuse? If the basic argument is "I was born this way", why is there a use of hormones and surgical change in the homosexual community? When it comes to societal change, are you quite sure that you aren't playing a game of Jenga? Can you tell if you are moving a load-bearing piece before it's too late?

Related controversies: The role of men and women, the authority and reliability of the Bible.

A brief side-note about the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy -- I wonder if I should be disappointed that the recent court decision didn't go in a completely different direction. Would I be sorry if everybody had to abide by "Don't ask, don't tell"? Really, what ever happened to privacy?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Controversies in the church: frame of mind

Tonight I very nearly finished the next installment in the "controversies" series. I had started work on it this summer, but then busy season hit. Here I'll post some background that I think is as important as the write-up itself. I hope to have that write-up finished for my weekend post this week.

When I write on this series, I try very much to argue both sides in their strongest position. If I do well, people should have trouble telling what my own actual views are, at least so long as I work on the project of mapping out the different views. The exercise of switching views so often does leave me a little dizzy.

The whole project requires that I get in the right frame of mind before I start. So I wanted to post a little background on the night I picked to start and do most of the meditative / reflective work on the next entry in the series, which (according to my original plan) is the controversy over homosexuality.

Below is the notes I kept from the night I did most of the reflection, contemplation and meditation on the subject. (Yes, that's part of how I write on this type of thing.) The notes are fairly raw, and in reality were filled with many pauses where I would stop and think.

I wanted to write the next part of the series on a night when my frame of mind was right for the job. I've long since learned that clarity and sensitivity have to be carefully cultivated before I write. Maybe that's just because my own stock of those is short. But tonight is definitely the night when I'm in the right frame of mind to tackle this topic.

What put me into just the right frame of mind? I was at the Wal-Mart picking up a few things. I had checked out at the self-serve checkout lane, trading jokes with people nearby about how that used to be the faster option with shorter lines. And I was on my way out with my bag of things when I recognized a checker at another lane.

The frilly blouse, long hair, and earrings - and a name tag reading "Janet" - didn't fool me. I knew the man.

I still did consider him a man, despite his obvious change of feelings on the subject himself, both because of the male pattern baldness and because we had grown up in the same neighborhood. I knew him as Jim. His father's name is (was?) Ed. He plays the flute. I walked past his home on the way to the neighborhood park. I wanted to go say hi and tell him I wished him well. I had no idea if he would have welcomed someone from his old life. I had no idea if he remembered me (I am several years younger, and older kids don't always deign to notice younger ones.)

At any rate, he was busy helping a customer so I settled for making a mental note that next time I'm at Wal-Mart I will look twice at the checkers before I choose a lane, and maybe have a chance to say hi to an old neighbor.

He looked unhappy. I don't know if that was from the big picture of his life, or for working on a Friday night, or for being probably 50 years old and working as a checker at Wal-Mart. At least it's employment and an honest job. These days not everybody has those.

But tonight, I think I can keep the best frame of mind that I'm likely to get in remembering the essentially human nature of this debate.


If human sexuality at its deepest foundations is heterosexual, then accepting homosexuality actually degrades and lessens the person instead of helping. The goal is to restore someone to their full humanity.

If human sexuality at its deepest foundations has more than one natural and healthy fulfillment that reaches the height and fullness of goodness, then on what basis would someone call it wrong?

There isn't much common ground the two groups have as a basis for discussion.

Conservatives are likely to view the ancient Jewish laws, on the whole, as wholesome, even if most agree that they are not part of the New Covenant.

Liberals are likely to view the ancient Jewish laws as outdated, occasionally barbaric, once in awhile just plain ludicrous.

Conservatives are likely to view Paul's canonical writings as authoritative, perhaps even infallible. They certainly see him as having strong insights into the eternal and unchanging mind of God, transcending our human limitations.

Liberals are likely to think he was wrong about women too. They certainly see him as limited by the views of his time, and are worried about those limitations being projected into the future through his writings.

I know an openly homosexual minister. We've interacted a few times, but mostly I know him through his writings. And in those writings, I get the very uncomfortable feeling that the main point of his religion is to justify himself. I don't say this to be snide or condescending or demeaning. I say this because if you look at the content of his writings and the points they develop, you can make a very objective case that his ultimate point is to justify and legitimize himself, to gain acceptance for himself and recognition for the good in him. Not for the good in God.

Is he using Jesus to justify himself? Is he using Jesus to gain acceptance for himself despite his sins?

And did Jesus come to justify us? Didn't Jesus come to win us acceptance despite our sins?

What about the difference between confessing a sin and justifying it?

What about the difference between trying to prove we're religious in order to merit acceptance, and coming to God humbly for cleansing and healing because it is God whose love makes us whole?

And what about the undoubted number of religious people who are heterosexual, that still use God as a means to acceptance, respect, or fame?

But in all the controversy, there is still Jim. He's the bottom line.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Awareness of world religions: The Quiz

Here is a quiz about world religions -- specifically, about the lives and sayings of their founders, and the earliest followers' understanding of their mission. I'd really like to see people take a crack at this.

By the way, I have no intention of scoring anyone who answers, even though as the one who picked the questions, I do happen to know the answers. I figure anybody could ace a test if they got to pick the questions, so I won't use the quiz that way at all. But if you find yourself curious, please take a shot at it.

Here's how the quiz works: I have listed some things about various religions that are important either for understanding the life and character of their founder --or-- that are easily misunderstood and can be used to mis-represent the life and character of the founder. I've also added a few items about the early followers and their understanding of the founder. I believe that all of the answers about the founders can be verified in the official recognized source materials of each religion, though some of the "early follower" questions lead to wider reading in the early history of each faith. There may be more than one answer for a founder in the same category -- for example, the same person may have said more than one objectionable thing. Occasionally an answer will apply to more than one person, though that is rare. And there are a few "red herring" items that don't actually apply to anyone on the list. So for each, please answer:

B = Buddha
J = Jesus
M = Mohammed
N = None of the above

  1. Abandoned a wife and child
  2. Compared a woman who sought his help to a dog
  3. Defied the Temple authorities in the Temple
  4. Died of exposure in the desert after a pilgrimage
  5. Died peacefully of old age
  6. Early followers admired their leaders for conquering neighboring nations
  7. Early followers admired their leaders for their boldness in proclaiming good news, sometimes suffering torture, imprisonment, or death
  8. Executed as a criminal for treason and/or blasphemy
  9. Extreme ascetic practices affected his health
  10. Followers' mission: Bringing the world into submission to God, and, where the people are receptive, to do so peacefully
  11. Followers' mission: Condemning polytheism, including Trinitarianism
  12. Followers' mission: Proclaiming forgiveness to the world, preaching cleansing and rebirth
  13. Followers' mission: Seeking enlightenment, following the right path
  14. Got financial support from donations from supporters
  15. Got financial support from holding hostages for ransom
  16. Got financial support from raiding and looting / plundering
  17. Got financial support from working as a tentmaker
  18. Ordered the torture of a man who hid treasure from him and his army
  19. Ordered the assassinations of his critics
  20. Said that his followers must hate their father and mother and follow him
  21. Spoke of a future when his followers would succeed in armed conquests of other nations
  22. Vowed to mutilate 30 of his enemies
  23. Was executed as a criminal for treason and/or blasphemy
  24. Was poisoned by a woman he had enslaved

I know this is something off of the usual subject matter of this blog, but I am very curious which things are general knowledge and which are not. So if you're as curious as I am, I'd be glad to hear your response -- as much as you're willing to share.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Awareness of world religions

All restaurants are the same. You pay money, you get food. But that doesn't mean there's no difference between Olive Garden and McDonald's and Popeye's; it just means that to qualify as a "restaurant" you have to be doing the same kind of thing.

All books are the same. They have bindings and pages. But that doesn't mean there's no difference between A Tale of Two Cities and Where the Wild Things Are and Harry Potter; it just means there are certain things that qualify an object as a "book".

All religions are the same. You find out what can be known about the big picture of life, the universe, and everything, and about being a good person within it. Most people I've known underestimate the differences among the various religions, often to an amazing degree. "All religions are the same" is a mantra generally spoken by those who do not know much about any of them, much like "All books are the same" is not something you would hear from someone who spent any amount of time reading. We have book and movie critics attuned to the fine differences in kind and quality in their field of expertise; it's a shame we (or the media folks) take books and movies so much more seriously than religion.

Recently I saw the results of a study where various people had been asked various questions about religion and scored on the results. The write-up I saw was analyzing which groups did better than others on questions about world religions or about Judaism and Christianity. But the two things that struck me most about the results were these:
  1. Most of the scores for all groups were failing scores; it was just varying degrees of dismal
  2. Many of the questions were superficial, for example "Name that holiday"
There are different reasons we may want to know about the religions. First and foremost is to see what they teach about the meaning of life (for many religions, this works out to what they teach about the character of God / the gods), or to see what they teach about how to be good people. Next it is to see if a major improvement in the condition of human life could be made by what has been learned; Christians might think of this as homework to do before evangelism. And a third is a merely human and worldly reason: to see if there is any harm or danger from any of the beliefs, whether certain harmful beliefs are really just distortions of the original beliefs and actions of a faith, or whether they are the originally intended beliefs and actions of a religion.

I'd like to conduct a brief survey of my own here. I'll post it separately so people don't have to read this introduction unless they happen to want to. But it will focus not on the names of holidays or the names of theologians, but on the original teachings of the original founder / hero of the faith. I'll focus on major world religions with a recognizable human founder and focus on one question: What do we, as people of our day and culture, actually know about the founders of the major world religions?