Sunday, October 29, 2017

Jesus' messengers: Sent out together (Part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Jesus' messengers: Sent out together (Part 1)

Jesus sent his followers to work in pairs. When we remember his apostles, we sometimes even remember them in pairs, especially those who were already brothers: Peter and Andrew, James and John. And those pairs were part of a larger group, the Twelve, and those together were leaders among all the disciples. I'd like to make a few quick observations about Jesus sending his apostles in pairs, and come back to some related observations in a separate post. Here are some ways in which we can see the wisdom of sending them out together:
  • Whenever two or more are gathered in his name, he is with us
  • In pairs, Jesus gives fellowship to the ones working together
  • In pairs, when they talk to still others, the conversation has a baseline of fellowship and peaceful accord already established
  • Working from a position of fellowship and strength will lead to a more open and relaxed approach, helpful in both tone and memory 
  • Each person is not alone: there is always someone to turn to if frustrated or discouraged, provoked, or unsure of the best approach: there is always another perspective, always counsel, always support
  • The witness of love and friendship is beyond the witness of words; there is the deeper message that this is about belonging, about not being abandoned, and not being alone
  • Christ's teachings and this practice both establish peaceful relations and ultimately work to establish peace in ever-widening circles; each link is a building-block of a larger community
It is easy to underestimate the value of working together.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

How To Be a Furniture Salesman to the Glory of God

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

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

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

Sunday, October 08, 2017

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

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


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

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

The Skeptic's Perspective

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

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

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

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

The Bigger Picture

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

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

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

A Distaste for Acknowledging Sin

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

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Why it matters that God is personal

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

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