Thursday, August 31, 2006

Friend of Sinners

In the postscript to Jesus the Jew, Geza Vermes, describing what is special about the teaching of Jesus says this:
The prophets spoke on behalf of the honest poor, and defended the widows and the fatherless, those oppressed and exploited by the wicked, rich and powerful. Jesus went further. In addition to proclaiming these blessed, he actually took his stand among the pariahs of his world, those despised by the respectable. Sinners were his table-companions and the ostracised tax-collectors and prostitutes his friends.

I wonder if the oft-repeated dogma among the "respectable" that the best among us are wicked has undermined this openness to the ostracised. Too often the best we can muster is to say that "the wicked," though deserving of scorn, can stand beside us because, as we say, we are sinners too (though I think we scarely believe it). The very doctrine that often supports this "forgiveness", universal depravity, prevents us from considering the possibility that Jesus would see them as good.

Respect for Human Life

In response to my recent Pro-Compassion post, Tom in Ontario offered a section from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada's statement, "Stewards of Creation: Respect for Human Life". I liked it enough that I wanted to repost it. A lot of thought goes into these statements, and then they seem to get filed away and hardly thought about.

Our society does not provide adequate child care resources for the "working poor." Men are not always held responsible for the children they father. Until these systemic problems are dealt with, people will continue to decide that abortion is the least difficult of disturbing options. The economic system will need to be changed so as to encourage and support the choice not to abort.

How is abortion connected with violence in society? with our role in the world-wide arms race? with war around the world and spending priorities of governments? Our society doesn't consistently view life as a gift to be valued and a sacred trust in the true and complete sense.

If, as a society, we truly value life, then simply passing legislation which deals only with abortion per se will not solve our problem or express our value for human life. We must also address those social and economic structures which not make abortion a tragic necessity for some people. Such structures need to be changed. These changes would include (a) restructuring the social welfare system so that single mothers and their children are not trapped in poverty but have adequate economic and emotional support, (b) creating a system of public day care so that all children and parents have access to quality care at reasonable cost, (c) restructuring the child welfare system to provide stable and healthy nurture for all children, (d) creating systems which hold men as accountable as women for all children conceived, and (e) developing systems which provide appropriate medical, financial, and emotional care for all pregnant women. Simply ignoring or criminalizing abortion does not address the real issues. Rather, as Christians we ought to favour legislation which embodies value for human lives. We would especially favour legislation which might result in decreased violence against women and children.

Because we deeply respect human life, and as abortion involves ending a life process, abortion is a serious matter which reflects the complex nature of the human condition. While abortion may be deemed justifiable under exceptional conditions, we are called to explore redemptive alternatives that would eliminate the felt need for abortion.

As people of faith we must commit ourselves to pray for wisdom, guidance, understanding, and love for all who struggle with the reality of abortion; praise God by celebrating and demonstrating respect for human life in our worship, education, service, and outreach; proclaim in word and deed God's compassion for all.

Also relevant, it seems to me, is the famous saying:
Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Great Commission

In my earlier post on evangelism, I complained about the brute-force tactics of evangelization by apologetics. I tend to have a rather strained relationship with evangelism anyway, and not just because I'm Lutheran. It's something I struggle with on multiple levels.

I touched on this in the comments on the other post, but it seemed worth dwelling on a little more. The Great Commission tels us, "Go and make disciples of all nations." We're not called to make "believers" but rather students. I think the model of a Christian and a Jew having lunch and discussing the teachings of their religions is a better model of discipleship than a guy in the public square handing out evanglism tracts.

But how convenient that it's also something that I'm more comfortable with. Am I turning a blind eye to something? Certainly what I've described isn't what we find in the book of Acts. And I do think that there's a place for missionary work.

It's been noted that North America and Europe are mission fields. But what methods apply? How do you share the gospel with people who already share your cultural history, who have not only heard that Jesus died for theirs sins but have also seen the works, both good and bad, of his followers?


In the parking lot at work this morning I saw one of those bumper stickers that says "Pro-Child, Pro-Choice" and it got me thinking about the whole abortion issue. I'm not really pro-choice, but I vote that way. Or at least I would vote that way if this were ever really an issue we were voting on.

As I was thinking about the issue today something occurred to me. Everyone knows that pro-life vs. pro-choice is a false dichotomy. What hit me today was that while I agree that life is sacred, I don't agree that choice is sacred. It just isn't. Yes, our national rhetoric says the right to liberty is one of the values on which this country was founded, but to the extent that that's true, it was basically an overstep. And yet I do come down on the "pro-choice" side of the argument because of something that is sacred to me -- compassion.

Does compassion ever justify the taking of nascent life? Probably not. But I'm not trying to justify abortion. I'm trying to find a position from which I could credibly speak to someone who felt she had no other choice. If only someone were formulating policies from this perspective....

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Extended Music Meme

This meme comes by way of Lutherpunk and Here I Stand. It'll mostly confirm how boringly conventional I am. Oh well....

1. Of all the bands/artists in your cd/record collection, which one do you own the most albums by?

Hmmm.... I'm guessing it's either Led Zeppelin or Nine Inch Nails. I went through phases with both of them where I was buying all their stuff, but my Zeppelin albums seem to have a habit of disappearing, so it's probably NIN.

2. What was the last song you listened to?

Ohio by Neil Young

3. What's in your record/cd player right now?

Physical media is so retro. I'm pretty sure there's no CD in my CD player right now. I'm listening to a classic rock mix on my (non-iPod) digital music player.

4. What song would you say sums you up?

I'd be pretty shallow if I could be summed up by a single song, wouldn't I? But just to play along, I'll say Piano Man by Billy Joel with the caveat that I'm one of the secondary characters in the bar, not the piano man. I'm the not-mentioned software-engineering theologian.

5. What's your favorite local band?

I don't really follow the local scene, which is probably a shame because it seems to be quite active. Is Quarterflash still a band? They're from here.

6. What was the last show you attended?

You know, it's been a few years. I went to see Fuel at the Roseland with my nephew. That's probably the last show I saw.

7. What was the greatest show you've ever been to?

Way back in the dark ages I saw Pantera open for Wrathchild at Hammerjacks. Given that there's a good chance you don't know who Wrathchild is, you might be able to imagine what kind of a surprise this was. Pantera rocked!

8. What's the worst band you've ever seen in concert?

Also in the dark ages, I went to see Dirty Looks at the Hagerstown Speedway and L.A. Guns was there too. L.A. Guns! Couldn't be helped. I wanted to see Dirty Looks.

9. What band do you love musically but hate the members of?

I don't really pay much attention to musicians personal lives. Lutherpunk said Jane's Addiction, and I'd have to agree there except I would pin the blame on Perry Ferrel. The guy's just creepy.

11. What show are you looking forward to?

This question really showed me how old I am. I meant to go see the Violent Femmes at the state fair, but I just checked and it was last weekend. Maybe I'll go this weekend to see Steve Miller Band. Yep, I'm officially old.

12. What is your favorite band shirt?

I think the only concert shirt I currently own is Beethoven. Yes, the composer.

But just for laughs, check out this circa 1993 picture of me in my then favorite band shirt.

13. What musician would you like to hang out with for a day?

I would say John Fahey, but he died a few years ago, so he's probably not as interesting as he once was.

I wouldn't mind talking to Bono. I'd like to know how he can wear those goofy sunglasses all the time and still get people to take him seriously.

14. What musician would you like to be in love with for a day?

I'm not touching that one. My wife might read this. Plus, I really don't have anyone in mind.

15. Metal question: Jeans and Leather vs. Cracker Jack clothes?

What are Cracker Jack clothes?

16. Sabbath or solo Ozzy?

Definitely Sabbath, but only during the time when Ozzy was with them.

17. Commodores or solo Lionel Ritchie?

Let's say neither.

18. Punk rock, hip hop or heavy metal?


19. Doesn't Primus suck?

Primus? Are they still around? How old is this meme?

20. Name 4 flawless albums:

I'm not of the opinion that there are a lot of flawless albums. These four are in the running:

Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd
Electric by The Cult
Dirt by Alice in Chains
Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen

21. Did you know that filling out this survey makes you a music geek?

There are so many things that make me a geek....

22. What was the greatest decade for music?

1820's -- simply because of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony

23. How many music-related videos/dvds do you own?

Just a few, and they're all in a box in the garage except for Pink Floyd's The Wall.

24. Do you like Journey?

I was at a Mariners game last year when some really drunk guy came up and tried to get me to sing "Lights" with him. He said I looked like I'd like Journey. I was deeply offended.

25. Don't try to pretend you don't!

OK, I could have sung along with the drunk guy if I had been so inclined.

26. What is your favorite movie soundtrack?

Godspell. I can't stand the movie itself, but I love the soundtrack.

The O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack is also pretty good.

27. What was your last musical 'phase' before you wised up?

I'm not sure I have wised up yet. I'll let you know.

28. What's the crappiest CD/record/etc. you've ever bought?

I belonged to a music club briefly and inadvertently became the owner of a Damn Yankees CD. I'll never join a music club again.

29. Do you prefer vinyl or CDs?

Again with the physical media? I've gone completely digital. CDs are much easier to transfer to the computer than vinyl, so I guess I'll have to go with CDs.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Used Cars and Evangelism

I went car shopping this weekend but ended up not buying. It never ceases to amaze me how long car salesmen are willing to drag out the negotiation process. I'd like to make an offer and get an answer, but they're willing to spend hours trying to bend me to their way of seeing things.

The reason I bring this up is that today at lunch I happened to overhear a couple of guys at the table behind me "sharing their faith" with a third guy and I was struck hard by the similarity between their presentation and my weekend experience with the used car salesman.

The part of the presentation I heard was focused on Isaiah and how the Dead Sea Scrolls demonstrate the accuracy with which the text has been preserved. Later they moved on to the most reasonable explanation of the disciples behavior after the crucifixion. But the thing that it seemed to me they were really focused on was closing the deal. Just like the salesman obviously didn't care if I really thought the car was worth what he wanted me to pay for it so long as I bought it, the thing that these guys were driving for was to manuveur the other man into a position where he would see that they were right.

I've heard that Charles Finney claimed that given an hour alone with anyone he could get a decision for Christ out of them. But what kind of faith is that? This is the reason I put "sharing their faith" in quotes above. While I'm sure their motives were sincere, I don't think the content of their presentation and the content of their faith are the same.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Talkin' 'Bout Atonement

One of the things that first got me interested in theology was a quest to understand why Jesus had to die. Christians on every street corner are ready to tell you, "Jesus died for your sins." But ask, "Just how does that work, exactly?" You're either going to get the puzzled look of someone to whom the question has never occurred before or a nightmarish vision of God's "perfect" justice.

Blessed be the day that I finally heard the Christus Victor theory of the atonement. I first had it explained to me in some detail by a guy on Beliefnet who went by the name of Sharktacos.

Now, Sharktacos (Derek Flood) is working some articles he's written on the subject into a book, and he's blogging his way through the process. Check it out at The Rebel God.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Ubiquitous Book Meme

It seems like I've seen this one everywhere (Lutherpunk, Chris Halverson, Time's Fool, etc., etc.), and even though no one has expressly asked me to join in, I'm going to anyway.

1. One book that changed your life.

The Way of a Pilgrim. I read this on the plane as I was moving from Maryland to Oregon, and it made the change of geography a metaphor for my spiritual journey. I had learned in college to disdain the pedantic dogmatism of Christianity and to love mystical thought. Reading this book reversed a lot of the signs and before you know it I was a Christian again. As C.S. Lewis said, "A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading."

2. One book that you have read more than once.

Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse. I read this when I was twenty, and then again when I was thirty. I intend to read it again when I'm forty. It was a completely different book the second time I read it. The first time it was a book about a man rebelling against the constraining norms of society. The second time it was a book about a man struggling to understand himself. What will it be about next time?

3. One book you'd want on a desert island.

Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger. There might be something lost in reading a book about the struggle with the wonderfulness of people in general contrasted with the wretchedness of people in specific while on a desert island, but this is my favorite book.

4. One book that made you laugh.

The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams. The Hitchiker's books are great, but I like things set on Earth. The imagination behind this one is great.

5. One book that made me cry.

Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow. I saw the movie when I was about 12 and just loved it. Fortunately, I waited until I was much older to read the novel. I wouldn't have appreciated it nearly so much as a twelve-year old. Any book with a character consistently called "Mother's Younger Brother" is clearly worth reading.

6. One book that you wish had been written.

The Reconcliation of Protestants and Catholics: A History of Seventeenth Century Europe

7. One book that you wish had not been written.

On the Jews and Their Lies by Martin Luther

8. One book that you're currently reading.

Jesus the Jew by Geza Vermes. While I am more than a little skeptical of the whole "historical Jesus" thing, I can't help but be interested in hearing different people's answers to Jesus question, "Who do you say that I am?"

9. One book you've been meaning to read.

Only one? If I had only one book I'd been meaning to read I'd have done it by now.... Anyway, I've been meaning to read volume 2 of Frederick Copleston's History of Philosophy for a while now. I read volume 1 last year and really learned a lot, but it took so much out of me that I've had trouble motivating myself to move on to volume 2.

Friday, August 18, 2006

The Rule

We read that monks should not drink wine at all, but since the monks of our day cannot be convinced of this, let us at least agree to drink moderately, and not to the point of excess, for wine makes even wise men go astray.
-Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 40

After having read Joan Chittister's book on the Rule of St. Benedict, I felt compelled to read the rule itself. So far I'm finding it quite edifying. When I read the injunction against eating the meat of four-footed animals I thought that I could never have anything to do with this rule, but then when I got to the section above about wine, I decided perhaps Benedict and I could possibly come to an arrangement, particularly given that these monks who couldn't be pursuaded not to drink wine were so "lukewarm" in their faith that it took them a whole week to pray through the psalter. :-)

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Finding God in All Things

Have you ever gone through a time when so many things were conspiring together in your life that you couldn't help think that God was certainly trying to teach you something? You must have. I can't be the only one this happens to.

My recent lesson started, near as I can tell, when I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainence. I thought I was done with it, but it keeps coming back around and tying in with other things. There was a lot in the book that seemed to really apply to my work as a computer programmer (have I mentioned that that's what I do for a living?). The idea of quality and peace of mind as keys to effective work intrigues me. It also came in handy with a landscaping project I did during when I got back from the road trip.

Then I read Listening for the Heartbeat of God. This may seem strange, but I frequently think God speaks to me through my choice of books, particularly the choice of when I read them. And I didn't notice it until later, but the ideas in Listening about seeing God in creation and more particularly about seeing God in secular things and not just in the "religious" tied into a developing thread.

Then, to set myself right before going back to work after sabbatical, I wanted to take a two day retreat at Mount Angel Abbey. But I procrastinated reserving a room and by the time I did, they only had space available for the first day, so I planned to spend a day at a campsite, also too late to reserve. Here I saw the connection with Listening.

I love Mount Angel Abbey. It's a holy place and very nearly the most serene place I've ever been, but when I got there, I found it crawling with construction equipment. They're having the road taken out. At first my heart sunk, but I decided I'd have to live with it. I'd have to have my time with God in the midst of noisy construction equipment. To my surprise, it worked. I found peace.

The next day, I visited the retreat house bookstore and picked up a copy of Joan Chittister's Wisdom Distilled from the Daily (because I was going back to work, not because I had spotted the theme).

As I left the abbey, a number of things conspired to ruin my day. The campground I wanted to stay at was full. I hit slow traffic, road construction, another full campground, highway exits with no return. Within the space of four hours any peace I had found was completely gone and I had been transformed into a raving lunatic beating my steering wheel and screaming to express my anger It wasn't a pretty sight.

Eventually, I found a campground with space available at Viento State Park. I pitched my tent and took the short walk down to the Columbia River where I was greeted with a beautiful view, and I wasn't there two minutes before I saw a fish dive into the water and come back up with a fish. Anyone who has read Homer knows this was some kind of omen, but I'm not skilled at interpreting such things.

Anyway, Viento was great and I quickly regained my lost peace and began to see what God had been teaching me. The events of the day had been, I think, a chance to test my ability to find God in the daily -- a test that I failed miserably.

As I walked along the river, I found a tree whose roots had been worn away by the waves. I knew from my recent landscaping project that trees with their roots cut too close to the trunk tend to fall over, but this one had a trick. It must have had deep roots.

Another tree nearby hadn't learned the same trick and fell.

An interesting thing about these waves is that they are created entirely by the wind. They move in a direction opposite the flow of the river.

As I was walking back from the river, I got a second chance at the test. A train was stopped on the tracks where I needed to cross. I accepted this and walked up to the crossing to wait. An engineer there let me climb across the train to the other side. But the train wasn't going anywhere and because it was on the crossing the bells were ringing. It stayed there for over an hour. And during that entire time I was able to pray and it didn't drive me nuts. I don't expect to be able to do that sort of thing all the time, but I think I learned something.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Mediocre News

In his recent book The Secret Message of Jesus, Brian McLaren talks briefly about people backing away from churches because the churches preach bad news or mediocre news.

"Bad news" is an easy target. I think it's nicely captured by Philip Yancey's story about the desperate prostitute who didn't see why she would go to a church since she was already feeling bad about herself. It's church as a way of the "righteous" telling people "why I'm better than you" to use Donald Miller's characterization of morality gone wrong. There are, of course, plenty of other forms of bad news preaching, but the churches with which I'm involved tend not to have a problem with them, so I'm not going to go into that.

"Mediocre news" on the other hand is a bit harder to pinpoint but could be an even bigger problem, especially among relatively liberal churches. For churches that are embarrased to speak about life after death, the gospel can be one slippery critter. I definitely think that the shift of emphasis to the here and now, the gospel of the kingdom of heaven as a present reality, is a very good thing. But we have to be careful to keep sight of what the really good news is.

The reason I'm making this exploration is that I struggle with dissatisfaction brought on by mediocre news. I can easily avoid churches that preach bad news, but finding one that preaches truly good news, a gospel that I get excited about, is turning out to be a bit of a trick.

This is one of my complaints with the "God has a wonderful plan for your life" theology. It's just really not that wonderful. Yes, given belief in a Supreme Being, it is nice to know that the Supreme Being has noticed me and even wants a relationship with me. But it's just not enough.

Last week I talked about the recognition of the reality of things like the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Developing that idea further, for thinking people who read the newspaper and care about the mass destruction of human life, the news that God has a plan for my life by itself is hopelessly inadequate. There has to be more. Otherwise, Christianity becomes mere narcissism

For me, the good news of Christianity has to be centered in God's promise of new heavens and a new earth. I have to hear that God is actively involved in the renewal and restoration of all creation. I have to know that the one seated on the throne is making all things new. Anything less is mediocre news.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Rationality and Fall

I have one last exploration to make before parting ways with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainence. This time Phaedrus is wrestling with Greek thought and finding something evil in Aristotle.
Phaedrus remembered a line from Thoreau: "You never gain something but that you lose something." And now he began to see for the first time the unbelievable magnitude of what man, when he gained power to understand and rule the world in terms of dialetic truths, had lost. He had built empires of scientific capability to manipulate the phenomena of nature into enormous manifestations of his own dreams of power and wealth-- but for this he had exchanged an empire of understanding of equal magnitude: an understanding of what it is to be a part of the world, and not an enemy of it.

This seems to me to have Genesis 3 written all over it, or at least flowing under it. I've never quite been satisfied with any single answer to the question of what exactly was wrong with gaining knowledge of good and evil. Bonhoeffer suggests that it is that we take on ourselves the burden of deciding what is right and what is wrong. That's pretty good, but it doesn't always fit with my experience of what's wrong with me and the world. As Pirsig puts it in his prescript, "And what is good, Phaedrus, and what is not good--need we ask anyone to tell us these things?" It's usually clear.

The other answer given is that the knowledge of good and evil is somehow connected to rationality. And that's where the text above connects. I generally tend not to understand what's wrong with reason. I think it's a good thing. But the passage above provides the insight that through reason, we separate ourselves from the world.

The other resonance that this had for me was with Martin Buber's I and Thou. In Buber's language, through rational analysis we enter into an "I-it" relationship with the world around us. We have lost the "I-you" relationship that is our proper orientation to the world around us. And in this we lose our ability to interact with God in the world.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Submitting to the Mountain

My second exploration of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainence is, perhaps, a little more in line with the book's intent. It is prompted by another of Phaedrus' experiences in India, a pilgrimage to Mount Kailas.
He never reached the mountain. After the third day he gave up, exhausted, and the pilgrimage went on without him. He said that he had the physical strength but that physical strength wasn't enough. He had the intellectual motivation but that wasn't enough either. He didn't think he had been arrogant but thought that he was undertaking the pilgrimage to broaden his experience, to gain understanding for himself. He was trying to use the mountain for his own purposes and the pilgrimage too. He regarded himself as the fixed entity, not the pilgrimage or the mountain, and thus wasn't ready for it. He speculated that the other pilgrims, the ones who reached the mountain, probably sensed the holiness of the mountain so intsenly that each footstep was an act of devotion, an act of submission to this holiness. The holiness of the mountain infused into their own spirits enabled them to endure far more than anything he, with greater physical strength, could take.

It seems to me that this thought has direct application to Christian, and even specifically Lutheran, spirituality and can perhaps provide a clue to a new understanding of justification by faith alone.

The problem with justification by works isn't the works, it's that I'm doing it for me. Any works done for God are, by definition, acts of faith. We still have the Lutheran insight that we can't really intend to do works for God because the very intention puts me at the center again. These acts of faith must flow from God.

So I have here an idea of life as a continual process of sensing God in the world around me and submitting to God's holiness rather than trying to assert anything for myself. I'm not quite sure what to do with this idea, but I'm pretty certain that if I keep it around it will prove edifying.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Illusion and Reality

I am, at long last, back from my road trip. While I was on the road, I was reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainence. It's been on my bookshelf since college, but I don't think I had actually read the whole book before. The narrator is on a road trip following a similar path to mine, but in the opposite direction, so it seemed like it would be a good read.

There were three passages in the book that I'd like to explore more here in my blog. The first one is somewhat tangential to the meaning of the book, and my exploration here may leave anyone who's read the book with the impression that I didn't get it. I'm willing to take that chance.

The narrator is talking about the experiences of Phaedrus studying Eastern spirituality in India. This is what happened:
But one day in the classroom, the professor of philosophy was blindly expounding on the illusory nature of the world for what seemed like the fiftieth time and Phaedrus raised his hand and asked coldly if it was believed that the atomic bombs that had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were illusory. The professor smiled ans said yes. That was the end of the exchange.

Within the traditions of Indian philosophy that answer may have been correct, but for Phaedrus and for anyone else who reads newspapers regularly and is concerned with such things as mass destruction of human beings that answer was hopelessly inadequate. He left the classroom, left India and gave up.

This captures what I think is one of the greatest strengths of the Judeo-Christian tradition, though Christianity flirts with throwing it aside all too often, namely an acceptance and even embrace of reality as we find it, a concern for the world.

Since finishing ZATAOMM, I've started reading Evelyn Underhill's The Spiritual Life, and she stresses this same point. Christian spirituality isn't something separate from the pratical world of everyday life. It's a recognition that the practical world of everyday life is part of the reality of God.

Pirsig never directly picks up this thread of Phaedrus' reaction to the idea of the illusory nature of reality, though it clearly has implication for his later thoughts on the reality of what he calls Quality and equates with the Tao, which I as a Christian would connect with God. Reality, he claims, is created by our experience of Quality.

I don't know enough about Zen Buddhism or other Eastern religions to know what they ultimately do with thing like Hiroshima, but within the realm of Christian spirituality, I find some merit in not just acknowledging the reality of Hiroshima, but in recognizing it as a part of the reality of God and of finding God in my response to that reality.