Profits and prophets

The recent health care speech and debate has turned our attention to the idea of a profit motive.    Despite scare-mongering to the contrary, the plan on the table does not socialize medical care.  But President Obama makes no bones about the idea that the profit motive in this case needs to be kept in check.

I think he’s right.  And I think that’s these special ways that this plays out for Christians.

Many people believe that the more unregulated the profit motive is, the more efficient we, as a society become.  Self interest, they say, is the only trait we can really expect from people.  We end up saying if a person behaves in their own self interest this is a morally good thing for them to do.

But are we prepared to deal with the fall out when we apply this logic to providers of health care?  Some of the following are theoretic problems.  Some are actual, every-day, real world problems.  But all of them are examples of health care providers acting to maximize profits:

* Whenever it is cheaper to let a person die than treat a person, it is in the best interest of the provider to allow the person to die, if treatment will be more expensive than the premiums that the person will pay for the rest of their life.

* Whenever amputation is cheaper than rehabilitation or treating an ailment, we should expect the provider to amputate, provided that the amputation won’t interfere with the patient’s ability to pay premiums.

* The cheapest treatment will be preferred.  Even if this treatment is painful, inefficient, carries side effects, etc, this is the one that a rational health care provider will go with.

Their is a public relations aspect to all this.  It can be argued that companies might be willing to lose some profit because the negative PR will cost them more.  And sometimes this helps.  But the PR thing, it’s just another expense.  It’s just a further piece for the executives to figure into the equation.  Somewhere, right now, there is a guy in a suit.  And he is saying “If we do X, we will save Y dollars.   However, the negative PR will cost us an extra ___ dollars.  Which decision leads to a larger profit?  Is there a way we can spend a few dollars to undo that negative PR?”

I’m not meaning to demonize the executives.  They are between a rock and a hard place.  The problem is with the system itself.

For Christians, there is a further complication in all this.

If it’s true that self-interested decisions are the only reliable motivations, then this is a result of man’s fall.  Are we really foolish enough to want to court this?  Are we arrogant enough to think we can harness this?  Do we realize that this really is a deal with The Devil himself, in quite a literal way?

In so many things we are faced with a very difficult balancing act.  On the one side, we must accept that the world is a certain way.  On the other side, we should try to hope, work, and fight for a world that is better.  On the whole, an economy which is capitalistically oriented is a wise recognition of the way that a world is.  But to suggest that industries such as health care ought to be driven by capitalism is to go to far in this direction.

Love and Humility for the Mentally Ill

What is the nature of the soul, and how is it related to the mind and the brain? Why do bad things happen to good people, how do these trials shape them, and what can be said of God when there seems to be no relief? What does it mean to be born again and made new in Christ? How should the truths of scriptures be understood in our modern world, which is so often viewed through a scientific lense?

How we answer these questions shapes the very most basic parts of our faith. And all four of these q uestions are just the very beginnings of how we view mental illness.

Mental illness. Is it going too far to call mental illness the dirty little secret of the church?

I’m not sure that this would be an exageration at all. I think we’d all be hard pressed to name a single issue which has effected so many but which is so rarely discussed. It would almost be a good thing if we could, in fairness, say that the topic was controversial. I almost wish that we could say that the church is divided on the issue. Because this would imply that we’re at least trying to deal with it. This would imply that we’ve at least recognized that it’s an issue.

It’s not altogether surprising. The secular world doesn’t do much better in this regard.

And a person could spend his whole life on any one of the questions mentioned in the beginning of this article. Yet, too formulate a cohesive and Christian response to the fact of mental illness almost demands an answer to all of those questions at once.

Consider the question of the relationship between soul, mind, and brain: The use and sometimes-success of medications imply that there is some physical aspect to mental illness. The very use of the term, “mental illness” draws a comparisons with physical ailments.

Or begin with the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Mental illnesses are not brought on by any doings of the person who suffers from them. “How do trials shape us?” Even a casual survey of the research leaves one understanding that traumatic events impact the brain itself. “What can be said when there seems to be no relief?” One of the most heart-breaking aspects of mental illness is that it is so very unpredictable. It can go on for years and decades, being mostly the same. And then? Then it gets better. Or it gets much, much worse.

What does it mean to be born again, or made new in Christ? People accept Jesus as their savoir, and their mental illnesses linger. Others, who are life long Christians develop mental illnesses. It is a real and legitimate question: where is Jesus’ healing for them?

The question of where Jesus healing is for the mentally ill leads to that last fundamental question: “How should the truths of scriptures be understood in our modern world, which is so often viewed through a scientific lense?” In the entirety of the bible, the events that seem like the nearest descriptions to mental illnesses are in fact examples of demonic possession. Yet modern science has no room for this explanation. And modern science has sometimes been succesful in explaining and even managing mental illness. How do we handle this tension?

This is not a series of abstractions. This is not an interesting quandry. If you are fortunate enough to not have grappled with this yet, you will.

If you spend long enough in ministry, you will wrestle with how best to hold someone accountable for actions they may well have no control over.

If you spend long enough trying to bring Jesus’ love to everyone, you will find people so thoroughly depressed that they can not feel His love or hear the truth of your words.

If you spend long enough in small groups, you will become authentic enough in your community that someone will share these troubles, that can be so very hard to understand or change… unless of course you suffer from mental illness yourself. And if you do, you may find that there are no lonlier places that a person might be.

I am not suggesting that there is no answer to these questions. In fact, I believe there is a desperate need for better answers to these questions.

But I am clear that we do not have these answers. Not fully, completely, or consistently.

And I have seen the damage, the terrible damage inflicted by people who believe that they did have the answers.

I think one of the lessons that God wants us to learn from mental illness is that He will not be placed in a box and He will not work on our time tables or according to our plans. I do not believe that mental illnesses occur so that God can teach us these things. But I do believe that He uses mental illnesses to teach us these things.

I believe that when we don’t see healing the way we think it should occur, when the same issues and challenges wear and tear on us year after year, I believe we are all confronted with a decision. Will we take the path of Christ? Into the pain and doubt and suffering? Or will we take the path of Judas, into the safe and comfortable?

In small ways and big ways I have shunned the suffering. The suffering are reminders that I am not God, and I can not heal whoever I choose. The suffering are reminders that God is not a genie, he is not a cosmic ATM. I repent, right here and now, of all the times I have taken the path of Judas.

The mentally ill are not the only people who are suffering. But there are a few cruelties we save for them alone. There are limits to the comparisons between mental illness and physical illness. But there are ways it is a useful comparison.

Yet most of us don’t encourage people with high blood pressure to stop taking their medications. Most of us do not think that the people who wear glasses among us lack the faith for healed eyes. Most of us don’t cast doubt on the ideas that a secular doctor might have some good insight about our flat feet.

There is a part of me that wishes so desperately that I had more. And yet, over and over, in the scriptures, we are told that love and humility is enough, they are more than enough.

So may all our actions be saturated in love and humility. Whatever specific things we do, I think they will be the right things if they begin in love and humility.

Our own human attempts at love and humility are so small but I know that there is an infinite storehouse of love and humility in Christ. And I know that we can access this storehouse in Him and through Him… That is not the end but the only worthy beginning.

What would Jesus do?

What would Jesus do?

WWJD?

A friend pointed out that the question is incredibly important, even if it’s seen as passe.

I’d go so far as to say it might be the most important question.

And yet… Can you ask it outloud?  Can you ask it with a straight face?  Can you ask it with out shuddering and feeling like the worst kind of cheese?  (Which might be cheddar.)

I can’t.

Perhaps I’m rationalizing here, but I want to say that I’m not ashamed of my faith or Jesus.   And as my friends observation,  implies, I’m not alone in this aversion to the question.

Satan is smart.  This would be terrifying if it weren’t for the fact that God’s a gazillion times smarter.

There’s a brilliance in how Satan worked all this out.   He recognized that there was a powerful question: What would Jesus do?  And he did his best to castrate it.

He began with the people who popularized the question.  He turned it into an omnipresent slogan.  We saw it everywhere.  He oversaturated the world with it; on books, C.D.’s, bracelets, billboards, necklaces, notebooks, pencils, stuffed animals…

This first step did two things: Firstly, it triggered all the defenses we normally employ against marketing that has reached the saturation point.  We naturally just filter things out that we see over and over again.  Did you ever notice how you stop noticing strong smells when you’ve been around them long enough?  It’s like that.  You’re so close to it you don’t see it anymore.

Perhaps more damagingly, people made profits, tremendous profits,  off of those four little letters.  It called thier motivation into question.

And then there are the people who asked it.   Rightly or wrongly, a perception popped up about the sort-of people who regularly asked this question.  (Like many stereotypes, there probably is a root of truth in this perception. )

This perception is that WWJD became WWMSLPJD: What would my silly little preconcieved Jesus do?

People began with a rigid, innacurate, tiny picture of who Jesus was.  And they basically used the question to reaffirm the things they wanted to believe.   The marketing didn’t help.  It allowed this to become a fashion show.  It created a possibility to be pharisitic, to show off our holiness with wristbands and t-shirt, rather than internalize our holiness.

And now, the question, “What Would Jesus Do?” Doesn’t actually mean “What Would Jesus do?”  Grabbing on to the letters “WWJD” means aligning oneself with this whole history of a certain group who answered that question in a quite specific way, which was arguably not the way that Jesus himself would have answered it.

It’s a bit like the whole “Christian” thing.  People who reject the label generally recognize that it doesn’t matter what the dictionary says, in this case.   They grab terms like Christ-follower, because the term “Christian” has picked up this whole connotation as a result of the history of the people who chose this term.

So there’s a disconnect between what a word (or question) should mean and what a word (or question) does mean.  “WWJD” began it’s life like the term “Christian”.   They had these meanings, based merely on what made them up.

It’s a bit like a person: when we’re born, all we really are is the things that make us up.  (Genetics, soul, call it what you want.)

As these words begin to have an independent life, things happen to them.  They gather a reputation, they are changed.  Just like a growing person, who might choose to hang out with drug users or heroes, who might choose to live healthily or live destructively.

Of course, we should never give up on people.  But I think it’s a valid question: At what point do we give up on redeeming words and phrases?  The perversion of the question “WWJD” confronts us with this decision.  And that’s a sad thing.

No Line…

One of the best parts of the last several days has been immersing myself in the new-ish U2 C.D., No Line on the Horizon.  It is amazing.

The jangle-jangle-jangle of the bass, the often sparse instrumentation, the use of harmonies in the vocals, the painos popping up at songs’ end… it all harkens back to U2 before The Joshua Tree. 

But it’s grown up, too.  Listening to it feels a bit like I’ve had this friend for years.   Though we have this really solid friendship we actually haven’t talked about some important issues in forever.  

This C.D. feels like returning to some conversational topic from long ago.  We’re still the same people, we still have some of the same things to say to each other, but we’re both grown up, some.  We own more of our own opinions.  We’re not as likely to slip into the oversimplicity of youth.  But at our core, we’re still the same people.  And I had no idea how much I had missed discussing this stuff with that old friend.

One of the elements I’ve most enjoyed being challenged by is the spiritual stuff.  When I fell in love with U2 I wasn’t a Christian.  When I became one this whole new vista opened up for me.

I remember the first time I heard “I still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” After accepting Christ.  When I heard this part I was so moved I almost had to pull over:

I believe in the Kingdom Come
Then all the colours will bleed into one
Bleed into one.
But yes, I’m still running.

You broke the bonds
And you loosed the chains
Carried the cross of my shame
Oh my shame, you know I believe it.

But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for.
But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for.

There’s fodder in the lyrics of the new C.D.’s for bunches of blog postings.  But I’m not quite ready yet. 

Are you a U2 fan?  What do you think of the new C.D?  What are your thoughts about the spirituality expressed through the music?

Partners…

Somebody (I forget who) said “I’d have an easier time with Christians if they weren’t so busy stepping all over each other to climb up on a cross.”

There are all sorts of things running around in this criticism.  Some of the things it points at are things that to me aren’t criticisms at all.  But I think it’s also lampooning our tendency to quietly suffer, to humbly allow ourselves to be hurt, ridiculed, and insulted.

For example, somebody has repeated a behavior over and over and over again.  We think about the whole idea of forgiving somebody 70 X 7 times.  And so we’re mostly sure they are going to do the same hurtful thing again.  But we think we’re doing what we’re supposed to do when we let them.

Sometimes I allow myself to be hurt by others.  And I call up a picture of Jesus on the cross.  And I feel pretty good about it, in a bad kind of way.

This morning I read this in Ephesians 5, “5For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.[a] 6Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. 7Therefore do not be partners with them.”

I wonder if I always skimmed over this.  I wonder if I didn’t have fresh eyes to see.  I wonder if it sounds different in other translations.  I always thought that the admonition was to not be decietful with other people; I thought this was saying “Don’t be partners in crime with someone”

But that’s not actually what it’s saying.  It’s saying “Don’t allow yourself to be decieved by others.”  And the reasoning is fascinating: don’t allow yourself to become a victim because when we do this, we create victimizers.  When we act like prey we are helping others to learn to become a predator.  

The last verse does use that word, partner.  But it’s not talking about a conscious, willing partnership.  It’s saying that when we allow others to decieve us we are entering into a partnership nonethless.

Just for clarities sake, I’m not claiming that every time we are victimized are we partners.  The whole point is those cases where we know what we’re doing, where we allow ourselves to let this happen.  There are real predators.  There are are innocent victims.  When somebody is doing something unexpected to hurt me then there is no partnership. 

There is more advice which runs contrary to the way we Christians often do things.  Later in the chapter it says Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. 12For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. 13But everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14for it is light that makes everything visible.”

What does it mean, to “mention what the disobedient do in secret”… Is it when we sit around in a small group, and share with everybody that so-and-so keeps hurting us and we pray that they will stop?

If it is, then I have some changing to do. 

It seems like this verse is saying that we have an obligation to go to the person hurting us and tell them, bring the light to them.  This is one way to make sense of what follows:

 This is why it is said:
   “Wake up, O sleeper,
      rise from the dead,
   and Christ will shine on you.”

 15Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, 16making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.”

Here, what jumped out at me was the word, wise.  So often when we set ourselves up in these situations where we forgive and forgive and forgive, we know that there is a level on which we’re being quite stupid.  Rationally, we know what’s going to happen.  In honesty, I find it kind of refreshing to be told to be wise around these things.

For me, this all leads to questions about how best to reconcile these truths to the reality of the cross.  It can almost appear that Jesus did the thing we’re told not to do.  He unwisely partnered with us in all our sin.

Interestingly, the next part of this chapter is one of the most-talked about in all of the bible.  It’s the one about husbands and wives submitting.  It’s used as the basis for traditional thought and progressive feminist thought in Christianity.  It’s used in weddings, as a model for devotion to spouses, as a model of devotion to the church.

But I think that there is a different read in the fuller context of the chapter.  The additional truth we get when we look at the whole thing is this: one act of submission is to not allow ourselves to be victimized by people’s habitual sins.  Wives submit to husbands by preventing them from acting in anger.  Husbands submit to their wives by preventing them from acting in greed… and vice-versa.  We shouldn’t just accept mediocrity from each other.  But we should call each other out, we should challenge each other, we should not partner with their sin by allowing ourselves to be victimized by it.

The second half of this chapter of Ephesians talks about being presenting in purity.  It explains I think, why Christ wasn’t partnering with us in our sin.  He had the power to destroy it, so he did.  And I think maybe there is this implication that we should do the same, first for our spouses then those around us.  When we have the power to destroy sin in others’ lives we should.  We feed their sin when we constantly forgive them and then position the person to do it again.

Of course this can be taken t far.  There is lots about forgiving verses forgetting, codependent relationships, etc. that I haven’t even touched on.  But it’s interesting how seeing just a couple phrases and viewing a chapter as a whole can bring this whole other meaning to scripture.

God in the Cinammon Rolls

So, I’ve discovered cooking this summer.

I’m not up to anything elaborate.  Actually, nearly all of it has come from a cook book Emeril made for kids.  But it’s been both a yummy and interesting diversion.   It occurred to me that there all sorts of interesting theological ramifications to cooking.

This first occurred to me as I was measuring out the sugar for apple muffins.  I scooped out the sugar, and the measuring cup was almost full.  It occurred to me I had a couple choices: First, of course, I could declare that “almost full” is close enough.  If I did this, I’d dump it into the mixing bowl and continue on. 

Secondly, I could put the measuring cup back in the sugar bag and bring it out again.  When it came out, I knew it would probably be slightly over full. (Isn’t that how it always is: either too much or not enough?)

Finally, I could get all compulsive and level the top off with a knife if it came out that way.  Or I could pour the slightly over-full cup in the mixing bowl.

To use the under-full cup in the mixing bowl felt like an act of stinginess.  To pour in the overly full cup felt like an act of generosity.  And to level it off felt like an act of legalism.

I realize that this association probably says something about me having an unhealthy relationship with food.  But it also says something about the act of providing nourishment for my family, about taking care of their needs in a manner that is much more direct than what I am used to. 

 I’m the families “bread winner” (interesting term, that.)  Work can sometimes feel so disconnected from the money that pays our rent and grocery and other bills.  Investing some time in making some food is so much more of a direct line between me and the nourishment of my family.

As I was kneading the cinnamon roll dough, it was all between my fingers and smelling good.  The physical-ness of the act was probably therapeutic, but, it also felt somehow like an intimate connection between myself and my family, even though I was the only one awake at the time.   Maybe it was because it was like massaging somebody’s shoulders.  Maybe it was because generally I hate having sticky stuff on my hands and I was (in some tiny sense) sacrificing for them.  

I was putting those things together and hoping that it’d come out the way it was supposed to.

It’s instructive that God provides the building blocks in all sorts of different ways.  One of those ways is through the laws of physics and biology.  By all rights, flour and butter and cinnamon and eggs and yeast and stuff should just turn into a sticky mess when you throw them together.  But when you mix them and cook them in a manner that is consistent with the scientific laws that God set up, you end up with cinnamon rolls.

God actually does the real work in everything we do.   All we do is figure out how things work, put them together, and have faith and hope that it comes out the way it is supposed to.  We do the work of planting seeds.  Or sharing the gospel.  Or turning the key in the ignition.

God makes them grow.  Or speaks to the potential convert.  Or igniting the spark plugs.

And sometimes of course, the seed doesn’t grow.  The person doesn’t hear Christ in us.  The engine doesn’t roll over. 

Maybe these cinnamon rolls won’t turn out after all my work, too.  All we have in this life are recipes and hopes that they’ll turn out. 

Another theological ramification of cooking is what I learned about sacrifice.  If I had to kill the chicken I cook, I’d probably be more attuned to this.  I wonder if this is some of the reason that God doesn’t require animal sacrifice anymore.  (I know that there are theological reasons, but presumably, God could have arranged those rules differently if he’d wanted animal sacrifice to outlast the Temple.)  It’s hard for this representation of God’s love to resonate with us, now.

If I had lived in ancient Israel, I’d be killing an animal nearly every day to eat.   The act of sacrficing an animal would connect to my every day experience of killing an animal.   (Especially because of all of the perscriptions about blood and killing animals that the Hebrews contended with in the first place.)  If I lived in the time after Christ, I’d further connect these sacrfices with the crucifixion: if I knew my scriptures I’d know that he so often compares himself to water, and bread, and that this comparison is enacted in the Lord’s Supper.

It’s not even a meat-eating thing.  If I was a farmer, and I watched the crops I’d toiled “dissapear” into my families’ mouths, I’d still be aware that some things must die in order that my family might live.  In the act of cooking, I’m returning myself toward that realization.  The closer I get to making things from scratch, the closer I get to that realization: something had to die in order that I might live.

When I crack open an egg I am reminded that a chicken laid the egg.  If that egg had been fertilized life would have sprung from it.   When I pour in the milk I am reminded that a cow gave the milk.  In different circumstances, that milk would have nourished the cow’s young.  When I pour in the sugar, I know that sugar cane plants had to be hacked down, somewhere far away, in order for me to enjoy this thing that I am now making.

(There is a whole other thing in all this: connections are formed through my awareness that somebody hacked down the sugar plant, tended the chickens and cows, etc.)

If I’d bought one of those nuclear-power cinamon rolls thingees where you burst the canister and then heat the rolls inside, I might have reflected on the machines that created the thing.  Rationally, I’d know that just as many people (and other life forms) where involved in bringing together the various ingredients.  But this is just an after thougt: I’m not holding the eggs in my hands, I’m not pouring out the milk.   I’m not reminded of the fact that things have to die in order for my family to live if I’m operating in a world of prefabricated food stuffs.

It’s a subtle thing, not the first thing we might think about… but it’s incredibly important: things have to die in order for my family to live.

And it’s not a very long walk from this realization to a next one, so much more important: one of the things that had to die, so that my family might live, is Jesus.  His death allowed for the most important kind of life, a deeper life than merely living, a more eternal life than the body will experience.

I’m not saying that we ought to use cooking as a means of conversion, nor am I saying that cinnamon rolls are the place everybody will find God.  But He is everywhere, and as I reflect on this mornings cinammon rolls, I find him there in all sorts of ways.  (They were, by the way, delicious.)

This post was my submission to Watercooler Wednesday, Randy Elrod’s blog carnival.

distraction and rest

I am not the sort of guy who you’d think of as a type A personality.

Maybe more like type H, for hippie-ish.

Or type Z, if Z is the opposite of A.

I don’t think of myself as the sort-of guy who always has to be going, going, going.  I don’t think of myself as the sort of guy who worships the idol of efficiency.  And maybe this was the problem: I’m not on guard in this area, I wasn’t wise enough to watch out.  So I was blind sided.  This whole spiritual battle happened.  And it snuck up on me.

I’m a father of three.  And a Special Education Teacher.  And the director of small groups for my amazing church.  And the leader of a small group.  And I have a second (paying) job in retail.  I have this passion for writing and performing poetry.  And writing prose.   And of course I blog.  And I’m usually reading about three books at the same time.  (Right now it’s The Geography of Bliss, The Protectors, Walking with God, and White Apples and the Taste of Stone.  All are quite good.) 

Due to some intense family stuff, over the last year, I reached this point where I had intense extra family responsibilities.  Very slowly those have been resuming a “normal” level.  For a while they were tremendous.

This last year, my alarm rings at 5:40 on week days.  I have sometimes had two days where after school I went to my retail job and arrived home at 10:30 or even 11:30 at night.  I’ve had maybe an hour in the afternoon to catch my breath and scarf some food.

I’ve had numerous weeks where I’ve gone without a single, full day off.  I’ll work my second job on Saturday or be working on small-group or other church related responsibilities on Sunday.

Please don’t think I’m whining here.  It’s my responsibility for using  discernment in my schedule.  I’ve worked hard at praying about what isn’t a wise, Godly use of my time.  I’ve been able to cut out some.   I haven’t been to a poetry reading in six months, probably.  And for most of the school year, I cut down from reading several books at a time to just 1.  Nonetheless, I continue to work on this.

Furthermore, I’m not bragging either.  I’ve come to the conclusion that God has wanted this season of my life to be busy.  After much prayer and thought I haven’t figured out a way to cut more out of my schedule.   If you’ve shown the discipline to lead a more focused life, you should be bragging, not me.

I just say all this to establish a simple fact:

I’m a busy guy with lots of stuff on his plate.

And when the school year ended this year, you’d think I would have rejoiced.  There have been times I have longed desperately for a little relief in the demands on my time.  In June, a couple weeks back, I got one.

And it was brutal!

I can only describe it as a spiritual battle that happened next.  I was grumpy and depressed and angry.  The worst part was how worthless I felt.  Like such a slacker.  Sitting on the other side of it, I have this clarity about it. 

There were some areas I feel like I’d neglected.  If I’d been rational I would have siezed the opportunity to take care of my soul’s needs for rest and relaxation and also used this time to get caught up in the areas I’d fallen behind in.  But I was in the middle of such a funk that I couldn’t do it.  I spent time on useless stuff: moping around, playing stupid (and obsolete) games on the computer, watching mediocre television, listening to music that doesn’t uplift me…

This could have lasted all Summer.  And what would have happened then?  The School year would have started, I would have even been more behind.  Less rested.  More discouraged.  Even without the pressure and demads of my teaching gig I would have not accomplished much, and I would have felt like a failure.

Satan views me like a gerbil and he puts all these treadmills before me, and sometimes I jump on them and I exhaust myself and he laughs.

God rescued me because that’s what he does.

I started reading The Bible every day again.  (No, I “inexplicablly” still couldn’t find any copies in the house.  Biblegateway.com rocks!)  And then there was the day we lost our electricity.

We spent an afternoon with no power.  And suddenly I got it, that whole Sabbath thing about how many of the ultraorthodox Jewish people don’t even turn on (or off) lights on The Sabbath.  They don’t drive, they don’t use electronics.

I won’t be adopting any of those practices on a regular basis.  But I learned something.

There is a difference between rest and distraction.   Without power, most of my distractions were stopped cold.

What are some differences between rest and distraction?

Rest is quiet.  Sometimes literally but always figuratively.  Distraction is usually loud.  If it doesn’t make noise on the outside it makes noise on the inside.

The quiet of rest allows us to get to what is really going on on the inside, so we can hear our hearts and hear God.

The noise of distraction drowns out God’s voice and our own quietest voices.

Rest is biblical.  Many ways of resting are ancient.  We are close to forgetting some of them.

Distraction has been mastered in the modern era.  We are getting incredibly good at learning more and more about how best to distract ourselves.

Rest is fufilling.  If we are healthy we will reach a point where we’ve got all we need.

Distraction is addictive.  We need more and more to reach the same high.

God gave me this day of rest, real rest.  And in it I heard that he loves me.  He first reminded me that he’d love me if I never accomplished anything.  But he also reminded that I’m a busy guy who has lots on his plate.  The fact that I wasn’t working over the summer as a teacher was a blessing that allowed me to focus on the other things that God has put on my heart.  And as I realized this, I’ve started to do it…

Beliefs and Actions

Over at this outstanding blog, a really interesting discussion is shaping up.  The issue is Orthodoxy versus orthopraxis.

Orthodoxy means “right beliefs”.  For example, somebody might believe that the orthodox position is that Jesus is connected to God in some unique way.

Orthopraxis means “right actions” or “right practice”.  It’s the actions undertaken by a person.  For example, somebody might believe that to follow Christ means that we should be giving food to those who are hungry.

There are several unsurprising things about this distinction.  These unsurprising things include:

#1) People debate about which is more important.

#2) This debate often comes down with old school traditionalists on one side and the post-modern emergent side on the other.

#3) It’s not really as complicated a debate as all these Latin (Or are they Greek?) terms make it appear.

It seems to me that this is just a dressed up version of the question “What’s more important to Jesus: that we have the right attitude about things or that we do the right things?”  All the Catholic Vs. Protestant “Works vs faith” debates are really about this issue.

I know that often people say that our hearts are much more important than whatever things it is we do.   I know that they’ve got lots to back this position up.  But there’s two things that are worth considering before we jump to this conclusion.

The first is that we have a very different understanding of what it is to know something than Jesus contemporaries did.  The modern era has made an idol of a certain type of understanding.  The staggering successes of science have lead to us treating rational, logic based, intellectualized knowledge as the king.  When scripture speaks about knowing or believing a thing, it’s not the same sort of knowledge that we think of when we think about, for example, knowing that 7 X 7 = 49.

The second is this quote from the Book of James. 

“12Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, 13because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!

Faith and Deeds

 14What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

 18But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
      Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.

 19You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

 20You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless[d]? 21Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.”

It seems to me that almost any time the emergents are on one side and the traditionalists are on the other, it’s wise to assume that the truth is probably somewhere between them.  There’s some debates where both sides are equally right.

But there are some cases that you can’t have one side without the other.  There are some times that one side taken to far becomes an extreme that is wrong.  One of my favorite things about Jesus is when he steps outside of an either/or and looks at the big picture.  James seems to be following this tradition.

There are some things that we could have orthodox beliefs about which would change our actions.  If it turns out that the “right belief” about the nature of the atom is that it’s composed of quarks, this might be interesting.  But really, whether it’s quarks or strings or whatever, this isn’t going to change the ways I live my life.

I submit that orthodox beliefs about the nature of Jesus aren’t this kind of beliefs, though.  They aren’t abstract.  We couldn’t possibly hold orthodox beliefs without engaging in orthopraxy.  On the other hand, it seems clear to me that we won’t be able to identify the right practices if we don’t have the right beliefs in the first place.

I love the way that James expresses this.  I wonder if he had a sarcastic smirk on his face as he challenged someone to show them their faith without deeds.  Because it’s pretty much impossible to do this.  We can’t show anybody our faith except by their deeds. 

And I love how he uses the story of Isaac.  Even thousands of years ago, it was a temptation to sit around and intellectualize these things.  (Probably, if they’d had the technology, the people that James was talking to would have had blogs that read distressingly like my blog.)  It seems to me the whole point is this: stating beliefs is easy.  Acting on them, that’s where we’ll seperate the adults from the children. 

Fighting persecution

Jesus makes all sorts of promises about how difficult it will be to follow him.

It’s easy to look at these people who will oppose us and demonize them.  That’s probably part of our fallen nature: to look at those who stand in our way and ignore their humanity.

There is this whole cast of figures that I’d always looked at in this light.  People from the Ancient Romans, to anti-Christian governments, to people in my life who take issue with my Christianity.

It’s easy to demonize this crowd.  To think that it is somehow a moral failure on their part to stand in the way of Jesus’ mission.

I had this realization this morning: the only moral failure is mine for not presenting who Jesus is.  They might be making mistakes, these other people.  They might be deluded or confused or wrong.  But it’s not a moral issue.  It’s a reality issue.

The fundamental question isn’t: what’s right or wrong?

The fundamental question is: who is Jesus?

Because what counts as right or wrong is determined by who Jesus is.  The way the second question is answered will impact the first.

If somebody has answered that second question in a different way than I have, then they will oppose what I want to do.  This is only natural.  It’s not a measure of their immorality. 

If somebody wanted to spread Buddhism to the world, I would oppose them.  Becuase I disagree with them about the question of who the Buddha was.  Can I expect to be treated any differently?

Furthermore, even among Christians, to whatever extent God is moving in my heart alone, I should expect to have to fight that battle alone.  I might create an overall reputation of trustworthiness or untrustworthiness.  I can hope that my reputation will precede me.  But if I say to someone “I believe that this is what God wants me to do because when I listen very carefully that’s what he seems to be saying” I should only expect them to believe this as far as they trust me and as far as what I’m saying is consistent with what they already know about God.

It seems like God might use us to broaden our own or somebody else’s ideas about who he is or what he is about.  The prophets and (later) Jesus did this over and over again: they never contradicted what God had unvieled before.  But they did cause God’s prior self-revelations to get revisited and re-envisioned.

(Did you ever notice how we want to have our cake and eat it too, with in Chrsitian circles… Out of one side of our mouth we make claims like ‘There are 897 prophecies in the Old Testament that Jesus fufilled’ and out of the other side of our mouth we say ‘Jesus was so different than everyone expected that even the experts in the law didn’t recognize him.’?)

Seeing things this way doesn’t make things easier.  It seems to me that the traditional view, the view I’d always clung to, was that people who would stand in the way of what I’m trying to do in Christ, people who stand in the way of who I’m trying to be in Christ, these people were on the opposite side.  They are my opponents.  I should deal with them as if there is a war and they are the foot soliders of the other side.

OF course there is a war.  But we’re told in scripture the enemy is powers and principalities.  Those who persecute us– even with violence– they are, in fact, doing something which (from their vantage point) is quite reasonable.

Freedom

O.K., but why?

There are very few things we do or feel that we can’t ask that question of.  The toddler “Why” game is annoying partially because it is nearly endless.  Nearly every single thing we do, we don’t do for it’s own sake.  We do it because it leads to something else which leads to something else which leads to…

I can’t say that things are even all that different in the spiritual realm. 

We read the bible.

Why?

So we can learn things about God, for example that he wants us to pray.  Once we learn this, we begin to pray.

Why?

Sometimes, we pray to share our sorrow with God.

Why?

Because God wants us to.

Why?

You get the picture.

Perhaps this is why Galations 5:1 grabbed me today.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

Christ set us free?

why?

For freedom.

Isn’t this circular?

Yes, it is.  And what’s the problem with that, exactly?

There is something about freedom that is just so inherently good that being free can’t be explained.  It’s so basic that it doesn’t boil down to anything else.  There is no why.

How often do we feel set free by Christ?

Early on in our walk with Christ, probably so very often.  Later on… maybe not so much.  This is a natural time to ask what has became the refrain of this post:

Why?

Is it because there are buildings and organizations that call themselves churches, and these buildings sometimes are only distantly related to what they were supposed to be?  Do these human, fallen, imperfect organizations masquerade as Christ himself and burden us with the yolk of slavery?

Do we simply forget what our lives were like before Christ?

I don’t know.  But I’d be hard pressed to find many other claims, even in the bible, that a thing is so inherently good that we don’t need words to explain it’s basic goodness.  There are so many means, and so few ends, it seems like we ought to cling to them, hold on to them, because if we lose what we’re doing things for, everything else is a moot point.