Tag Archives: God

Our Pieces of Pie in the Sky | Part 3 of 3

This is the final blog in a series of three originally titled “Why Kick a Man When He’s Down? | Smoking, Sin, Shaming and Salvation.” Like Reza Aslan reminded FOX’s Lauren Green, I too write from a PhD in history of religions perspective (although I have 1 versus his 4 PhDs), so please bear that in mind as you read this and other faith-related blogs.

Some delicious childhood memories of mine are of pies: strawberry, coconut cream, chocolate and french silk varieties (esp those with a graham cracker crust).

If you have only leisure and pleasurable pie eating memories then you likely are either an only child, one of two children, or from a family who never quarreled.

I’m the fourth of five children. A pie cut into seven does not big pieces make! Therefore, in my family, dessert time was satisfying, yes, but also stressful. It was imperative that you either dibs the pan or dibs your piece early, thereby ensuring you got, maybe, a half-bite more than anybody else (especially satisfying was getting the extra few strawberry syrup saturated graham cracker crumbs lining the pie pan).

Our childhood illogic, then, was as adult illogical as buying gas (petrol) today. You might travel 5 to 10 miles to buy discounted wholesale gas at $3.40/gallon, when a nearby station is selling it at $3.45, and the total cost saving differential for one tank of gas is only $.50 to $1 (before factoring in time and gas cost of traveling to and from).

Many people view salvation with a prized pie mentality. Heaven (or eternal life) is the ultimate pie or piece of pie, yet it simultaneously poses a troubling question, “How can I be sure I’ll get my piece if other, strangely different people are claiming they know both an equally good recipe and baker (perhaps identical, though different in name), themselves?” 

Gaining admittance and exclusionary bragging rights to heaven seem somewhat comparable to passing “GO” in Monopoly, except that, instead of a single player dominating the real estate market, a single religious perspective attempts to monopolize criteria for eternal eligibility and what constitutes truth.

Furthermore, the secret to passing “GO” without going bankrupt, landing in jail (hell) or being penalized by unlucky draw-cards, is to acquire insider knowledge of and obey prescribed code words (e.g., from Christianity – “Steps to Salvation,” “Four Spiritual Laws” or “Roman Road”).

Determining “who” is eligible and declaring “how” one may gain access to heaven is much easier if you have the power to entice and enforce people’s lifestyle and beliefs, which Christianity as a whole has had the privilege of doing for the past millennium-plus . . . . first, as the official religion of the post-Constantine Roman Empire, then, as the religion of European colonial powers, and finally, as the dominant religion of Super Power America and its global economic and political reach.

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An example of enticement, is an 1864 letter of American missionary Hyman A. Wilder, who wrote the following appeal for increased funding from his stateside “commander-in-chief,” Rufus Anderson –

“The greatest number of those [Zulus] who are now members of our churches, were first brought to listen to the gospel while in our service.  At present the only way in which we can get any one in a heathen kraal under the daily influence of divine truth is by giving him employment as a servant.  He is then willing to learn to read & to attend our religious services as a part of his daily duty.  Some of our servants are paid more, & some less, per month—the average is about 10 shillings exclusive of food, which costs from 5 to 10 shillings more.”

A colleague of Hyman’s, James C. Bryant, similarly wrote that he and his wife had twelve Zulu children in their family, all of whom “we have to hire them to live with us. . . . and pay them a trifle for their services—twenty-five to seventy-five cents a month.”

As a child growing up in a conservative Christian environment (Southern Baptist), I wasn’t enticed with money like those 19th Century Zulu children. But I was frequently poked (to borrow a FB term) to “make a decision,” and enticed by promises of “sins forgiven,” “a new life” and “the assurance of salvation/eternal life.” I was also coerced to some extent by required daily chapel attendance in high school and college, plus subjected to frighten-you-into-heaven apocalyptic movies, like The Burning Hell and The Hellstrom Chronicle.

Despite what some of you likely are thinking after reading Part 1, 2, and now 3, I do believe in the transformative, life changing experience of salvation or “being saved,” but just not in the overly prescribed (often by self-righteous, duplicitous fundamentalist-type Christians/preachers), supernatural, and exclusionary manner that many do (“only through Jesus” . . . although, this is how I initially came to know God).

Like many of you, I became a Christian early on, in the 3rd grade. It likely was a genuine “coming to God” moment, if for no other reason than that I remember it! Praying “the sinner’s prayer,” while seated on my tiled bedroom floor accompanied by my dad, as well as then meeting with our pastor to “confirm” that I understood the essential basics of my decision, prior to being slotted into a Sunday baptismal service.

Several decades later, and a lot of spiritual and wilderness walking since, I don’t look back on my conversion experience as having redeemed, ransomed or reconciled me to God. I view it as the beginning of a more intentional and conscious relationship with God, and one in which through the ensuing years following my initial “decision,” God helped me in a continuous process of reconciling “all things,” including my understanding and acceptance of self, plus a more inclusive perspective of the other, and toward the world.

If an Ultimate Being/Reality, God, exists (as I believe), thought me into being like a parent, and whose affection toward me exceeds even my own biological parents, then it’s inane, if not pathological, to think and live as if your eternal favor (salvation) is contingent upon right beliefs and right actions.

Who of you as parent would consign your own child to a fiery furnace or a forever-ever separation (however you may understand hell) from you, simply because s/he refused to believe this or that, or failed to demonstrate enough contrition? If one says, “But that’s the ‘biblical’ teaching,” then I say one has an unhealthy love and worship of the (literal) Bible, not to mention entirely Western (American) interpretation perspective, which all brings Matthew 23 to mind.

As a parent myself now (so much of who I envision and have experienced God to be derives from a family context), it’s unconscionable to imagine a god, who would create/birth humanity out of love all people, that is, not just Christians – yet then have so much righteous anger and repulsion of sin and sinner that it requires the violent death of a more than man in order to procure the amelioration of God’s wrath.

When it comes to this type appeasement theology, I share affinity with Desmond Tutu and his thoughts on an alleged homophobic God. He told participants at a recent UN meeting in Cape Town, “I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to the other place. I would not worship a God who is homophobic and that is how deeply I feel about this.”

In the same way, if God is so repulsed by our humanness – which s/he is the author of, btw – that his “righteous anger” needs appeasing by sanctioning his son’s death, then I too refuse to go to such a heaven.

At the risk of being overly simplistic, my theology is more experiential than theoretical when it comes to Jesus’ death on the cross and the purpose and meaning behind it. I see it primarily as evidence of the freedom that humanity has to choose good and bad, and of Jesus’ acceptance of the false accusations and judgement, resulting in his choice to self-identify with struggling and hurting humanity. I do not see in it an essentialism way, whereby my redemption/reconciliation was “purchased.”

Rather, Jesus’ death as seditious insurrectionist is more a model for the world (not for inciting political upheavals, but for identifying with the poor and marginalized), but especially for “Jesus followers” of how we are too suffer alongside those who are hurting, in some ways analogous to how Mandela, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr are models of non-violent response to unconscionable acts of injustice.

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My theology of Jesus’ death on a cross is analogous to my South African mentor’s narrative of the death of his 5-year-old son, David Erik, who incidentally, my fourth-born daughter Erika is named after –

“The day after Christmas, Boxing Day, was a public holiday.  The family decided to go out to ‘Blue Bend,’ Doreen Caldicot’s farm, along the Ingogo River.  The children were playing together.  I was chopping wood and preparing the fire to boil water for tea.  We called the children for the meal.  David was not with them.

The next 7 hours were ‘gethsemane.’  David was nowhere to be found.  I must have run miles, hither and thither, up and down stream, tormented, exhausted, panic-stricken.  Exhausted and dejected, with encroaching darkness, as the sun was setting, my brother-in-law ran up to me and informed me that David’s body had been located at the bottom of a pool, near the picnic site.

As David’s body was being lifted from the water, I recall taking hold of his damp, cold, lifeless body and hugging him to my chest. . . . I felt demented as I carried this treasured child, now cold, limp, and lifeless up to the farmstead.  Everything was in a state of disarray . . . what was – no longer mattered.  High hopes, expectation and promise had evaporated.  The future ceased to be. . . . In the days and nights that followed, the good shepherd may well have been walking with us in the valley of the shadow of death.  What composure there was, was within the texture of nightmare, disbelief, and shock. . . . at the graveside, as the coffin was being lowered into the grave life-long friends quite spontaneously broke into song – ‘Safe in the arms of Jesus, Safe in his gentle breast.’

What peace there was came, but we were hurt and in need of healing, broken and shattered of all self-confidence.  We spent a few days with family, which was the kind of comfort that gave enduring strength.  We found little consolation in romantic and pious platitudes such as ‘God plucks his most beautiful flowers,’ and ‘Take comfort that this was the will of God.’  All we were concerned about as parents was ‘Is it well with David?’

I kept asking myself where the living Lord of the universe could possibly have been when David was drowning.  Then I remembered back on my mother’s death and a passage from Hebrews 4:14, ‘Since, then, we have a great high priest that has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.’

This gave me hope.  I knew then that the One who said, ‘Lo I am with you always, even to the end of the ages’ (Mt 28:20), . . . was none other than the One who in his promise was dying with David as he was drowning.  Jesus was drowning with David in the Ingogo River on December 26, 1962.”

I believe that confession of sin, of guilt, of whatever in life is keeping you and me from becoming the best (for all humanity’s good) and happiest version of ourselves possible, is life changing, but not as a precondition for God to forgive and start loving us again.

Rather, I see confession in a theologian C.H. Dodd type metaphor, as a thoughtful, emotional and potentially transformative act that initiates a seedbed of new opportunity, new life beginning, by helping facilitate inner healing of mind and soul within a safe and nurturing context or people.

In other words, for me, “salvation” is greater part psychological or psychosocial, than it is a once-off, other-worldly and supernatural act that somehow mysteriously transacts forgiveness and eternal access with God.

Part of the reason Christians, in particular, are so exclusive and adamant that “biblical teaching” insists on a ONE-WAY, “Jesus only” route to heaven is that their faith is almost entirely knowledge based – a residual aspect of the Enlightenment, where knowledge trumps experience.

It’s my assumption that most American Christians, especially Protestant-evangelicals, belong to the middle to upper echelons of society, their lives seldom, if ever, intersect with the world’s majority poor, marginalized, and “different peoples,” unless, of course, it’s of a quick and harmless type, such as landscape “leaf blowers” or “tree pruners,” most of whom in Austin, anyway, seem to be Latino, and Spanish-speaking-only.

What is true for many Western/American Christians today, is what was also true when slavery and the era of Jim Crow de facto segregation. As Winthrop Jordan noted, “Slavery could survive only if the Negro were a man set apart; he simply had to be different if slavery was to exist at all.”

In Relating to People of Other Faiths, former Emory University religion professor, and Christian, Thomas Thangaraj, similarly remarked that dichotomous boundaries of “saved” and “lost” are incapable of being maintained once the religious and cultural “different other” become your neighbor and your colleague.

Therefore, sustaining a sense of comfortable, sheltered from the cultural, religious and socio-economic different other, is essential to preserving a dichotomous self and religious identity, where you are the exemplar of truth and the “other” is the caricature of “lost” or “sinful.” Tragically, this also explains why, in my opinion, we are such a spiritually and wisdom impoverished people/nation – because we have isolated ourselves from the choruses of different voices and perspectives, which equally communicate “the manifold wisdom of God.”

That’s probably much more than you wanted to know about my perspective on eternal pie-in-the-sky, salvation, but if you persevered to the end, I’m sure you earned yourself a few heavenly gold stars!

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A Tribute to Our Son “Matt Damon,” aka Jason Bourne

Many individuals not only aspire to act and become like so-and-so celebrities, but look like them, too. Recently in El Paso my girls and I watched a week’s worth of Family Feud, in which “celebrity” participants included Hillary Clinton, Bono, Martha Stewart, Nicole Kidman, Robin Williams, Will Ferrell, Joan Rivers, and Jennifer Aniston.

My son’s look-alike, doppelgänger, is Matt Damon. After seeing a few comparison photos you might disagree. Seeing (in person) is believing, however.

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With my eldest daughter

I can’t recall a single day in which I went out and about to town with him that at least one person – usually more – didn’t either comment directly on his resemblance to Damon, or who took an initial furtive glance, then a second, more studied look at him.

For instance, when the Bourne movies debuted several years back, movie cinema ticket sales persons at Bedfordview Mall, Johannesburg, South Africa, came out from their ticket cubicles, asking if they could have their picture taken with him. Last week we ate at a Kirby Lane Restaurant, and afterwards browsed through an adjacent Amish furniture store. The store manager approached my son, noted his resemblance, and remarked how he could be Damon’s brother or son.

A month ago my son accompanied me to Client Rights at Austin State Hospital. After introducing my son to my work colleagues, he then left in search of coffee and internet connection. Two colleagues immediately and independently turned excitedly toward me, remarking on his uncanny resemblance to Damon, with one jokingly asking, “Can I get his autograph?!” At his university alma mater, and currently at Dell Children’s Hospital’s ER his nickname is “Bourne” or simply “Jason.”

Arguably, my own doppelgänger might be Bruce Willis, even Corbin Bernsen — particularly if you’ve had a few drinks too many, or you’re a partygoer at a November post-election celebration in Colorado, where cannabis just become decriminalized.

My family and I admit that it’s kind of fun having a “celebrity” in our home. We catch and absorb secondary attention!

In all seriousness, however, despite my genuine respect and admiration for the real actor and person, Matt Damon, I’m grateful my son takes his “celebrity status” in stride. In fact, he appears a degree or two sheepish with his unsolicited fame.

As firstborn, our son has developed well despite all our rookie, even veteran parenting missteps. For instance, we used to be pretty hard-nosed when it came to putting our newborn early to bed in the evening. If he was fed, bathed, had a clean change of diaper/outfit, and no evident ailment, we would allow him to cry himself to sleep if he was not happy to lie in his cot alone, cooing contentedly.

At the time we were living with my 85-year-old grandfather, Daddy D, who had begun dating a MUCH younger woman (59 years) – see Grandparents | Person and Place Specialness. One evening Daddy D’s girlfriend was there for dinner and our son had been crying for an interminable period. She offered my wife her own experienced motherly counsel, “When my son was 2-weeks old, he cried and wouldn’t sleep. You know what I did? I cooked mashed potatoes, green beans and fried chicken. I fed that boy! And he slept!

I could and will eventually write a tribute for each of our five children, but it’s more opportune for my son, given his transitional period of life and vocational aspiration.

2012 - our family inc son-in-law

2012 – our family inc son-in-law

You see, despite him not having the life memoir and day-to-day hardships of, say, a Sudanese Boy Soldier, he’s proven his mettle through several life experiences. One being, that by 9-years of age he had undergone 13 ENT surgical procedures, ranging from adenoidectomy to tonsillectomy to mastoidectomy.

These experiences did not diminish his interest in medicine, nor his love for and ability with languages.  While his nearest-in-age sister might be more grammatically proficient, he is conversationally fluent in Spanish, and during his senior year of high school traveled alone to Berlin, Germany, where he took a 10-week German immersion language course. Unbelievably to me, by week eight, when we talked by phone, he engaged in German-only conversations with my wife.

Currently my son is seeking to gain admittance to medical school; a profession that well suits his character, temperament and life experience. It’s not been a quick or easy aspiration, yet he’s persevered day-by-day-by-month-by-year, developing his knowledge, skills and exposure to the world of medicine through medical internships and a challenging ER job at Dell Children’s Hospital.

I think it’s apropos that he’s working at a children’s hospital, particularly since he’s always had a sensitive and kind disposition toward children, especially many in South Africa.

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Especially apropos, though, is that he has been an older brother par excellence to his four younger sisters.

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“Mano,” as he’s affectionately referred to by them, has a number of endearing qualities, including: he’s long-suffering (allowing sisters to practice “hair” on him – see pic below), he’s funny (so says my youngest daughter), and he’s easy to talk to and adept at cheering you up (so says my 4th born).

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As parents, an attribute of his that we’ve come to appreciate and respect with each passing day is his willingness to risk vulnerability, to hear, listen and talk about and through ANY difficult subject matter.  It might be the risks of aspiring to own a motorcycle, or the personal discomfiture of dating, sex and marriage, or how much is too much drinking, or the struggle of finding one’s vocation and social place in the world, or whether religion and church attendance are of any value any more, et cetera.

And while I would be honored to have the real Matt Damon, aka Jason Bourne, as a friend, even relative, I’m glad Daniel is his own person and that he’s our son.

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Fate or Providence | How To Interpret Life’s Misfortunes?

This blog is about the mystery or wonderment of life’s TIMING.

Several friends of mine are avowed atheists, which, truthfully, draws me to them versus detracts. Why? I appreciate their candor. To me their professed lack of belief communicates a serious searching for meaning in life. I wonder how they – and you – might interpret the following “life’s timing” story.

A primary reason my family returned to the U.S. from South Africa in 2010 was to be nearer my wife’s aging and ailing mother, more especially since my wife is an only child and her father is deceased.

“Bueli,” who my girls and I visited barely one week ago, and who I wrote about last week in Grandparents | Person and Place Specialness was suddenly admitted to hospital this past Saturday with an elevated white blood count of about 133k. Today she was “officially” diagnosed (after a painful bone marrow biopsy yesterday) with chronic leukemia.

This blog isn’t a “Why me Lord?! Why Me?!” type bemoaning of a Queen Latifah in the movie The Last Holiday (in the movie she’s mistakenly diagnosed as having only 3 weeks to live), which, of course, is easy for me to say since I’m not the one lying in a hospital bed. You see, my mother-in-law is well beyond retirement age, and given her long-term health struggles is really either a walking miracle, or a testament to the resilience of the human body and will power – or all three.

Rather, in the case of my mother-in-law, the question is not so much”Why did this happen?” or (if you’re a person of faith) “Why did God allow this?” But rather, “What are we to make of, and take from the extraordinary timeliness, and sometimes fortuitousness of events, relationships, et cetera, in life?

Her situation is “fortuitous” only in the sense that her hospital admittance comes a mere three weeks after my wife graduated with a 3-year in length MSN degree – less than 48 hours after she completed her national CNS credentialing exam – and in-between her search for full-time work. Any earlier (or later) and she would not have had the time and opportunity to hop on a plane and be with her mother 24/7 during this difficult and fearful time.

You see, my theology, as it were, doesn’t wrestle (much) with the skeptic’s scornful question – “If there is a God, why does s/he allow suffering?” Suffering, to me, is largely part and parcel of having been created with the inestimable freedom of will and choice.  Like my doctoral mentor, whose memoir recounts carrying the wet, cold and lifeless body of his 5-year-old son out of a South African river, what’s of more life-giving-meaning to me than resolving the enigma of immense suffering in this world is a belief that “God” (whoever ultimate reality might be for you) participates with and suffers alongside us in our day-to-day lives.

Therefore, like many of you I’m contemptuous of simplistic platitudes and theologies that convey belief in “God’s will” for this and that calamity or atrocity, such as ‘God plucks his most beautiful flowers,’ and ‘Take comfort that this was the will of God.’  I don’t think the MANY people – in my experience mostly Christians – who persist in holding and professing such belief ever pause to truly consider the many day-to-day life implications of what believing in that “type of God” entails.

So . . . I’m not arguing for God’s existence based on this one very personal and sad event, whose timing appears beyond the coincidental.

I’m merely suggesting that during the many very difficult days of the past three years of our family’s struggling through graduate studies alongside my wife (those of you who have a postgraduate degree know what I’m saying about graduate studies being a “family thing” versus merely the lone student’s achievement), this one tragic event’s timing gives us grateful pause.

I suppose I’m also saying that if I have to choose in life between living with either a belief that a compassionate and loving Being participates in life alongside you and me – in good times and through suffering – or in a world of mere happenstance and fate.  I’ll choose the former.

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Merry-Go-Rounds and (my) Marriage

May 18th marks 28 years of marriage for my wife and me – although we’re doing a combo-celebration this week in San Antonio, where my wife is attending an advanced practice nursing conference.

If I were to rephrase a famous line of Charles Dickens’ as I look back on 28 years it might read, “It’s been the best of times, it’s sometimes been the most difficult of times.”

Like parenting, there’s no foolproof and surefire way to remain married or committed to the one you started out loving (or to the one you grow to love via an arranged marriage).

What follows is a common sense idea, which evidently is uncommonly observed by too many couples, yet one that has helped our marriage.

Years ago I came across an author’s use of centrifugal and centripetal forces in the context of marriage, which stuck with me, and thus, my appropriation of the merry-go-round analogy.

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It’s a simple axiom:

A marriage/relationship – like a person riding a merry-go-round – will only hold together if inward pulling forces (centripetal) match or exceed outward pulling ones (centrifugal).

We’ve all experienced or seen what happens on merry-go-rounds when a combination of speed and duration of spinning combine – bodies fall or fly off.

fallingMGR

I could list any number of centrifugal and centripetal forces that work for or against a marriage, but for this blog, I’ll illustrate with a few of my own.

For almost three years, mid-2010 to the present, my family has been in a re-acclimate-back-to-USA-from-years-in-South Africa mode.

I chose to resign from a non-profit, HIV/AIDS children’s psychosocial research and training job in a country and among people we loved, and relocate back to Texas in order to be nearer an aging and ailing parent. An agreed upon condition of our choiceso that our three school age girls didn’t become latchkey kids – was that I would assume primary “home management” duties, while my wife accepted and enrolled in a three-year graduate nursing program at UT-Austin.

I jokingly share that you know roles have reversed when you wake up in the morning and one of the first thoughts on your mind is: What do I need to take out of the freezer for dinner tonight?

Actually, there’s been a lot of role reversals with my new family responsibility, including: taking the girls to medical appointments; washing/drying and folding laundry, including women’s slips, brassieres, panties and camisoles; mopping up on my hands and knees bedside and bathroom vomit; all the while doing any and everything else necessary to keep our family functionally (versus dysfunctional) operational while my wife gives total focus and effort to full-time studies, plus off-setting financial need by working PRN at Hospice Austin.

Upon our return from South Africa we could have done what we see too many American couples doing – burning life’s candles at both ends.

Both of us either working or studying full-time, plus accommodating every which child’s academic and extra-curricular activities – all for the purpose of either making necessary ends meet, or more commonly it seems, maintaining an accustomed lifestyle.

Upon our arrival in Texas, one of the first – yet constant – outward pulling forces we felt personally was economic, or the proverbially, “keeping up with the Jones'”.

Returning with no job prospect, no medical insurance, and certain future graduate study debt of $30k+, we knew our already too meagre retirement savings would take a huge wallop for at least a 2 to 5 year period.

Seeing and sharing life alongside so many friends, acquaintances, and family, many of whom live in near million-dollar homes, have 2nd (even 3rd) vacation homes, drive near-new vehicles and possess recreational vehicles, take once or twice-yearly family vacations, frequently eat out, give generous allowances and newest tech accessories to their kids, cover multiple summer camp/trip costs, et cetera, took its toll on our family – as parents, as kids, as a family, and on me as traditional “provider.”

It’s made us frequently wonder to ourselves now – somewhat shamefully (since we didn’t often give thought to the feelings of those who weren’t privileged with the means to enjoy such pleasures) – what our many African friends and acquaintances must have felt each time they entered our home, or heard I was going on a week-long hiking trip, or that we were traveling to the coast or the Drakensberg mountains for a family vacation.

Of necessity we’ve had many mini-family conferences since relocating to Austin, during which we speak plainly with each another, helping counter the outward pulling-away-from happiness forces, verbalizing what we (should) most value in and from life – life, health, relationships, et cetera (the centripetal forces).

Our family, including newly grafted son-in-law

Our family, including newly grafted son-in-law

Such candid talks and times together help counter our many individually felt Berstein Bears’ jealous “Green-Eyed Monsters,” and put into perspective, say, why we’re living within our means for an undetermined period of time with donated 15-year-old and discounted 10-year-old sedans.

A final example.

The Atlantic‘s July/August, 2010 cover story was titled “The End of Men: How Women Are Taking Control of Everything.” For me, it marked the first in many articles chronicling present-day changing work and relational dynamics between the sexes, and specifically, identity and relational adjustments many men are confronted with these days.

That’s where my wife and I find ourselves, today.

Despite our choice of resigning and returning to the States. Despite my choice to assume temporary home management duties while my wife studies, it’s simply and presently a gnarly period of life (gnarly = difficult; a first-time usage I heard last night from one of my wife’s nursing colleagues).

Outward, pulling-away-from marital commitment feelings occur semi-regularly these days. Most of them, I suppose, associated with a reconfiguration of my traditional and culturally sculpted male identity.

How can my wife and I be close when we no longer share work relationships, commonalities and experiences? What will I do with the very real possibility that she’ll out-earn, “out-prestige” me for all future years?

Plus, as an advanced practice nurse the sky’s the limit for her, while each day at home and not “working” I feel like a white, male endangered species, this despite my postgraduate degree and overseas work credentials. The fearful and unknown future “what ifs” of life and their possible effects on marriage and primary relationships are sometimes near overwhelming.

Despite it all, here I sit at a Starbucks in San Antonio celebrating and enjoying time away with my wife. Despite the many centrifugal forces pulling outward and against family and marriage, we’ve managed to keep a proportionately higher balance of inward-pulling forces to outward-pulling ones. For this, we’re grateful to God and hopeful for the future. I wish the same for you and yours.

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The Impotence of Contemporary Faith | Time to Bear Witness and Minimize Verbosity

*Note: Admittedly this is a long blog.  Despite this, please take the time to read and share it.

Historical reflection matters.  In fact, it is of critical importance in terms of peaceful relations and co-existence between culturally and religiously different people and nations.

Walter Houghton, former Wellesley College professor and author of Victorian England: Portrait of an Age wrote, “to peer through the darkness of a hundred years and turn even a flashlight on the landscape of 1850 is to see our own situation a little more clearly.”

Seldom do people, especially the religiously minded, pause and consider the fact that beliefs and ideas have an origin and a prior context of (primary) meaning, as well as a historical development.

A few examples from Christian scripture:

Among evangelicals, in particular, two Bible texts, which routinely are wrenched from their social and literary contexts and misused – both to justify exclusive claim to God and truth, and legitimate mission enterprises to the “heathen” or “unsaved” – include John 14:6, in which Jesus allegedly makes the exclusive claim that he alone is the singular and only way for a person to obtain eternal life, and the “Great Commission” text of Matthew 28:18-20.

one way

In my opinion, the manner in which Christians have, and continue to use John 14:6 as a proof-text to “prove” that their belief and their religion is the true one, expresses more an inner fear and insecurity, than what they think they are communicating – certainty of identity, faith and future.  (*For a few alternative views on this text, see the writings by former Emory professor, Thomas Thangaraj, and Louisville Presbyterian Seminary professor, W. Eugene March)

Let’s be honest.  In disconcerting times and eras, such as the present, who doesn’t and wouldn’t want “evidence” that “proves” one’s life is on the right and true track?

It’s a false comfort, but a comfort, nevertheless, to be able to say “I’m right and you’re wrong.”

Every single day, each one of us use “the other” as “social mirrors,” as aids by which to navigate life and assess individual progress.

self_reflection

We look at others, and occasionally share affirmation, but most often we belittle and criticize, and in so doing it provides momentary, yet false assurance that our lives are somehow okay – especially in comparison to him, her, or them!

The utilization of another as an aide in self-criticism and self-evaluation is nothing new, and as such serves the purpose of a “control group” against which people assess their respective individual or collective progress or development.

Not so long ago, blacks and Indians were utilized by Europeans as “social mirrors” in order to discover attributes in savages which they found first but could not speak of in themselves.

As Andrew Sinclair noted in The Savage : A History of Misunderstanding, “The Puritan fought the Devil and the savage within himself, and he called the struggle conscience. . . . Often more terrible than the savage outside the stockade of the settlement was the savage within the ribcage of the Puritan, and his sternness toward all dissenters was frequently no more than fear of his own nature.”

Where has much of this troubling fear of the future come from?  

I find renowned historian and two-time Pulitzer Prize recipient, Carl Degler’s perspective compelling.

He wrote that prior to the 16th century, Martin Luther, and the Reformation, there existed a relatively predictable, ordered, and secure worldview and belief structure.  That is, a person’s sense of eternal security was guaranteed by the Catholic Church by means of a pronouncement and/or sacrament performed by a priest.

After the non-conformists effectively challenged institutional orthodoxy, coupled with the ensuing sectarian schisms that occurred among dissenters themselves, there emerged an unsettling new reality—the priesthood of every believer.

Every person, thereafter, was obligated to care for his or her own soul.  In effect, individual priesthood became every person’s “own terrifying responsibility.”

Verification of one’s eternal future or elected-ness, has over the centuries since, come to reside in an ambiguous and highly subjective “salvation template.”

It is a template that has unpredictably, yet routinely changed over time, according to Richard E. Wentz, former Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at Arizona State University.

Attempts to secure signs or proof of salvation has changed over the years from a prescribed iconoclasm (destruction of images of worship), to stringent morality (puritanism), to a profession of faith, and finally to an individualizing of faith or to “saving steps” (Four Spiritual Laws).

4 steps

John 14:6, then, became a popular proof-text because it so comfortably accommodated and “proved” the popular four-step salvation template.

What is evident upon historical reflection of all “saving steps or stages,” however, is that in the post-16th century European world, life increasingly was lived as if “conducting an examination,” and Scripture read “as if peering in a mirror”—largely for the purpose of appeasing a troubled conscience and assuaging a loving, yet capricious God.

Illustrating a troubled conscience, are the words of Lucy Lindley’s biographer, wife of American Board 19-century missionary to South Africa, Daniel Lindley:

“Lucy was always in a state of anxiety about them [her children], their health and spiritual welfare.  Her introspection was painful in its intensity.  She was morbidly conscientious.  She who was so transparently good was always lamenting her sins.  The memory haunted her of the wide sleeves she wore when a girl, wasting stuff that might have been sold to feed the poor.  It troubled her for days when she found that a tradesman had given her ten cents too much change: ‘I must return it.  He must see that I am honest’. . . . When she saw Mary playing cards it threw her into a state of prostration that lasted for days.  That one of her boys should go to the theatre, that two of them should spend a rainy morning in the holidays at a billiard table, she took to be sure signs that they were on the road to perdition. Sincerely religious, always pouring out her heart in gratitude for blessings bestowed upon her, religion brought her little joy and serenity.  Not a happy woman; but noble in her high sense of duty and her unconquerable spirit.”

As for Matthew 28:18-20 . . . Given the complicity of imperialism/colonialism with civilizing the “heathen” by means of christianizing them, a legitimizing text was needed for this civilizing venture – i.e., just as U.S. slave owners and South African apartheid proponents co-opted Old Testament scripture as justification for their racist attitudes and actions.

What better, more suitable text for the sailing ships and their crew and passengers than Matthew’s – “Go and make disciples of all nations“?  It fit like a glove.

No one makes clearer this linkage of text with enterprise than Sri Lankan, R. S. Sugirtharajah, Professor of Biblical Hermeneutics at University of Birmingham, U.K, who I had the fortune to study under for one week in 2001.

Relying on Alan Kreider’s research, Sugirtharajah persuasively argues by quoting from primary texts that there was very little formal preaching or institutionalized mission during the growth of the pre-Christendom church, and even less admonition to evangelize.

How then did the Jesus movement grow in those early years?

It grew primarily through public demonstrations of faith or people bearing testimony to their experience of faith.  For example, faith was mediated by martyrdom.  Bystanders were astonished and in awe of those who willingly died for what they believed in.  Faith was also mediated by behavior and generous acts of charity.  The Jesus movement also grew, according to Kreider, because of the extraordinary character of worship, which prepared Christians to live exemplary, above-reproach lives in the world.

Concluding Thoughts:

I appeal to my own faith community of upbringing – evangelical, Protestant, Christian – that it’s time to:

Stop idolizing certainty, particularly the Bible and Jesus. 

Set aside your illusionary claim to “absolute” ownership (and interpretation) of truth.

When you are so controlling and insistent on your perspective, it really does not help you love others well. Ultimately it’s your attempt to control even God.

As a Lutheran pastor recently and rightly noted, we live in a time where the “public square” is the forum where people of all faiths and people who reject all faiths come together and bear testimony – not behind pulpits or in moral statements pronounced behind protective and insulated walls.

allaboutgod

Samir Selmanovic, a favorite alternative Christian voice of mine, makes the following remarks in It’s Really All About God:

“Is a God who favors anyone over anyone else worth worshiping?”

“We have saturated our religions with our own selves, and the most direct way to enter a new whirlwind of fresh and substantive religious experience is to seek and find the image of God in those who are not in our image.  It is really all about God, and God is really all about all of us.  Yet, we are afraid to be in the image of God.  And we are terrified of the prospect of finding the image of God in those who are not in our image.  This is not a call to one religion for all.  It is a call for every religion to find a way that is good for all people.”

“So much of who we all are depends on maintaining a polarized and conflicted world.  To challenge this state of affairs by finding God in the other not only disrupts our communal sense of identity but also alters our social and economic structures on every level, from our families to our nations.  In some twisted way, we have learned to benefit from the misery of the divided world we have created.  Now we have to unlearn what we think we know and then learn to embrace this newfound reality of our globally intertwined community.”

Stop thinking you, your church and Christianity as a whole will succeed together in saving the world (a popular 19th century motto was “evangelizing the world in this generation”).

Reality and history communicate the exact opposite – a persistent growth and renaissance of world faiths.

Yes, you can point to numerous examples of individuals whose lives were transformed through a conversion experience or to “church growth” or to “spiritual revivals,” yet these examples communicate a fraction of the truth.

For instance, the growth of the church and large-scale conversions in Africa and in many parts of Asia, are documented by the likes of University of Cape Town professor, David Chidester, as occurring only after their people experienced or were subjugated to the destruction or disintegration of independent economic, social and political life.

Corroborating this assertion is 19th-century American missionary Silas McKinney’s letter back to his missionary board, “They (Zulus) are in a transition state, breaking away from the Zulu nation, and dissolving into little bodies, and coming together again in news forms, and thus placing themselves in positions most happy for the successful introduction of the gospel.”  A colleague, Aldin Grout similarly wrote, “the Zulu nation as such is extinct.  This I have been looking for ever since I left the Zulu country.”

Sharing missionary, as well as mission trip stories of individuals, whose lives were changed when they “gave their hearts to Jesus” should not be minimized, yet neither should they effectively over-shadow or silence the many more stories of people, who likely were repelled and repulsed by both the message, method and motivation of Christians’ so-called “good news.”

Take Mahatma Gandhi, for instance.  In his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments With Truth, he wrote, “Christian missionaries used to stand in a corner near the high school and hold forth, pouring abuse on Hindus and their gods. I could not endure this.  I must have stood there to hear them once only, but that was enough to dissuade me from repeating the experiment.”

In Zimbabwe I once heard a missionary speak of “wind evangelism.”  Upon questioning, he said this was a method of evangelism, whereby when you’re traveling along the highway at 75 mph, you roll your window down and release gospel tracts. These, then, flutter to the feet of Zimbabweans, who are walking or riding a bicycle, and, of course, we are then to believe this method of saving some justifies the means.

A colleague of his shared frustration at the difficulty of obtaining accurate records of baptisms. He then hit on a “novel idea” of offering to pay $1 or $2 Zimbabwe dollars for every certificate that pastors turned in.  Wow – wouldn’t you know it!  Baptisms increased dramatically in the ensuing months!

That’s Americans in Africa, but here in the U.S. it’s little different.  Although popularity seems somewhat diminished of late, I still read of churches re-enacting the Columbine Massacre, replete with shotgun during Hell House at Halloween, or implementing a Top Ten Most Wanted list, whereby you list ten people in your life who “need Jesus” and who you “target” with the gospel.

Insteadstart demonstrating how Christianity (faith) is an appreciably meaningful and practical “way of life” in the present.

Try to stop speaking so many spiritual platitudes, which in effect serve to exonerate one from involvement in the messiness of people’s daily lives.  An example that occurred during a visit by a U.S. “Christian”-based NGO leader to KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.  If a destitute family welcome you into their home at your request, and then in the course of conversation express a heartfelt need for tuition assistance or a pair of shoes, don’t glibly voice with your pleated Ralph Lauren khaki pants and your buffed, shiny brown Oxford shoes, “Let’s pray and I’m sure that God will provide for your needs.”  No, you are God in those moments and you need to do any and everything within your means to assist this family.

As Samir puts it, “People are not looking for someone to show them how to escape life; they are looking for practicing sojourners and communities to help them walk the landscape of life. There is something impotent about contemporary Christianity, and it has to do with its inability to re-imagine the answer to the question ‘What do I get for following Jesus?‘  For too many Christians the answer is (simply) ‘heaven.'”

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Insularity of Life and Faith Equates to Insecurity | The Example of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod

Last week, a side-margin story in The New York Times caught my eye.  Perhaps you’re aware of it. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/08/nyregion/lutheran-pastor-explains-role-in-sandy-hook-interfaith-service.html?_r=0.

A Lutheran pastor of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, who lost a parishioner in the Newtown, Connecticut school shooting, was first reprimanded, then forgiven (only after writing a letter of apology).

His wrong doing?  Participating in an interfaith service for victims and their families where Muslims and Baha’is were also represented, and thereby, it was reasoned by Synod leadership, that the pastor, Bob Morris, in effect endorsed the false teaching of those religions, as well as communicated to the LCMS’s 2.3 million members that religious differences are unimportant.

Thank God for another LCMS pastor, David H. Benke, who unlike Morris refused to apologize for participating in a similar post-9/11 interfaith service. He said of the Synod’s demand for Morris to apologize, “I am on the side of giving Christian witness in the public square and not vacating it.  If we don’t show up, who can receive our witness?”

If you read my “concluding thoughts” in Calling A Spade A Spade, you’ll know that I perceive Americans are largely unconscious of how much “power,” and its corollary “control,” are aspects of our cultural heritage, worldview and faith.

I see our propensity to power and control as largely to-be-expected results of a century and a half of global political, economic and military predominance (aka, super power status).

Our “might,” as it were, is in many respects a by-product and development from a much prior historical moment, more than a millennium and a half ago, when in the 4th century, emperor Constantine declared Christianity to be the Roman imperial religion.

Overnight almost Christianity went from a status of being a small and persecuted sect within Judaism, to one wedded to and wielding immense political, economic and military power. The entanglement of faith and power were no where more vividly depicted, I’ve read, than on a Roman centurion’s weaponry, where the insignia of the cross was displayed.

The seeds of this faith-political entanglement were exported to the Americas by the first shipload of Puritans on The Mayflower in 1620, and in my opinion, are evident in LCMS’s (and other U.S. conservative denominations, such as Southern Baptist) effort to control what Benke rightly refers to as the “public square” of religious discourse.

Concluding Thoughts:

Growing up I remember a neighbor lady taking me to a movie cinema along with her kids.  The movie didn’t leave an impression on me, but how this lady tried to shield us from the “evils” of secular society, did.  That is – she refused us early entrance to the cinema, so as to prevent us from viewing the movie trailers and advertisements.  I can’t fault her motives and intentions, but I can her reasoning.

One has to wonder how the LCMS censors its ministers when it comes to preaching from the New Testament, and the many sacrosanct life stories of “their Jesus.” After all, there are many scripture passages in which Jesus associates with and alongside the equivalent of a pervasive, even dominant religious and cultural plurality, false teachers, and social and moral pariahs (prostitutes, tax collectors, murderers and criminals).

In my opinion the LCMS’s logic and decision to disengage from the so-called false teachings and corrupting influence of religious diversity, particularly for such a hallowed event as an interfaith prayer service for victims of a massacre, convey at least two realities.

One, the reality of an accustomed life of societal privilege, whereby the LCMS leadership, in particular, and perhaps many of its 2-million members have little or no social and material need, and no compelling circumstances whereby they have to associate with anyone different from themselves.

And secondly, in contrast to what the LCMS are attempting to convey – a uncompromising allegiance to Jesus Christ and his message of eternal life – they are, in effect, communicating its opposite: an insular and insecure faith.  A faith that is so frail and unsure of its own relationship to God, that it requires the separation from and the damnation of billions of people so as to false-assure themselves that they are among “the final elect.”

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Calling a Spade a Spade | Church Mission Trips – More Self-Serving Than Other-Serving

Last week I heard of a local church planning several mission trips to East Africa in 2013.  As a child of missionaries, myself, I’d like to speak to the immense popularity of mission trips among “Christian America,” recognizing and risking that readers might take exception to my perspective.

Mission trip promotional poster

Typical mission trip promotional poster

I acknowledge that this is not a thorough and researched treatise, as it were, on church mission trips. Rather, it’s a short, somewhat atypical perspective, which I hope will provoke at least a modest questioning and rethinking about mission trips.  I do not disparage any and all “good,” which might result from such trips, but I’m unconvinced “the good” outweighs “the bad.”

It seems to me that the underlying, oft-times unconscious purpose of many, if not most church mission trips, especially short-term and itinerant ones, could be typified as: 1) Self-enrichment; 2) Finding self and a life meaning; 3) Growing my church and “the kingdom”; and 4) Holiday-with-a-social-service add-on.  These, in contrast to an altruism of commitment to the well-being of “the different and distant others,” who according to Desmond Tutu, we should consider as “family.”

Jan Nederveen Pieterse, professor of global studies and sociology in the Global and International Studies Program at the University of California, Santa Barbara, as well as author of White on Black: Images of Africa and Blacks in Western Popular Culture, made two observations about Christian missions, which I agree with.  Although he wrote in the past tense of the 19th and early 20th centuries, regrettably, I believe little has changed today.

whiteonblack

First, missions were (are) engaged in, at least in part, as a rejuvenating cure for the home church’s faltering spiritual and numerical decline.

Secondly, fund-raising for overseas’ mission ventures was (is) dependent upon conveying a “demonized image of the heathen under the devil’s spell, and on the other the romanticized self-image of the missionary in the role of saviour.”

The two stereotypes were (are) interdependent, in that, “The glory as well as the fund-raising of the missions were (are) in direct proportion to the degradation and diabolism of the heathen.”  Btw – I could easily corroborate the continued practice of this second point simply by sharing verbatim from several recent emails in my Inbox.

My postgraduate mentor was insistent in telling students that language is formative in shaping people’s perceptions, attitudes and actions toward people different.  For example, he especially disliked the term “non-Christian,” because it implies a standard of value measurement, in which “Christian” is the absolute or sole source of good and truth, while any and all things and persons “non-Christian” are less-than. Instead, when possible, use an expression like “people of other faiths.”

Me and my South African mentor, John N. Jonsson

Me and my South African mentor, John N. Jonsson

In the same spirit, he warned students not to use “uneducated” in their semester research papers, because that too communicates a less-than-me attitude toward someone different and less economically fortunate.  Rather, in referring to a person(s) who lacks a school education, say something like “s/he lacks formal education,” but don’t ever say “uneducated” because many “uneducated people” of the world are without question some of its most intellectually brightest.

One example is the Khoi and Bushmen of Southern Africa’s Khoisan language compared to the relative simplicity of the English language. An early explorer’s impressions of the Khoisan language, as taken from Lancaster’s Voyages, states, “Their speech is wholly uttered through the throat, and they cluck with their tongues in such sort, that in seven weeks which we remained here in this place, the sharpest wit among us could not learn a word of their language.”

A San family

A San family

Many recipients of “Christian humanitarianism” of the 18th through 21st centuries, experienced “mission” in a less-than self and culture-affirming manner (*the enmeshing of Bible and Christianity with imperialism, colonialism, and present-day globalization is well-known, and succinctly depicted by historian Brian Stanley’s book The Bible and The Flag) .  

Bible&Flag

The coupling of so-called “good news” and reigning political and economic power is evident in a well-known statement attributed to Kenya’s independence fighters, the Mau Mau, “Formerly we owned the land and the whites had the Gospel. Then the missionaries came, they taught us to pray and close our eyes, and in the meantime the whites took our land. Now we have the Gospel and they have the land.”  

Despite advocates who argue that “mission” is a neutral term, citing its popular and frequent use in the corporate world of “mission statements,” from my perspective “mission” persists in conveying power, control and militaristic imagery, and communicates the idea that somethings or someones need “saving” or “saving from.”  It’s a tacit admission that “they” and “them” need “us” in order to experience a happy and fulfilled life, find God, and obtain a “get-into-heaven” pass code.

If you question my evidence for the historical and continued militaristic conveyance of “Christian missions,” spend some time researching church and missionary archives such as the Congregationalists’ American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.  You will observe that young boys and girls were organized into local “Mission Crusader” clubs, all with the express purpose of “fighting for Christ and His Kingdom . . . against the Evil one and his Kingdom.”  In the mid-1840s, the analogy of Napoleon’s conquests was utilized as incitement and preparation for overseas missions.

American Board missionary to Syria, Eli Smith, in an address to members of the Society of Inquiry stated, “They forget that the object for which the church is organized, is not so much the maintenance of fortresses already taken and garrisoned, as for universal conquest.”  Later he described foreign missions as a “foreign war.”  Furthermore, each issue of The Missionary Herald (mission magazine) contained sections entitled “Recent Intelligence” and “Foreign Intelligence.”

Although a missionary was supposed to be a spiritual herald of good news and an ambassador of God’s love, his primary vocation, according to the American Board’s own “mission commander,” Rufus Anderson, was as soldier to the cross.  Their order was to “make conquests, and to go on . . . ‘conquering and to conquer’. . . the idea of continued conquest is fundamental in missions to the heathen.” Elsewhere he wrote that the “idea of spiritual conquest is the predominant and characteristic idea of the [mission] enterprise.”

bibleflag

Concluding thought:

What prompted this blog’s topic, and what disturbs me most about the popularity and fondness of Americans for overseas mission trips, is the absence of much, if any, suggestion or emphasis on reciprocity – i.e., the idea that American Christians need “them” (the religious and cultural “different others” targeted by mission groups) as much as, if not more than they need us.

Church mission trips, from my perspective – with some exceptions, of course – persist in demonstrating and communicating a singular, single stream attitude and perspective: We save them, We help them, We give to them, We pray for them, We teach them, We heal them, et cetera.

As former Columbia University professor, Edward Said, persuasively argued in his book Orientalism, identity is a construction, and as such, it is “bound up with the disposition of power and powerlessness in each society.”  What I have discovered through years of exposure to mission groups is that by and large Christian Americans are seldom conscious of how entwined with their nation’s own Super Power status their faith and worldview is.

It is disappointing that churches are quick to organize, promote and engage in overseas mission trips, yet upon questioning them, one often finds their awareness of and involvement in their very own residential backyards (communities/cities) unknown and unmet. The movie Blind Side depicted this side of Christian America, in that many of Leigh Anne Tuohy’s (Sandra Bullock) rich friends were aghast that she involved her family in the life of a young black man from a poor, crime ridden section of the city.

Meanwhile mission trips and their participants repeatedly convey to the world’s poor and struggling people of Americans’ economic and political power / dominance by spending billions of dollars on airfare, visas, travel inoculations, 3 to 5 star hotel accommodation, food, travel accessories, clothing, and most times a final several days’ “safari” – a great percentage of which monies, could arguably have been spent on direct aid to people and communities in need.

I’m not necessarily advocating eliminating church mission trips.  But I do think, at minimum, they should be re-named for what they are.

Mission trip participants boarding a plane

Mission trip participants boarding a plane

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