She brings us to life with love and screams and sustains our bodies with her own. She wipes, bandages, combs, and cuddles, and cuts off crusts. She has the soothing voice of the nurse, the methodical voice of a teacher, the barking sergeant’s voice, and the tired weepy voice of one who has been stretched too thin. We huddle terrified as she clashes with Dad, follow eagerly as she negotiates our groceries, laugh when she teaches us jokes and how to joke. She was the one who corrected college essays as easily as she baked cookies. She resented the flippancy of our individuation from her as surely as she prayed for it. Now in years going by we send two dollar paper cards that are unfamiliar with her work and speak nothing of her worth, and she says thank you for remembering.
Words have genealogies. They have parents and grandparents that look like them and share some of the same DNA, but they’re not exactly the same word. C.S. Lewis said that the word gentleman used to mean a landowner, but over time it came to mean someone who behaved politely. In the same way, he said, “Christian,” used to mean a follower of Jesus, and over time it has come to mean a generally well-behaved person. T.S. Elliot noted that the word “culture,” had changed over time.
The word “justice” has evolved in this generation. I realized this when I went to the mall and saw a clothing store for tweens called Justice. That moment iconically captured for me the transformation of the word.
Five years ago, people were talking about the Millennials as the generation that really cared about changing the world. I knew this was wrong for two reasons: 1) every generation says that, and 2) I worked as a youth pastor at the time, and no they didn’t. As they age, some Millennials are turning from activists to slacktivists. They want to change the world by wearing a bracelet, downloading an app, and having the Gap donate 3% of their purchase to saving the world. It is really the duty of the people with the most money to pay for the problems. And so we’ve changed the definition of the word “justice.”
Justice used to mean people were to be treated equally by the law. Now it means treated equally by the economy. It’s a subtle nuance. Justice previously meant everyone answered to the same rules. Fairness. Justice is blind. Now it means that everyone gets similar quality of life. It isn’t just that some people live lavishly while some people live in abject poverty. In the first sense justice was supposed to hold back prejudicial treatment. The latter enforces limitations. Now that the Millennials can vote, they’re raising taxes to provide free medical care. In this genealogy, justice and equality got married and gave birth to entitlement.
Justice is when you get to keep shopping while the people making the money from your shopping are equalized by bearing the brunt of charity. If you google “Justice,” the store comes up first. Because somehow, we’re going to get justice by just going to the mall.
As moths eat and rust destroys, I pray our hearts will be open to the possibility that God actually wants justice to roll down, righteousness and fair treatment of the innocent brought about by hard work and generous hearts rather than social policy.
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Tags: Charity, Christianity, church, Jesus, Justice, Millennials, Word Studies
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Americans are finally waking up to the fact that Islam is a worldwide phenomenon, and not just “over there,” although we seem to believe we are the first to have discovered this and are going at it like Marco Polo. American media commentary about Islam would make you think that you were listening to the first broadcast from the moon. “What’s it like?” America asks. “We will tell you,” says the news.
For my part, I’ve read the Koran twice cover to cover, which is far less than many Muslims, and far more than most Christians.
The million dollar question today is whether or not Islam is inherently violent. “Is it?” you are asking. “I will tell you,” says I.
There are two popular lines. One is the ranting and insistent “Yes!” which has on its side a vast array of very obvious evidence, namely, that some of the most terrorist-producing countries are Muslim. Muslim countries are not good to women. Honor killings are still practiced in some Muslim countries. The people who point this out usually do so without much nuance.
The second popular voice is a more calm but less sensible, “No.” It’s the claim that Muslims are just people like everyone else who have a peaceful religion like Christianity or Buddhism. They’re misrepresented by extremists the way sophomoric cynics try to group all Christians with Westboro Baptist Church. This view is based on hope.
The Koran came to be when Muhammed entrenched the ethical code of the 7th century Arabian desert in an eternal religious being whom he claimed was speaking to him. Thus Muslim ethics will always be tied to the nature of daily life in that cultural context. In that context, if a tribe attacked your tribe, and you did not retaliate, you signaled weakness. Thus the rival tribe would feel empowered to attack again, to take your women as property, to drive your people away. “An eye for an eye” is the teaching of the Koran. Forgiveness is encouraged only insofar as it causes a person to reform. But territorial defense is essential.
Is that violent? Sort of. It’s also sort of basic, common-sense justice that you would expect of a culture that isn’t governed by a bureaucratic legal system. It’s not the same as the Christian ethic of turning the other cheek and repaying evil with good. It’s not the same as Christianity, and the two are not just different paths to the same God. But it also isn’t crazy.
The problem is that masses of Muslims throughout the world are told that the West has already taken eyes and teeth from them in wars of incursion. The sexual morality we dispense through our movies and our scandalous celebrities is fairly convincing proof that we’re not reforming. So in a cross-section of the Muslim world, there is a wholesale belief that the West has attacked. If they don’t respond in kind in some way, it will signify weakness and allow for further offense. That’s just the way of the desert. So rather than demonizing Islam, take its ethic for what it is: pre-Enlightenment myopia. Combine that with abject poverty and you have something that is potentially volatile. However, it isn’t of necessity violent.
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Tags: Boston, Boston Marathon, Christianity, Islam, religion
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When people see something horrible, or wicked, or deviant, we come up with a grouping for those responsible for said malfeasance. We call people “crazy” in order to create a safe, fenced in group from which we have just separated ourselves. In childhood there are “bad guys,” which is an awfully neat line for an incredibly undefined population. More than one commentator pointed out that the American media used “insurgents” for what we called, during the American Revolution, “patriots.” Categorizing gives power to the one who makes the categories. It gives us the power to protect ourselves.
In the wake of the terrorist act at the Boston marathon, there is now a desperate longing for explanation. What degree of mad ideologizing could lead to such an act of hatred? People are already eagerly anticipating a category into which that person can be put. We will most likely brand this person with some variation on “zealous” or “disturbed.”
But what’s strange to me with this particular event is the urgency I’ve seen from a number of voices to say “Humanity isn’t like this.” There seems to be an express desire to make sure than humanism itself is defended. Comedian Patton Oswalt tweeted a commentary on this which got widely circulated, and he uses language like “a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the population” and “a tiny sliver” versus “a vast majority.” The culprit is a lack of tolerance, and the guilty party is not most of us, because humanity is not “inherently evil.”
At some point each of us will need to wake up to the fact that we can’t create enough categories of brokenness to make ourselves a safe exception. We are in the broken category, the untrustworthy category, the hateful category, and the evil category. Some degree of socialization and behavior modification may keep us out of the Lord of the Flies, but it’s not our inherent capacity to choose to be good.
There’s only one category that we ought to strive for, and that category is “forgiven.” It will keep us from the kind of hubris that we use to take power over others, write them off, and separate ourselves from them. Forgiven is a fundamentally evangelical category – it always makes room for someone else.
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Tags: Boston, Boston Marathon, Christianity, Forgiveness, hate
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So of the many things I like about the German people (first blog to ever start that way!), the thing I like best is their made-up words. Sidebar: when I talk about liking Germans, I mean it kind of like I like the Muppets. You know, like it’s fascinating, but the minute you start watching you are committed to suspended disbelief. Anyway, Germans make up words for all kinds of things that no one else has a word for, which is great, because I find that I don’t have a word for most of the things I experience every day.
So for instance, Germans have the word schadenfreude. This sounds like a word for psychiatric malpractice, but it actually means that experience you get when you’re watching America’s Funniest Home Videos and realize that you’ve spent the better part of an hour giggling at men getting hit in the solar plexus by footballs and skateboarders faceplanting and children falling off of diving boards. In other words, you’re a really mean person, but none of us can stop watching. Most of Youtube is schadenfreude.
Or you know how at the end of the day you go home wondering exactly what you accomplished that day, and fully aware of the fact that you will feel the same way tomorrow, like a bad rendition of Groundhog Day? That’s called lebensmude.
Or again, I’ve known families to get in fights on the way home from church, because for just a second they caught a glimpse of a perfect world, a heaven, and then they were launched back into daily life, which they found depressing. That’s called weltschmerz. The feeling, not the family in the car. If you ever run into the Weltschmerz family, stay away from them.
Come to think of it, most subtle German idioms are nuances of depression. The Germans, in general, wake up feeling like Sean Bean wearing a red shirt (like this post for the double nerdism!). Maybe we should come up with a word for those days where your odds are apparently slightly worse than Sean Bean wearing a red shirt.
Which brings me to spirituality. There’s an experience that I keep seeing that I need a word for, because it’s so common, but generally unrecognized. It’s that moment when someone realizes they have believed something for the wrong reasons, so they reject that something, rather than just rejecting the reasons. For instance, let’s say a person sets out to solve the math problem 2 +2 = ?, and they do so by drawing a playing card out of a deck. As luck would have it, they draw the 4ª, and thus deduce that the answer is 4. Now when that person realizes they have done the problem wrong, for some reason, 4 becomes the least likely answer that person will ever pick again, even as they start to learn something about math.
There’s a moment where someone who has called themselves a Christian rejects Christianity because they realize their reasons for believing in it were stupid. We use the expression “throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” but I want a word, not a phrase, and one that doesn’t make sadists giggle. I think I saw a baby thrown out with the bath water on America’s Funniest Home Videos one time, and it wasn’t funny. Anyway, this person realizes that they were afraid of their dad, or that they lived in a religious culture, or that they were afraid of a cosmic something without stopping to question whether or not there was reason to believe in that something. As a consequence, they toss the whole thing out. I have more trouble talking with these people than anyone else, because they feel like they’ve already come up with the Christian solution, and that solution was wrong, and I must just be using the same wrong-headed calculations that they once did.
The reality is that that person’s clumsiness has just transferred over to a new area of their lives. They used to draw cards out of decks to solve math problems, and now they throw babies out with the bath water. (See what I mean – need a word to go there.) The person who once didn’t know how to do math still doesn’t know how to do math. And now they’re wrongly biased against the right answer.
I need a word for that, so when someone does it, we can all just say, “Oh, you’re just doing .” And then that guy can say, “Oh yeah, duh.”
So let me know if you have a word for that. I will double like you if it involves a sci-fi/fantasy reference.
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Tags: Agnosticism, apologetics, Atheism, Christianity, comedy, Common Sense, Germans, Lord of the Rings, Spirituality, Star Trek
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Rob Bell gave a lecture tonight at First Baptist Church of Pasadena to promote his new book, “What We Talk About When We Talk About God.” He kept repeating a phrase that was incredibly revealing.
The crowd was about 300 people, almost all students of Fuller Seminary, which had promoted the event. I should say, in the world of hipsters, hats are apparently completely out after having been completely in for about a year. The crowd was maybe 50/50 on the gender split, mostly around 30 years old, and heavily Caucasian. An one hat.
The hour long lecture was a funny and warm-hearted verbal rendition of the first chapter of Bell’s book. Literally almost word-per-word in some sections, with all the same punchlines. For first timers, it was a lot of fun. For anyone who had read the book, it was like watching the same episode of “Everybody Loves Raymond” for the second day in a row. You’re like, “Yeah, I remember that being funny.”
At the end, in a Q&A period, a couple of students asked some really smart questions. They asked them humbly and hesitantly, so I’m not sure if everyone understood how sharp they were. One person observed that Bell keeps talking about the God who is “ahead of us, pulling us forward.” In Bell’s cosmology, God’s primary goal is progress. God is working to get us to “the next step,” and there’s no judgment for being in your present place (I’m not sure if these means theologically, morally, or in terms of mental health). “What about the fact that the Bible seems like it’s behind us then?” the student asked. Bell rambled on this one. He said that the Bible was in fact progressive for its time, which only left open the possibility that it’s not progressive in our time. Rather than linear answers that addressed the questions, Bell tended to float around verbally to different illustrations which were not always on topic.
Another student followed up, “Let’s say you have a friend who is a spiritual seeker who reads about Joshua killing the Canaanites,” he began. “Who picked that text?” Bell teased. Then he answered that “You can just start with Jesus and work your way back from there.” He referred the student to a British theologian whose name he couldn’t remember who argues that it wasn’t actually genocide (I think he’s referring to Christopher Wright, though Wright actually says that the Canaanite slaughter was as bad as it sounds, and God was just accommodating that context). Bell simply dodged the question.
THE BIG ISSUE
Which brings me to absolutely the most interesting part of the night. Several times Bell referred to doctrinal accuracy with the phrase, “Getting the mental furniture in order.” He said, “Instead of trying to get the mental furniture in order, which you’re never going to do…”, we should instead gather around the eucharist and make sure everyone’s needs are met. What’s shocking about this is that Bell isn’t taking his own advice. Bell very clearly thinks he understands God’s nature, and very clearly thinks that “the institutional church” is getting it wrong. He says that if we believed (aka got the mental furniture in order) that God was with us, for us, and ahead of us, this generation would be more interested in God.
This is just contradictory. If getting God right is important, we can’t very well dismiss doctrine. Bell threw in an aside, “Sure, some doctrines are helpful.” But he seems to be missing the heart of the exercise that he himself is taking part in, which is the revision of doctrine. He’s absolutely right about what’s at stake – a mistaken understanding of God turns people away from God. The problem is that the God who is always leading people towards progress without judgment isn’t an entirely accurate picture of the biblical image of God. Bell has moved the furniture while denying that the placement of the furniture matters.
The upside of Rob Bell is that he really believes that people need love. He thinks that they need to know Jesus. He just doesn’t seem to think Jesus jibes with the God of the Bible, including the God that Jesus himself describes. Bell needs to have a come-to-Jesus talk with himself where he admits that he has intentionally ordered the mental furniture to arrive at his present theology. Then he might realize that he’s got the furniture in the wrong places. And maybe then we’ll find the hat rack.
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Tags: book reviews, God, Jesus, Love Wins, rob bell, theology
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I’m digging through drawers at my parents’ house, looking for stole-me-downs [(n.) stuff you take home from your parents’ house], and I’ve come across a pile of old papers and photographs. They are valuable the way a foreign currency is valuable – only to the person who comes from the same place. The place is my childhood, a country of one. I’m the only traveler who would look at these and think I had found something worth keeping.
There are letters I wrote to my mom from camp, newspaper clippings of a diatribe I wrote to the Editor in high school, yellowed pictures of a school play. I found things I drew when I was daydreaming. It’s all wrapped in a dust sarcophagus that makes me sneeze.
So much goes into the making of an adult. In this country, typically tens of thousands of dollars of expense, schooling, training, coaching, discipline. If the ingredients of a recipe cost this much and the cooking took this long, you would expect an extraordinary meal. You kind of think most adults should be marvelous instead of mundane. Maybe we are. Maybe we are simply so surrounded by one another that we take each other for granted.
I’m mixing a couple of recipes of my own. We take pictures of them with Gramma and Grampa, which will in this generation will never yellow. They will go in a digital file somewhere, numbered, and be forgotten for a generation. They will not make anyone sneeze when they’re discovered.
There are certain key ingredients. Today I took them to church. At the lunch table, we talk about the faith. We talk about what Jesus thinks and what the Bible says. We talk about what it means to be good. In my room, I’ve found notes from the first Bible study I joined in college. Someone made sure that was part of my recipe along the way. I’m making it the most important part of theirs.
To me, the recipe is worth every penny. If I accomplish nothing else, I hope that my children are my masterpiece. Somewhere deep in my soul I find a longing to make sure that they have everything they need and become everything they want to be. I am crafting a work that will last forever.
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Tags: children, Christianity, faith, family, fatherhood, Jesus, kids, parenting
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