November 13

Wild Night

From the Hitka Codex: Jesus casts out a demon.

Ever since our deliverance from unclean spirits in August , my wife and I have expressed a willingness to help others plagued by darkness. We testified at two churches, and we talked to people that seemed to be tormented (not everyone is, but there are many who are). We cast out a few demons that were causing physical ailments in people we know. There were even a few healings unrelated to spirits. And we kept our own family clean from spirits trying to return, no small accomplishment in itself. But as for freeing people the way we were freed–not yet.

(When I say “we did” and “we kept,” I’m giving ourselves credit for things that we don;t really have power to do. All deliverance and all healing comes through God and the Holy Spirit. Yes, even healing through medicine comes through the Spirit. So we didn’t exactly keep ourselves clean, but we did stay vigilant and ask the Spirit for help. When I say “we did,” what I really mean is, “We showed up and the Spirit worked through us.”)

Last month, several people began talking to us about deliverance. I told my wife, “I think our deliverance ministry is about to begin.”

And we waited.

Last week, my wife felt moved to share her experience of deliverance with a woman she had just met. The woman, whom I will call Sarah, was clearly moved and asked if we could help her family. Her husband, Bob, is a meth addict, had been up for several days, and was approaching a state of psychosis. He’d tried to stay clean before but hadn’t been successful. From what Sarah described, her family was experiencing a complex interaction of emotional wounds, addiction, and demons. Sarah called us later that night and begged for our help. We agreed to come to their home two nights later.

We had no idea what we’d be walking into. Would Bob be high? Psychotic? Violent? Could we even be of any help in this situation? My wife and I both have backgrounds in substance abuse, so we didn’t expect to be surprised, but we were very much aware of the chaos that adorns the lives of many addicts and their families. We brought with us another friend who is very strong in prayer.

We arrived to find that Bob had slept a little the night before, but had used again. He claimed the drugs were bogus, that he wasn’t really high. His twitching, constant talking, irrational trains of thought, and inability to sit still said otherwise.

We prayed, and then talked a little about deliverance. We made sure they understood that whatever we accomplished that night would be just a band-aid, a temporary reprieve to give them breathing room to work the steps, get some help, and prepare for a full deliverance. As we chatted, it became clear that both of them thought the other was the problem–not unusual in an addict-codependent relationship. Sarah’s complaint against Bob didn’t need to be spoken, it was obvious. He was paranoid and almost impossible to talk to. Bob accused Sarah of not being fully committed to the relationship, which Sarah denied. In fact, Sarah made a promise aloud to all of us that she would approach deliverance with 100% commitment and honesty.

“Well,” Bob said, “there’s no point in going forward with this right now.”

He got up and left the room, and returned with his glass pipe.

“I need to get rid of this,” he said. “What should I do? Flush it?”

“Don’t flush it,” my wife objected. “That will mess up your plumbing.”

“Put it on a plastic bag and smash it,” I suggested.

Bob headed for the kitchen, and I followed. He was so twitchy that as he fished under the counter for a plastic bag, he knocked the pipe against the counter and broke it. Glass showered over the counter and the floor. Bob swore.

“It’s no big deal,” I assured him. “Let’s just get a broom and clean it up.”

As Bob swept, I could hear my wife in the other room talking to Sarah about deliverance. Our friend stood in the space between the two rooms and prayed loudly.

Bob argued with Sarah about what dustpan to use. Then, as he emptied the shattered glass into the trash, he said to me, “You can hear Sarah telling lies about me out there, right?”

As we returned to the living room, it was clear that talking wasn’t going to get us anywhere. We began praying. Then we broke some curses, including the curse of addiction. Bob squirmed on the couch, obviously miserable. I anointed him with oil and bound the demons of methamphetamine, not knowing if it would do any good. To my surprise, he calmed down, and we proceeded with the deliverance process. Bob actually became somewhat rational by the time we finished.

But it didn’t last. Ten minutes after we left, Sarah called. Bob was preventing her from taking the car to go to her mother’s house, and she was scared. I called Bob, and he accused my wife and I of taking Sarah’s side. He couldn’t hear anything I had to say, and soon lapsed into unintelligible accusations, then he hung up.

My wife and I sat at home later, processing what we’d experienced. On the one hand, it was clear that the Spirit had worked through us. For a time, at least, the Spirit had calmed even the effects of Bob’s being high. But on the other hand, their insanity had returned almost as soon as we’d finished. We consoled ourselves in the hope that we had planted a seed that might sprout at some point in the future–if Bob lived long enough.

The next day, I reluctantly called Bob, expecting another unintelligible stream of accusations. This is what he said:

You’re not going to believe this, man! I went into my job, and they were going to fire me but instead they just gave me a few days off. So I drove home and I thought about using, but I turned on some worship music instead and I got home without using. Then I had this really powerful experience of Jesus. I went down to Sarah’s mom’s and I got my son, and I apologized to him for being such a bad dad, and I promised to do better. And he was like, “What are you talking about?” So I sat on the couch and held him. Then I got up, and something took hold of me and threw me to the ground, and I started choking. And I don’t know where the words came from, they didn’t come from me, but I said, “In the name of Jesus Christ, leave me alone!” and then it released me. And I have felt such peace ever since that moment. My son drew a picture of what he saw, and it was like a huge green cloud coming out of me. I’m telling you, man, something has changed. I’m not going to use anymore!

I was stunned and awed. I’ve had powerful spiritual experiences, but nothing like that. Here was a man who, less than 24 hours earlier, had been on the verge of psychosis. Now he was both clean and rational. I commented on the amazing experience, and reminded him that this was just a reprieve. God had given Bob grace, and now Bob needed to respond to that grace by working the steps and following through with the deliverance process. He assured me he would, but I had my doubts.

I spoke with Bob again this week. Eight days after our meeting, he’s still clean, and he’s begun making an inventory of his sins and gateways. A week clean may not seem like a lot, but when you’re an addict, it can feel like an eternity.

What will happen next? That depends on whether Bob and Sarah follow through. God gives us grace, but it’s our job to respond to that grace with fruits worthy of repentance. As Paul makes clear in Colossians 3:1-17, new life in Christ is not just a matter of professing faith, but of cleaning up our old behavior and living in love and compassion.

November 10

American Idol

I voted on Tuesday, mostly because I wanted to support a local candidate for state delegate who was an unusual choice: A Democrat with an actual platform that addressed concerns I think need to be addressed, including security, health insurance, and such. As a Christian, I don’t always vote. When presented with two really bad candidates for president, for example, I’m unwilling to compromise my values. Evil is still evil, regardless of the party it represents.

The line I’m not willing to cross is not always clear, however. For example, I was pleased to see that my state’s soon-to-be-former governor lost. For one thing, he supports the repeal of Roe v. Wade. As a Christian, I’m opposed to abortion. But as an American, I recognize that there is no consensus on when life begins, and I’m not willing to impose my beliefs on others. Christianity is a choice, not a requirement. I do wish that every woman who considered an abortion would hear the baby’s heartbeat before she made her decision. I wish that birth control was universally available and free. And I wish we had structures in place to facilitate the easy adoption of babies born to parents who can’t or won’t raise them. And yes, I wish that Christian values were more widely practiced. It’s a shame that many young women these days see their value primarily in being a sex object for men (and it’s hard to place the blame for that on women). But I can’t in good conscience impose my beliefs on those who haven’t chosen them where there is no societal norm to support it.

The election has once again focused my attention on the relationship between Christian and nation.

I remember an email I received back in 1998, before Facebook, when people sent their political rants as emails rather than memes. That particular email claimed that Muslims could not be American citizens because their primary allegiance was to Allah, not country. Even then, at a time when I was not Christian, I understood the irony of that claim: a Christian is likewise called to give his or her allegiance to God and only God.

How is it that we miss this? Perhaps it’s because when we proclaim Jesus as Lord, we don’t know what a Lord is. We don’t have lords anymore, so it may be a confusing term for us. Here’s what Google Dictionary says:

“Lord (n.): someone or something having power, authority, or influence; a master or ruler.”

In other words, a lord demands our allegiance. And the Bible itself tells us we cannot serve two masters (Mt 6:24).

Put another way, if I proclaim Jesus as my Lord and Savior, I cannot also pledge allegiance to a flag or a nation– not without lying to either one or the other.

The Bible also tells me to be subject to authority (Rom 13:1. 1 Pet 2:13). That, too, can be confusing. But consider the context. In Romans, Paul has just finished arguing for a radical Christian life of feeding the poor, blessing those who persecute us, and overcoming evil with good. Likewise Peter is about to argue that we should suffer injustice at the hands who have authority over us and persecute us despite (or because of) our doing good. Clearly “be subject” is not the same as “obey.” We are to live out our values as a community, accepting the price when our values conflict with those of the State.

Yet somehow the American Christian message often holds up our nation as the spearhead of Christianity, suggesting that allegiance to the nation is equivalent to allegiance to God. This is the nation that committed atrocities in King Phillip’s War, massacred the Pequots, and used biological warfare in Pontiac’s War. It’s the nation that stands alone in having used nuclear weapons against people (and those people were civilians, not soldiers). It’s a nation that has squelched democracy in Central and South America, Iran, and many other countries. And it’s a nation that, when attacked, invaded a country that had nothing to do with that attack, beginning a war that continues to this day.

Who would Jesus bomb?

Don’t get me wrong: I know that no nation is perfect. My ancestors formed and founded this country, and I’m (mostly) proud of what they did. There’s a lot of good here, too. But to equate the United States with God… well, it makes God come up a little short. Our nation is not the ideal representative. And no other country is, either.

As a Christian, I am called to follow Christ–to the Cross if necessary. I am called to live as he lived, do what he did, and teach as he taught, regardless of what my nation’s leaders say or do, and even if they do it to me. God’s grace makes this possible. And God’s grace demands a response from me. The New Covenant, like the old, has two parties.

Yes, Paul writes,

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast (Eph 2:8-9).

Yet his next words are:

“For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Eph 2:10).

Jesus, for his part, says,

“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (Jn 14:12).

Paul tells us that the nations are part of the problem, and ranks them with evil spirits as our enemies:

“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12).

Why? Because even in a democracy like ours, those with power seek more power. Power corrupts. By definition, our leaders are corrupted. As Christians, we seek not the ideal earthly government, but nothing less than the Kingdom of God with Jesus as its ruler.

How do we somehow think it’s enough to profess, and to live the way everyone else does? How do we ignore Jesus’ instructions to love one another, to love our enemies, to feed the poor, and to give our last copper coin? How do we put our faith in armies and police forces, in walls and in guns, and not in the saving grace of God through Jesus Christ?

It’s true that following Jesus is not easy. Neither he nor any other New Testament writer said it would be. I fall short. I’m sure almost everyone does.

But to put our allegiance in the nation rather than in Jesus is nothing short of idolatry, one of the worst sins the Bible recognizes. The prophets condemn it (e.g. Hos 2:2, 16-17). Paul identifies it as the source of all debasement (Rom 1:24-25, 28).

Let me be blunt: to be a “patriotic American” is to be an idol worshiper. Yes, I’ll vote in an election when moved to do so. I want what’s best for the people of America. I’m a Christian, how could I not? But my allegiance is not to this nation or to any other. It’s to a Kingdom that has been established here on earth, but has not yet been fulfilled.

October 17

Paul and Women: Another Look at 1 Corinthians

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians contains some disheartening passages with respect to women. In particular, 1 Cor 11:2-16 and 1 Cor 14:33b-36 are the ones that have caused the most trouble. These verses are problematic not only because of what they appear to say, but because they seem somewhat incoherent. The former presents three arguments, yet the footnotes in the NRSV make clear that translators have had to torture the middle one to bring it in line with the others. The latter contradicts what Paul has said elsewhere in the same letter, namely it says that women should be silent in church when he’s already said twice that women do not have to be silent in church.

What gives? Paul may be many things, but he’s rarely incoherent or self-contradictory. Thus, as I read these passages again this week, it struck me that something is wrong with the way we interpret them.

Consider two things about Paul’s writing. The first has to do with his style: he often quotes arguments and then rebuts them. This is seen clearly in 1 Cor 6:12-13:

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 

Keep in mind that Koine Greek had no quotation marks. The only way we know that Paul has quoted someone else’s argument, unless he says so explicitly, is by context.

The second is that, apart from his letter to the Romans, Paul always writes to address specific issues in a church. In 1 Corinthians, he says he’s writing “that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you… For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you…” (1 Cor 1:10-11). This is the theme of the entire letter. Yes, he addresses some other issues, including a situation of sexual immorality among the members (1 Cor 5), spiritual gifts  and the nature of the church as one body (1 Cor 12), and the nature of Christian love (1 Cor 13). Yet each of these can be seen in the context of the letter as a whole as arguing for unity in the Corinthian church.

It is noteworthy that 1 Cor 11 as a chapter goes on to discuss abuses at the Lord’s Supper, and corrective measures to be taken. Again, this is in the context of division within the church (vv. 18-21).

Some scholars have suggested that the three arguments about women that begin the chapter are in fact quotes of what Paul has heard from members of the church in Corinth. This has been dismissed by other scholars because, aside from a few short instances in 1 Cor 6, Paul has not done so in this letter without specifically identifying such arguments. Similarly, many scholars agree that it seems likely that the opening salvo in 1 Cor 14 is actually a quote he has heard from Corinth, but they dismiss this as improbable because he has not done so elsewhere.

Yet the result is a letter that, on these two issues, makes Paul virtually unintelligible. Particularly in the second, why would he tell women to be silent in church when he’s already discussed and approved of them teaching and prophesying in church? It’s nonsensical. Which begs the question: what if Paul did quote other arguments in both places? Read with that in mind, the issues of logic and style in the two passages quickly resolve themselves. Knowing what I do of Paul, I find it inconceivable that the illogical reading is the correct one.

Here, then, are my renditions of the two passages, which I offer as true to Paul’s style and his well-recognized ability to argue a point effectively. I’m no Greek scholar, but I have taken advantage of the ambiguity of certain conjunctions, and I have used the alternate translation noted in the NRSV.

I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you. And I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ. 

[But some of you say,] “Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil. For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man. Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man.”

[Others say,] “For this reason a woman ought to have freedom of her head, because of the angels. For in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. And just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God.”

[Still others say,] “Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering.”

Now, if you are disposed to be contentious— [Let me be clear:] We have no such custom, nor do the churches of God. (1 Cor 11:2-16)

And:

[Some of you have said,] “As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”

So, did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached? Anyone who claims to be a prophet, or to have spiritual powers, must acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord. Anyone who does not recognize this is not to be recognized. (1 Cor 14:33b-38)

In this last paragraph, “did the word of God originate with you?” the Greek uses the masculine version of the pronoun “you.” Clearly this accusation is not addressed to the women of Corinth! It seems far more likely that it addresses those who have voiced such an opinion.

Viewed in this way, the 1 Cor 11 passage seeks not to criticize the church because women have their hair uncovered, but to resolve a dispute about that issue by stating emphatically that there’s no such tradition, so quit arguing about it. Likewise, the 1 Cor 14 passage seeks to silence those stirring up controversy over the obviously-prominent role women had in the Corinthian church.

Both are consistent with what we know of Paul, who partnered with both men and women in spreading the Gospel, and whose friend Priscilla became a church leader first in Corinth and later in Rome.

This is not the place to discuss 1 Timothy, which was written by a different writer, though attributed to Paul. It, too, contains some passages that many women find troubling, but it was written decades after Paul’s death and addresses a different time and context.

Ephesians is another matter entirely, and one which deserves a blog post of its own. Suffice it to say for the moment that the most repeated command in that letter’s passage on marriage is that husbands treat their wives with agape, the love of God, an observation that sheds further light on the opening admonition in 1 Cor 11:3.

The goal of this post is to reconsider these two problematic passages in 1 Corinthians with a rational approach that expects Paul to use the effective rhetoric for which he is so well known, and which our current translations fail to deliver. Admittedly, this leads to the conclusion that Paul is actually arguing the opposite of what many traditionalists think he’s arguing. You’re welcome to disagree with me. But it bothers me to be satisfied that Paul was having an off day when he wrote this one, and thus produced not one but two passages that don’t make much sense, and both on the same general topic.

 

September 28

Just Sayin’

Note to Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA):

Hillary Clinton’s support is not something you should advertise. I received her email from your server. I have unsubscribed from your emails. So long as you represent the business-as-usual Democratic Party, I won’t vote for you. “We’re not Trump” is not a valid platform. Please take a lesson from the campaign of would-be state delegate Brent Finnegan and offer something more than what gave us Trump in the first place.

September 26

ACA – When Politics Kills

For eight years I’ve heard ACA– Obamacare– trumpeted as the Democrats’ crowning achievement in healthcare. In my former rural community peopled with farmers and self-employed people, it wasn’t very popular because it screwed people. But it seemed to be working in urban areas.

Now I live in a small urban area, and it doesn’t seem to be working any better.

Here’s a case in point.

My friend Sue is married and has three children. Her husband was fired for allegedly speaking disrespectfully to a supervisor subcontracted in from a job service. He’s fighting his termination, but since his employment was at-will, I don;t see that he has much chance of winning. After all, they don’t need a reason t terminate someone. In any case, his health insurance plan was terminated as of the date he was fired.

ACA guarantees COBRA to employees who have lost their jobs. They get the same health plan they had before, if they pay 102% of the cost out of pocket. So Sue’s family, whose major breadwinner isn’t earning right now, has to come up with almost $1,800 for the first two months of coverage. They have 45 days to do so.

They don’t tell you that COBRA won’t actually pay for anything until they’ve paid the premium. That’s fine for doctors, who can bill retroactively. But it’s not so good for pharmacies and medical suppliers who demand payment when goods are provided.

Sue has Type 1 diabetes. Like 3 million other Americans, she has to monitor her glucose levels closely. Her levels fluctuate wildly, so she uses a constant glucose monitor to keep her from going into a coma and dying. That’s not an exaggeration.

Sue is now out of supplies. Her glucose monitor is out of service. She doesn’t even have test strips to test the old fashioned way. She spent four hours on the phone yesterday and was able to find a way for the supplies to be shipped–in a week or two.

So let’s recap: We live in a country in which a person who just lost their job has to spend a month’s pay for health insurance coverage. And where until that money is paid, a diabetic can’t check her glucose levels.

I’m afraid for Sue. She may die this week. And the only reason is that our politicians can’t get their act together on health care.

In the industrialized world, that makes us the dysfunctional family member. Every other industrialized nation has universal healthcare. Even some poor nations like Sri Lanka have universal healthcare! And yes, they all complain about it. But have you noticed that when Brits or Canadians need major medical attention, they get on a plane home?

But not us. We still think keeping people alive should be a profit-making enterprise. And it’s killing people.

September 23

Why I Hate Theology

“In the most radical and existential uniqueness which he is, man has to reckon with the fact that this mystery of evil is not only a possibility in him, but that it also becomes a reality, and indeed not insofar as a mysterious, impersonal power breaks into his life as a destructive fate.” (Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith, trans. William V. Dych (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1996, 102-103.)

I encountered the following sentence as an undergraduate. It is a pivotal thought on evil in one of the most important books by Karl Rahner, the most influential Catholic theologian of the 20th century. But what does it mean?

Diagramming the sentence suggests that it is self-contradictory. So what is Rahner trying to say? I’ve puzzled over it for ten years, and I still don’t know. His “pivotal” thought makes no sense. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a translation error, though my understanding is that Rahner was no more intelligible in his native German. His brother, when told that Rahner’s work was posthumously being translated into English, is said to have quipped, “That’s wonderful. I hope someday they translate him into German!”

Obviously precision is important when postulating a systematic statement of the nature of God, his Creation, and our relationship to both. Many theologians, like Rahner, go to great lengths to express complex thoughts in precise terms.

Unfortunately, the result is unreadable for even many university-level readers.

This level of theology creates an ivory tower, a bastion of particular intellect that develops its thought in enforced isolation from the world by virtue of its unintelligible diction. (How’s that for a wordy sentence?)

In other words, Christians and theology live in separate worlds that can never (or at least only rarely) meet.

Can you imagine if Jesus spoke like that? How many followers would he have gained? Instead, he spoke in simple concepts. “The Kingdom has come.” “Feed the poor.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

We take Jesus’ simple concepts and discuss whether they are prophetic or apocalyptic, pre-millennial or post-millennial, and the veracity of dispensationalism.

Perhaps these are valuable intellectual exercises. Surely some people enjoy such parsing. And I have to admit, Rahner challenged my horizons when I studied him as an undergraduate. Yet I can’t help but wonder how much this level of thought contributes to the Kingdom of God.

This semester, we’re reading Charles Scobie. He’s much more readable than Rahner, but just as wordy, dissecting and analyzing (not always effectively) the main points of Christianity. The 1,000+ page book contains five (5!) chapters about Jesus. He’s written more about Jesus than the Gospels themselves!

This reminds me of a quotation attributed to Rabbi Hillel, a pre-Christian Jewish reformer:

“That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow; this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary…”

In my congregation, there is a woman whose brain was damaged in an accident when she was a child. She reads at what I would describe as about a third-grade level. Yet she is one of the most loving, Christ-centered people I have ever met. If you want to know what the Kingdom looks like, meeting her is far more demonstrative than reading Rahner.

The truth is, I don’t really hate theology, but I do fund it tedious and often distracting. Often wonder which is the better use of my time: reading 1,000 pages of systematic theology, or going out and doing what Jesus told us to do.

September 22

This Is the Day

This is the day that the Lord has made! (Psalm 118:24)

I’ve been thinking lately of my friend, Margarita Mike. We called him Margarita Mike because he got sober when he was in college, stayed sober five years, went out and drank one margarita, and came back. He stayed sober another five years.

Then Mike decided he could have another margarita. This time, things didn’t go as well. He couldn’t stop. He’d been drinking for eight months when I called him about a business situation for a mutual client. I asked him how he was doing.

“I’m not doing well at all,” he replied. “I can’t stop drinking. Would you have coffee with me sometime?”

I readily agreed. Helping people get sober as I got sober is one of the top priorities in my life. We agreed to meet the next afternoon at a local coffee shop.

That night, I got a phone call. Mike had wrapped his car around a telephone pole. My friend was gone.

I have always wondered whether things would have been different if I’d met him for coffee the day we spoke. Maybe they would have. Maybe they wouldn’t. The point is, I’ll never know–because I didn’t. I know from experience that alcoholism is a deadly disease. I almost died from it. I’ve been to more funerals than I can count on my fingers and toes.

No one expects that today is the last chance. Sometimes it is.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because of a couple of situations I’ve run into. One was a woman I rode the elevator with at the hospital. I didn’t know her and didn’t speak to her. Yet I could feel that she was toxic, so oppressed by darkness that it was rolling off of her. We got off the elevator and went our separate ways, and I said nothing. Surely she’ll realize her torment and seek help when she’s ready… right?

The other was someone I know fairly well and consider a friend, but not a close friend. As we were praying together, I felt a deep heaviness from this person. As I focused on it, I realized it was a curse. (Yes, curses exist. And Jesus died cursed so that our curses may be broken.) I brought up the subject of curses as an invitation, but my friend said nothing. We parted with no further discussion.

I have some knowledge of the ways of darkness. My family was tormented for five years. We experienced accidents, depression, psychosis, substance abuse, and illness, not to mention a ridiculous series of random setbacks in our lives. We became self-destructive. More than once, I was close to suicide. My wife nearly died twice from reactions to benign medications.

The torment of darkness can be fatal. And it’s surely miserable, especially compared with reconciliation to God. Moreover, if we believe what Christianity teaches us, the repercussions of what we do today can follow us beyond death. I’m not talking about merely accepting Jesus as Christ to avoid going to Hell. There’s far more to it than that. Sometimes, as any addict will attest, Hell follows us.

Yet most of us, including myself, don’t approach our religion with the urgency this suggests.

There are those who stand on street corners wielding a Bible and a hand-made sign proclaiming that you need to find Jesus today. I wonder if anyone listens to them. I hope so, but I never did.

There are those who go door-to-door and teach [their version of] what the Bible says. They are committed, loving people, and I think sometimes they do some good.

Most of us accept that other people are responsible for their own spiritual health. Yet when my own spiritual health was in jeopardy, I was unable to solve the problem myself. I needed help. This was as true last year when I sought deliverance as it was 32 years ago when I got sober. In both instances, I had no idea how to solve the problem. I needed someone who did.

Since Mike’s death, more than five years ago, I never put off meeting with an alcoholic or addict who asks for help. I also confront someone who appears to need help but not be willing to admit it. It often doesn’t help. Statistically, some 90% of alcoholics and addicts die from their disease. But I’m one of the 10%, and I want them to have every chance to be one, too. And never again do I want to be a day too late.

Why don’t I take the same approach with those who are suffering spiritually? I hate confrontation. I don’t have the confidence; after all, I’m new to this myself. Maybe I’m afraid of being labeled a religious nut. Maybe I’m afraid of damaging a friendship.

Would I damage a friendship to save someone’s life from addiction? Risk being labeled a nut? Step out on a limb and take a risk? You bet I would.

But religion is a private thing… right?

In a nation in which suicide rates are rising, violence against people unknown to the perpetrator is rising, drug overdose rates are rising, and antidepressant use is rising, I’m not so sure that’s true. We are a spiritually sick culture, and that sickness affects us all.

I’m tired of going to funerals of people who died too young, and seeing misery on the faces of people who are materially well off compared with much of the world. Not when there is an answer.

The challenge set before me, then, is to take the same attitude with those who suffer any kind of spiritual malady as I do toward those dying of addiction. I have been saved from misery, and it’s my responsibility to pass that on, today.

It’s a challenge I set before you, too.

 

 

August 23

Buddha, Ram Dass, and the Gospel

“Eternity: Smoking or Non-Smoking?”

That’s what this month’s marquis asks at a local church. And while it’s clever, that’s not the most important question for me.

All my life, people have told me, “Be grateful you’re alive.” That never made sense to me. Even in my earliest memories, I wasn’t glad to be here. My undiagnosed autism made my life a challenge, and I found myself asking, “What’s the point?” I was suicidal at age 15. The suggestion that we suffer in this lifetime so we can be in Heaven in the next was, to say the least, unsatisfactory, It spoke of a cruel, even sadistic, God that I could not accept.

I rejected that god and became an atheist at age 13. Later, as I sought help with my addictions at age 25, I graduated to agnostic. That’s a natural state for an autistic person who often needs to see in order to understand.

When I got serious about exploring a spiritual life, I tried several churches. All of them proclaimed a message of future salvation. None of them addressed my primary questions: How do I live in this world? What do we do about suffering? When I accidentally stumbled onto Buddhism, I heard a different message. It wasn’t based in faith in things unseen, but in a practical set of steps to take to address the problem of individual suffering. Summarized, the Buddha’s first sermon, the Four Noble Truths, can be stated this way:

  • Life is suffering.
  • If there is suffering, then there must be a cause. That cause is attachment.
  • If there is a cause, then there must be a means to remove that cause. That is nonattachment.
  • The means to nonattachment is the Eight-fold Path.

This made more sense to me than anything else I’d ever been told about life and how to live it. I became a Buddhist for several years.

Then the 1992 riots devastated the city I lived in. It was clear to me that people who could behave that way were in a lot of pain. This brought up a new question I had not considered: what about other people’s suffering? Was it enough to simply relieve my own suffering?

As I pondered this, I became convinced that it was not. My meditation teacher said that compassion meant being aware of the suffering of others while remaining in nonattachment. Hindu teacher Ram Dass said something different: “There is a paradox: everything is the way it is supposed to be, and our job in this life is to work to end suffering.” This sounded better, but still lacked the promise of making things better. Later, I heard Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne say that if you have compassion, you must help those who are suffering. This made more sense. I followed this instruction for about a decade. I helped his organization with planning and strategy, learned a lot about community development, and eventually became a field researcher and strategist for the peace movement in Sri Lanka on a team that helped bring about the 2002 cease fire.

I came away from that experience exhausted, traumatized, and bitter. I vaguely sensed that something was missing. By that time, I had finished my BA in Theology. I’d had a very powerful experience of the presence of God. But it terrified me, and I ran away from God– or tried to.

It took years before I revisited the “God question.” When I did, it was because of suffering. This time, it was not the meaningless of life I struggled with, but grief over the loss of a baby. And this time, I was led inexorably though not unwillingly to Christ.

I have great respect for Buddhism. It does contain truth– though in my opinion based on 50 years of experience, not the whole truth. I still agree that the biggest question in life is not eternity, but suffering.

It is with this lens that I approach the Gospel. And the Gospel meets me there. Jesus’ ministry was not simply about salvation after death. His first proclamation in the oldest of the four Gospels is, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). The King James version said, “the kingdom of God is at hand.” The Aramaic Bible in Plain English reads, “the kingdom of God has arrived.” Darby reads, “has drawn nigh,” while Young reads, “hath come nigh.” Revelation adds, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Messiah… (Rev 11:15). 

This Kingdom of God that Jesus announced is not some future event– at least not entirely. It is herenow.

Then there’s the Great Commission. Mark’s version (the earliest) reads,

Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover. (Mark 16:14-18)

The other versions omit references to healing, but Jesus says in Matthew for example, “Observe all I have commanded you” (Mt 28:20). This would surely include his earlier instructions upon sending them out for the first time:

[P]roclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. (Mt 10:7-9)

Then there’s John’s report:

“Do you love me?… Feed my sheep.” (Jn 21:17)

The Gospel cannot, in my reading, be separated from relief of suffering. Yet it is not our selves that do the work (John 14:10). This is what was missing from my life: I tried to do the work. It was an impossible job for a mortal. But nothing is impossible for God (Mt 19:26). And in John, Jesus tells us:

Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. (Jn 14:12)

The Gospel is clear: God’s Spirit works in us and through us, empowering us to change that which mere mortals cannot change. The Kingdom of God is obviously not fully present, and suffering cannot be completely eliminated. But it can be reduced. That goal is what gives my life meaning, purpose, and connection with God, which in turn reduce my own suffering.

The burning question for me is not where I’ll spend eternity, but what to do about suffering, mine and others’. The Gospel answers these questions. In my opinion, any theology that doesn’t come to this conclusion not only misreads the Gospel, but is not very useful.

August 21

Violence Left and Right– Or, Why I Quit Facebook

I’m tired of violence. I’m tired of hate speech. And I’m especially tired of it from people who deny they’re doing it.

Let me start with a proposition: When American young people spat on soldiers returning from Vietnam, that was an act of violent hatred. It didn’t physically injure them. But as we now know, some of the worst wounds a person can endure are not physical. Denying a person their self-respect and pride is an act of violence.

Let’s fast forward this principle to today, in which we look back at those veterans as men and women who did their best in a war that never should have happened and was poorly managed by our government. If I might be so bold, the U.S. fought on the wrong side, and lost. Yet the veterans who answered the call of their government deserve their pride, and they definitely should not be denied self-respect.

As we acknowledge this fact, there’s a movement afoot to take away the pride and self-respect of the descendants of those who fought in another war 150 years ago. That, too, was a war that didn’t need to happen. They fought on the wrong side, and they lost. Their leader, Jefferson Davis, was imprisoned for two years, until northern liberals posted his bail and he was eventually pardoned by President Andrew Johnson, along with all others who supported the Confederacy.

It should be noted that there were no trials for treason, in part because there was no judicial precedent that secession was in fact treason– that wouldn’t come until 1869. So some folks now look back and judge the Confederates as treasonous based on law that hadn’t been written at the time of the war.

This has become a pattern for us here in America. Slavery was legal throughout the colonies, with the exception of the Republic of Vermont which joined the Union as the first free state in 1777. Massachusetts became the first state to ban slavery in 1783. It wasn’t banned throughout the northern states until 1820, just 40 years before the war. And the general consensus among northern liberals–including Abraham Lincoln– was that slaves should be freed and shipped back to Africa. Here’s a quote from Lincoln:

“I am not, nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people, I as much as any man am in favor of the superior position assigned to the white race.”

Do we really want to judge the South or the North at the time of the Civil War by our current, post-modern standards?

But that’s not the point. The Civil War was rooted in complex causes, like any war. One of those was the economic impact of abolition on the South, especially in the face of lopsided industrialization favoring the North. Yet this was but one facet of how far the federal government could intrude on states’ rights– a battle still being fought today. And at the time, there was nothing in the Constitution that had definitively prohibited secession. That was the ultimate issue on which the South stood: the right to remove themselves from the Union.

They lost. We know this. And they paid. Their leaders were jailed and barred from holding elected office.

But what do we make of the soldiers who fought for them? Does winning or losing change the dedication, the sacrifice, or the amount of blood spilled?

It didn’t to the people of the United States when they dedicated the Eternal Light Peace Memorial 75 years after the war.

But that was a different time, when there was still some level of cooperation between disagreeing perspectives. We no longer live in that America. These days, it’s “We won, so you can suck an egg.” I’m not speaking of just Donald Trump. The same attitude accompanied Barrack Obama and George W. Bush to the White House. Maybe it began under Clinton, when conservatives basically declared all-out war on his presidency. Maybe its roots go back further, to Nixon, when the government was considered by some liberals to be the enemy.

In any case, we’ve become a nation of violence– violent speech and violent action. It’s most obvious among conservatives because they don’t try to hide it. But the not-so-subtle images put forward by too many liberals about gun-toting, ignorant, racist rednecks is equally violent. As I’ve posted before, there are reasons people voted for Trump, and they have nothing to do with race. Just as there are reasons people voted for Clinton, and they have little to do with LGBTQ issues.

But I digress. We have a movement to take away the pride of a group of states. The proponents may see it as a way to address racism, but that’s not how the recipients view it. And if you tell someone that their great-grandfather was a racist piece of trash, how do you think they’re going to react? Are you making friends? Convincing people of your message? If anything, you’re pushing them to the other side.

Enter the white supremacists. They’ve now been given a platform for their own brand of violent speech that they think will gain them sympathy. “Y’all have been told that your ancestors were racist trash!” And maybe they do gain some sympathy. But obviously not among the proponents of removing the symbols of Southern history.

The proponents show up and counter-demonstrate, shouting slogans to drown out the slogans of the white supremacists. Now we have a news event! And the temptation to violence is never far away. Let’s be clear about this: shouting slogans is not a conversation, it’s a battle. Demonstrators and counter-demonstrators were already engaged in violence. Mick Jagger was right: bloodshed is just a shot away.

But that’s what our culture has become. We don’t really care about solutions. We say we do, but our actions say something different. We care about winning; we care about being right. No matter what. And if we inflame our enemies in the process, so much the better– we get to shout that much louder.

Here’s a hint: You don’t end a conflict by engaging in or inflaming the conflict. You end a conflict by finding out what the other side really wants, and you won’t learn that in a soundbite, a slogan, or a protest sign. Nor will you convince them of your position with a soundbite, a slogan, or a protest sign. You don’t get your point across by calling someone an idiot. Does being called an idiot make you want to improve yourself–or lash out at the person who said it? You won’t win friends with insults or attacks on their long-established culture. You win friends by sitting down and talking, even sharing a meal together.

One of my most meaningful friendships is with a couple who are very conservative. They call me a liberal, which I’m not (as my liberal friends will attest), but I don’t hold that against them. Yet we are able to sit and have long, meaningful discussions about politics and other matters. I remember the day I told the gentleman that George W. Bush spent money like a drunken Democrat. His face turned red for a moment. Then he thought about it and said, “You know, if Teddy Kennedy stood up and said that on the floor of the Senate, I’d respect him for it.”

Which brings me to why I quit Facebook. I’ve always struggled with the false sense of community it creates. It doesn’t encourage truthful, meaningful interaction. It encourages soundbites, slogans, and trolls. Over the years, I’ve done my best to be a voice of moderation and reconciliation. But let’s face it: Facebook is a venue for speaking, not listening. Few people bold enough to post a political opinion on Facebook are interested in reconciliation. In that sense, Facebook itself is a medium for violence.

I’ve sought reconciliation for almost all of my adult life. I helped bring about a cease-fire in a civil war. I know a little about bringing people together. But that doesn’t happen on Facebook. It doesn’t happen nearly enough in society at large.

My friend and fellow peace-worker, Shariff Abdullah, predicts that we’re on the verge of a civil war. He may be right. But I think we’re already at war, we just haven’t started shooting yet.

P.S. My posts will still be automatically posted to Facebook, as they are to Twitter and Goodreads, but I’ve stopped checking my Facebook page. If you want to contact me, comment or use the contact form on my blog page.

August 17

Charlottesville and the Lessons of Gettysburg

The aftermath of the demonstrations and counter-demonstrations in Charlottesville, VA, continue to rock the country. What happened there, just a short drive away from my home, was unthinkable. But not really.

The demonstrations were reportedly sparked by an effort to take down the statue of Robert E. Lee. Proponents of removing the statue see it as a monument to white supremacy. Opponents accuse them of trying to erase history. The demonstrators who gathered in Charlottesville seemed to support the assertion that the statue is indeed a monument to white supremacy.

That’s unfortunate.

As the debates raged, my family was touring the battlefield at Gettysburg, where three days of fighting produced 51,000 American casualties, almost a third of the soldiers on the field. The Confederates lost, as history tells, us, and the battle is considered the turning point of the war.

There’s more to the story, of course. Lee was a dedicated Union general who opposed the secession of Texas, where he was posted in 1861. It’s important to recognize that the issue of secession wasn’t addressed in the Constitution, and no court case dealt with it until Texas v White in 1869. But Lee didn’t favor secession. He wanted a strong and united Union.

Lee was also a slaveholder, and by some accounts not a good one. But his reason for resigning his commission in the U.S. Army had nothing to do with slavery– he simply could not conceive of being ordered to attack and kill his own friends and family. He struggled with his decision, but eventually decided to side with his people rather than his country. I’m not sure most of us outside the South or the state of Utah can conceive of having to make that choice.

As the Battle of Gettysburg began on July 1, 1863, Lee was seen by some Union leaders as invincible. He’d fought an amazing series of campaigns with limited resources. The first day of the battle seemed to support that reputation as Lee crushed the Union lines. However, the Union reformed, and after three days of fighting, Lee failed to break the Union Army. He retreated, and Union General Meade was later criticized for not pursuing him, though at that point both armies were in shambles. The war would continue for two more years, finally ending with the surrender of the last Confederate general, Cherokee Chief Stand Watie and his Cherokee, Seminole, Creek, and Osage fighters on June 23, 1865, and the surrender of the CSS Shenandoah on November 6, 1865.

Today, the Gettysburg National Military Park is a poignant and tasteful memorial to the Americans who fought and died there. Memorials to the units that fought stand at the positions they were posted. These memorials recognize soldiers from Maine to Florida, and from Virginia to Minnesota.

In 1938, veterans from both sides gathered to dedicate the Eternal Peace Memorial. A Confederate veteran unveiled the statue, and Union troops fired an artillery salute. The base of the monument is inscribed, “Peace forever in a nation united.”

Today, we don’t much look like a nation united in peace. There’s a movement to erase the history of the South. Groups have even threatened to burn Confederate flags and deface Confederate gravestones at the Gettysburg National Military Cemetery. And there’s a counter-movement of white supremacists who take these threats personally.

What happened?

In a recent and unsatisfying discussion with two liberals, one of them presented a singular and simple view of the Civil War: it was about slavery, and therefore the Confederate flag is a racist emblem. The North abolished slavery, the South seceded rather than following suit, we fought a war and beat them. Over and done.

Unfortunately, this is a primitive and, at best, outdated and conservative view of history. Historian Philip Sheldrake calls such linear view of history the “Whig view” (though in actuality I would characterize this gentleman’s view as more of a middle school understanding).

Lee’s own struggle with which side to support shows that nothing was that simple. Lee believed in the Union, despite its actions that would eventually take away his slaves. What he could not do was fight against his own people, his friends and family.

We might also consider the case of Charles Crockett, who was 17 years old when he died at the Battle of New Market in 1864, along with nine of his classmates. He’d been a cadet at the Virginia Military Institute here in the Shenandoah Valley. Was he fighting to protect slavery, or for his state and his people?

It’s easy to say the Civil War was about slavery and racism–and in part, it was. But remember that four slave states and nearly half of Virginia remained loyal to the Union. Virginia first voted to stay with the Union, and didn’t change its mind until after the battle at Fort Sumter. Moreover, History.com says,

Concerned about the loyalty of the border states of Virginia, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky, the new [Lincoln] administration went so far as to offer the slave states an amendment to the Constitution that would guarantee slavery where it legally existed.

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in the rebel states, not in the five loyal slave states and not in Louisiana, which had surrendered. Its purpose was to inflict damage on the rebel economy, not to outlaw slavery.

Yes, the southern states claimed slavery as the issue over which they seceded. But it wasn’t really the issue. As I’ve said before with regard to analyzing conflict, “It’s never about what they say it’s about.” This was a war about how far the Federal government could intrude on states’ rights– and that’s an issue that is still unresolved.

It’s easy to wave the American flag and claim that anyone who opposes it is a traitor. It’s not that simple. California and Colorado defy federal law every day with their tolerance of marijuana. Utah and Idaho have defied federal law on guns. None of them have seceded, though some in California would like to and it looks like they’ll put an initiative to that effect on the ballot next year. (Texas v White, however, says that a state can’t secede “except through revolution, or through consent of the States.”)

But let’s get back to the issue at hand: Why are we so upset about Civil War memorials? Why, 80 years after veterans of both sides declared “Peace forever in a nation united,” are we tearing open old wounds?

Do liberals really believe that Southerners who fly the Confederate flag support slavery? My neighbor, an old Baptist minister, flies it next to an American flag on his motorcycle. He does so not because he’s a racist, but because his ancestors fought and died in what they believed was a fight to protect their liberty. Yes, they lost. So did Vietnam vets, but I would never tell them they can’t be proud of what they tried to do, misguided though our leaders were who sent them there.

I’ve been told (by white people) that “some black people are uncomfortable when they see a Confederate flag.” I’m sure that’s true. But what many black people have told me is that badges and uniforms make them uncomfortable. Racism is not confined to the South, nor exclusively represented by one particular flag.

Is there a history of racism in the South? Yes. The protests by white supremacists make that obvious. And it needs to be productively addressed.

But what do we accomplish by addressing not acts of racism, but the symbols of the sacrifice of people’s ancestors? Will telling someone that 17-year-old Charles Crockett wasn’t a hero, he was just a stupid kid who should have known better, win you any friends? Or will tearing down a stature of one of America’s greatest generals who did a very respectable job even though he fought for the losing side? It’s history. It happened. We should learn from it. If we deny it, we risk reliving it.

Therein lies the problem: we’re not trying to fix things anymore. We’ve become a nation of insults and disrespect. We’ve become a nation that wants to fight, not reconcile. And we surely don’t want to convince or be convinced. While I blame a generation of conservative pundits like Rush Limbaugh for starting this, I’m now equally offended by liberal hate speech.

I stood on Oak Ridge, looked down over the fields, and felt the weight of 51,000 American casualties. North and South, they were Americans. Are we going to have to fight some more before we remember that?

I pray we will not.