Saturday, November 13, 2010

A House Divided Against Itself, Part III

(Please read Part I and Part II first.)

So, I wonder how many who have read the first two posts wondered, "What injustices against men?" Yet as long as we remain divided against ourselves, that is the reality, even though it may be easier in today's society to turn a blind eye to it. And that, I believe, is not the mindset a Christian ought to take. The groundwork I established in my last post applies here as well: we are equal in our fall, equal in our salvation.

This time I will focus on the practical issues facing men, since unlike those facing women, they are not as obvious sometimes or as well known. And worse--our society often treats the victims with ridicule and contempt, and our culture makes that "acceptable." That too is a crown of illegitimate power.

Perhaps the most well-publicized of these ills is slavery, be it in the form of forced labor or the conscription of boy soldiers. In the United States we like to think of slavery as something that is no longer a part of our cultural landscape. And thank God, Christians did wise up to the fact, in this country, that just because an inherently unjust institution was a reality in Biblical days doesn't mean we are justified in perpetuating it. Slavery scars both men and women, and Christians must resist and defeat it wherever it is found.

But some injustices can indeed be directed towards men in particular. Dads can't win, if you look at the way they're portrayed in the media: either they're absent, abusive, or incompetent with the children. Rarely does one see anything positive, especially where a single father is portrayed. It's a rarity that we see a Benjamin Sisko (the commanding officer on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) who raises his son very well, even after the death of his wife and with one tough military base to command at the same time. Those writers didn't forget that men form deep bonds with their children too, and that children need those relationships to be healthy, just as they need their mothers.

And let's not forget the so-called "right" to abortion that women are given and in which men have no say. True, some men don't care, just as some women are irresponsible. But some men do want to raise their children even under less than ideal circumstances in their lives, and for a woman to be able to go out and murder his baby, without his being given the chance to stop it, is unconscionable. A child is not a tumor nor is he or she the exclusive property of the female. That's his genetic material too, and a whole other life that he had a part in creating, and whether or not one is carrying the child is not relevant when it comes to the right to care for that life. Women are not entitled to unchallenged, unshared say over the lives of their children. Obviously abortion is a travesty on principle, but giving men their voice would be a step in the right direction.

The other area where men lose out terribly is in custody cases, where the awarding of custody isn't always based on facts, but on gender. Courts are sometimes much more concerned with a dangerous form of redistributive justice whereby the child is given more time with the mother, or the father is cut out of custody or visitation altogether without a solid basis against him--and sometimes even when there is one against the mother. Some fathers ARE abusive, and children must be protected from them. But that cannot and must not be generalized. And of course it would be best if couples had no need to divorce. But when it does happen, it should never be based on gender, but on facts.

The last form of injustice I will specifically address, though we must stay alert for others, is sexual violence towards men. It happens far more than society wants to acknowledge--and when it is acknowledged, it is generally in the form of ridicule and contempt. How, they might say, can a boy or a man be forced to partake in any act he does not wish to participate in, especially of that nature? It is real, as is domestic violence, which does not just go in one direction.

One of the things that always galls me is when well-meaning organizations come to church and ask for money to shelter victims of domestic and sexual violence, and "perpetrator" always means "man" and "victim" always means "woman." It is that way often--but not always. And that often means men are discouraged from seeking resources, and when they do, they are ridiculed or outright denied. We ought not stand for this. The problem has to be made known, victims must be treated with respect and not shamed, and competent services must be made available for their healing.

There is much, much more that could be said on gender and injustice in the world and the church, and how we as Christians must respond to it. One thing is certain: we cannot persecute, demean, or oppress anyone based on gender, either inside our hierarchy or outside it. Nor can we take sides in battles of revenge and domination--but address all injustice, regardless of who commits it against whom.

We are called to no less.

"So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise." --Galatians 3:26-29

A House Divided Against Itself, Part II

Sorry for the delay, but I've finally found the time to transcribe Part II of "A House Divided Against Itself," a 3-part series focusing on gender and our roles as a Christian.

(Please be sure, if you haven't already, to read Part I first. The third post will deal with injustices committed against men.)

The injustices that have been committed in the name of the church against women are already quite well known and documented; however, I still believe they must be reiterated because while some denominations are long past the problem, there are still many countries and many places here in this one where that is not yet the case. Though I have been on the receiving end of some unfortunate comments on occasion, I am very thankful to have grown up in a home and church where all that I'm about to discuss was a total non-issue. I had every chance in the world, and I am grateful.

In the past, and in some places still, women have been treated like children--something that should be seen and not heard, incapable of an independent relationship with God and thus less capable of moral discernment and thus inept at life compared to men, and needing to be ruled over. However, it is important to note that for each sin Eve committed, Adam committed the exact same one in there is really no grounds to lift one above the other. What order you sin in is irrelevant--the magnitude of the sin does not change in the eyes of God, against whom all sins are high treason.

It may be that the serpent's choice of the gender less capable of physical self-defense was no accident. That said, had the reverse occurred and men had sinned first, I have no doubt Eve would have "fallen to the occasion" quite adeptly and come up with some reason why men should not be allowed to make decisions, either, and some way to enforce it. And indeed, feminists have done exactly that, in a way.

But for now, let us remember that both fell in tandem--both were cursed. How people have reacted to the curses upon each, however, is telling and one of the best outcomes the devil could have hoped for. Adam, of course, was warned that he would toil and receive little reward for his sweat and blood. Eve would suffer pain in childbirth, blame, and subjugation. And the line we hear from people--even from Paul, according to the culture of his time--is that for a woman, before and even after Jesus' salvific act on the Cross, this is how it ought to be, and a woman ought not resist her inferior lot in life.

Yet every invention--every technological advance we make--every labor-saving device we create is one less drop of sweat shed from Adam's brow, one more step towards a physically easy life.

So tell me, why is it good and right for Adam to work against his curse, and Eve not to?

Tell me, furthermore, how it is that men and women are not equally saved. Obviously Jesus came to us as a man. No other option would do, to accomplish what He set out to do in that physical and social environment, of course, given that He was to be fully human as well as fully God. But to suggest that He freed one gender more than the other, because He came as a man, is to limit His deity and His love. Nor would I suggest that Jesus would be in any way less capable of relating to women, or that they would need any other intermediary but Him. God created both, after all, and He contained all of that within Him!

Unfortunately, we are still left with a situation where in certain quarters women are the inferiors in their societies. The world extends to men in these places a power that is theirs for the taking. No one will object--indeed, they will celebrate it. But just because our earthly expectations of power are one thing does not mean that true power is what we would believe it to be. We were so sure of what a Messiah was before He came: a war leader. We did not see that before true power there must come surrender of worldly power. That crown was offered to Jesus in the desert and the city both, and however much it might have been hailed by the people in their misunderstanding, He refused it in favor of a crown of thorns and the Cross.

We too must surrender the power of domination--be we male or female--whenever it is offered to us. If we rise that others may bow at our feet and hail us as their better, then we must surrender and ourselves be the ones to give up our egos. Our highest position, as humans, is servant. It's the same in marriage, the church, and the workplace. If you feel entitled to have another human being at your beck and call, looking up at you instead of at the level, then you are in the wrong. If you would confine and constrain your fellows and restrict them from following their calling, then you are an obstruction that needs to step out of the way--or assist your brother and sister instead of being a stumbling block in his or her path.

And that is the point so many miss in Paul's letters. Women at the birth of the church were uneducated, and deliberately so. A woman was not to learn the Law or study in the synagogue. Jesus did not accept that: women learned from Him as well as men. We should acknowledge greater learning and listen. To just blurt when we don't have a clue...that is disgraceful, and Paul was right to say so. But people miss the next step women were to take. Ask questions in an appropriate venue, of one you love and trust! Learn! Then you will have the standing to say something that will not unwittingly lead others astray. And men were called upon to answer these questions if asked, not to hide the answers to perpetuate ignorance that could then be used to justify claims of moral inferiority and lesser judgment ability.

A Christian has no call to belittle or diminish women, to put them in a lesser place than men. But this post cannot come alone. One tyrant must not be replaced with another--and make no mistake, that's exactly what feminism (as opposed to egalitarianism, which seeks the uplift of all, and which I believe to be the Christian's call) advocates. Revenge and bitterness, and deafness to injustices committed against men, is unacceptable. Neither patriarchy nor matriarchy is justified: the gifts God has placed in each other must be expressed, even if perhaps a man or woman has received a gift seen less frequently for their gender.

In Part III, many of these same principles will return, and I will address how they apply to a Christian response to injustices against men.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

"Call me Unto Heaven" is in print!

My first short story, "Call Me Unto Heaven" is now in print in the Infradead anthology by Sam's Dot Publishing, edited by Tyree Campbell. It is the final story in the anthology.

The Infradead anthology, as I mentioned before, centers around one single theme: the extinction of the human race. Beyond that, there were no restrictions on content and it was up to the individual authors to write a piece that suited their vision. As such, stories with very different ideas, beliefs, and content were included in the anthology, and "ratings" on the stories and poems run the gamut. As to my own vision--it cannot be divorced from my faith in Christ and His works through the Holy Spirit. I hope that you will find "Call Me Unto Heaven" an edifying conclusion to the pain, despair, and the shock that comes of contemplating the various ways in which we could misuse the gifts bestowed upon us.

The other story in the anthology I would like to specifically spotlight is "End Game," by H. David Blalock. I want to point this one out because I know him in "real life" from the WordCatchers writing group in Germantown, and his story touches on some similar, thought-provoking themes of sin and redemption and I would very much recommend reading it as well. I found the comparisons and contrasts between our pieces extremely interesting to ponder and I hope you will as well.

(Oh, and fellow Memphians in particular are in for a treat with David's story. It's not often we get to see a story focusing on our little corner of the world with such familiarity!)

If you should be interested in ordering Infradead, it is available here.

Please feel free to direct any questions or comments on this post or about the Infradead anthology and its stories to my e-mail at mcevers96 (at); I would be happy to hear from you.

(P.S.: Those other two blog posts I promised should be up in the next few weeks. I apologize for yet another delay, but my 9-to-5 has been...well, longer than 9 to 5 lately! ;-) )

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Quick update

Parts II and III of "A House Divided Against Itself" have been written, but are waiting for transcription. I should be getting to those posts over the weekend. Part II will deal mainly with the misuses of Scripture that have been used to deny rights to women. This same theological underpinning will play a part in Part III, which deals mainly with the practical nature of injustices that are committed towards men: for to see the injustice in one and to confront it must mean seeing the injustice in the other case and confronting it just as directly.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Complacent in the miraculous

Don't worry--I'll be getting back to the series I started soon...I just wanted to offer this remark given the timeliness of the subject matter.

While I think the actual premise of Stephen Hawking's recent statement that the universe was in essence "fated" to create itself because of its own physical laws--laws whose presence is completely unexplained since if there is nothing, then there is also nothing for any laws to be grounded in--I will go into no further detail on the actual argument, as other sites are doing very well at addressing these more direct issues and exposing the fundamental flaws in Hawking's argument. (Though I might make the comment that if laws somehow pre-existed all somethings in this universe, then you open the possibility of a multiverse, and if there's a multiverse, then how did IT get there? You're right back to the question of a first cause and hence a Creator...)

Rather, I wanted to offer a meditation on the nature of...well, nature itself, and the miraculous.

I should state that I have great respect for Professor Hawking's intellect, and perseverance in his profession in the face of serious adversity. However, that doesn't stop me from disagreeing completely with his conclusion, and suspecting that perhaps he's not exactly a disinterested party in this argument. I don't mean that to suggest anything malicious, of course--rather, I think it's quite notable that Hawking doesn't acknowledge the miraculous when many people, from an outside perspective, would suggest that he himself is quite possibly the beneficiary of a major one. His survival with ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) is quite simply unprecedented. Especially to those who have known people who have this disease and have not shown Hawking's longevity, the miraculousness of this is quite obvious.

I wondered how it was that one who is constantly experiencing such an unusual and miraculous happening as this would not acknowledge that indeed it is a miracle, would find no reason to suspect that there is something beyond the deterministic forces of physics. Even to conclude that the human will was capable of making a difference, without even acknowledging deity, would seem more sensible from an outside perspective.

Yet as I thought about it, I realized that there's something about the kinds of miracles that get our attention in life, and which ones don't. When you read the Bible, there are many examples of sudden, "bolt-out-of-the-blue" miracles: voices speaking from the sky, vivid visions, and even life and death themselves dealt out at the spoken word of God. These jolt us out of our routines--we are very ready to acknowledge that these are far from everyday experiences.

But not all Biblical figures that we are familiar with seem to recognize the miraculousness of the circumstances in which they are involved. It's interesting to consider that Abraham and Sarah had fixated upon having children, only recognizing that sudden event as a miracle. Yet it is made quite clear that their lifespan is not one commonly lived by people in their time. That in and of itself was a miracle right there, yet they were so fixed upon the one they wanted that they never saw this other miracle that they lived every day. There's another reason they didn't see it as well, I think: the fact that it was every day. It wasn't a dramatic bang...rather, a set of circumstances that crept up quietly, slowly, and in a drawn-out manner.

That's what I think may have happened in Hawking's case--being in the thick of it, so to speak, and understandably being concerned with the hope of a better future outcome, may have made what seems obvious from the outside very difficult to see indeed. It's a matter of perspective, and I think that we should all take the time, as Christians, to step back and look at some of the "quiet" and "slow" circumstances in our lives that are also miracles from God, not just the quick, bold bolts out of the blue.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

A House Divided Against Itself, Part I

Today I begin the first of a series of posts about gender roles for us as Christians--to examine the distortions of these roles that have been perpetrated both by those who do and do not claim Christianity.

In modern Christianity, the debate has mostly centered around the rights and the dignity of women: the role of women in marriage, in service of God, as participants in the affairs of society, and the Christian response to violence and injustice done to women. There have been many and severe problems in this regard, of course--and I will address these, but what we as a society and as a faith have ignored of late is that there have also been very real and painful assaults against the rights and dignity of men, and we as Christians are called to take it seriously, to respond with support wherever there is injustice.

Looking all the way back to our brief glimpse of humanity before we betrayed God, we see Adam created and taught how to use his power of speech to name the creatures he encounters. As he does so, he is also learning how to think about the world around him; he recognizes the natural order of male and female, and he comes to realize that there is no being with a physical form, a mind, and a soul compatible to his. He feels the need in himself for this--he feels loneliness, but it's a very different experience than what we know in a world where our relationships with God and those around us are so badly disrupted: this feeling teaches him, and shows him that he has been made to be compatible with another, to be part of the exchange of love. He knew this feeling and understood with a depth we rarely do these days that he would be answered. And he was. God created Eve, and together they began to experience what humanity was meant to be.

As to the love they experienced during that time--love is a dynamic thing, not a static one: it must flow from heart to heart in order to truly live. This dynamic is inherent in the trinitarian nature of our God; one need only observe the relationship between Jesus and His Father during His time on Earth to see just how dynamic and alive such a relationship is, in the truest sense. We were made for a relationship with God far greater than that which we have in this world, and Jesus died for our sins to mend what we could not mend on our own.

We were created as reflections in miniature of God's own nature, and our natural relationship--male and female united to each other--was intended to point the way towards that far greater nature. We were never intended to be set at each other's throats and to be caught up in a cycle of mutual blame and shame, any more than we were meant to suffer physical pain and die. And if we are Christians--if we accept Jesus' help to set our relationship right with God, then surely the love and comprehension that flows from that should compel us to set our relationships right with each other.

Of course, being finite beings, we are obviously not identical to each other as men and women. We should not be surprised that certain traits and gifts are more frequently distributed to one gender or another: this is not a popular thing to say these days, but it is readily evident in the way we were designed. Yet we do a disservice to each other--and we disarm ourselves in our battle against the evil around us--if we do not treat each man and woman as an individual creation of God and we interfere with how that person is meant to serve Him simply because it is less common.

I will leave you this time with a point to ponder: to be a Christian is not to be a misogynist or a misandrist (one who hates men). It is not to advocate the rights of one to the exclusion of or above those of the other, or to take prior victimization as an excuse to hate or dominate others. It is to be one who loves and honors all of God's creations and addresses injustice in any form where it is found. And even when the world would like to give us power that we could use to oppress others--just as Jesus refused to take up the call of the Zealots to lead an armed rebellion when His work was to pour Himself out for our sake (kenosis), we are not to take the false crowns of the world upon ourselves...we are to surrender worldly glory, to pour it out, and to serve one another rather than ourselves.

In my next two posts I will speak of the types of power we must refuse to take for ourselves as Christians. Post II will address the inequities we have done towards women out of this distorted order--Post II will address those done towards men.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

"I'll pray for you."

We know we've got a real problem when a phrase like that has become--at least in pop culture portrayals--a sign of condescension.

The majority of the time, it isn' is a sincerely-spoken phrase, out of genuine compassion for a person and whatever difficult or painful situation they may be going through. We know as well that prayer is also at times something like a weapon, a powerful force God allows us to take part in, against the forces of darkness. But sometimes, we choose to wield the wrong kind of power.

"Prayer" as an offensive weapon has been with us for thousands of years...a perversion of what should be a healing act. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14) is one of the clearest examples of this: the Pharisee gives a prayer of "thanks" that he is not like the sinful man sharing the room with him. In other words, in the act of prayer he is attempting to prop himself up at someone else's expense!

What right do we have to prop ourselves up at anyone else's expense, when we too are guilty--as C.S. Lewis put it (I paraphrase)--of high treason against the Almighty?

We might not express our inner hearts in public as blatantly as the Pharisee of the parable did, but when a Christian ends an argument with someone whose behavior or belief they disagree with with the words, "I'll pray for you," the tone is sometimes quite unkind. I know I've had it directed to me after expressing an opinion that someone disagreed with...and it very much struck me as an assertion of superiority rather than a blessing.

I don't think we should shy away from offering prayer. But I think we might do better to think of ourselves as prayer servants: when we undertake to pray for someone. It is no accident that we often kneel to is a humbling act. It is not a tool for stoking feelings of superiority, and conveying such an attitude towards others. When we do volunteer prayer, we need to make sure to do it lovingly, and with a servant's heart. Other times--and we should rely on the Holy Spirit for discernment here--it may be best to pray quietly.

But whatever we do, prayer should be an act of servitude. That does not stop it from being a powerful weapon against evil...indeed, it is by serving in accordance with God's ways that it really means something.

And with that as a guide, I believe we can pray in a manner that truly will heal hearts.

Monday, August 9, 2010

A Miracle I Can Understand

One thing I will never understand is the mindset that a phenomenon, once explained by science, somehow becomes stripped of its beauty and miraculous nature, a view famously summed up by William Wordsworth when he said, "We murder to dissect." Yet the more I have read about the natural sciences, the more I have observed nature, the more its wonder increases in my eyes. And the more I come to appreciate the depth and degree of God's artistry. The fact that I learn about the scientific principles behind those acts of creation takes nothing away from that...indeed, I am even more amazed.

This is an area where I feel both many Christians and non-believers have a misconception. The suggestion here is that to explain a natural phenomenon is to somehow divorce it from God. This mentality leads to the idea of a "God of the gaps"--that is, that God is only responsible for and active in those areas where we have no explanations...yet. And as we keep discovering more, under such a theory the role of God is rolled further and further back. For an atheist, the implication is that God will eventually be squeezed out (or boxed into a near-infinitesimally small corner grossly unbefitting of His description as an omnipotent deity). For Christians, the risk we run is that we will only recognize as a "miracle" that which seems to contravene ordinary experience and even common sense. We may even risk susceptibility to fakes because of a desire to see something that seems to flagrantly violate the laws of nature.

That is not to say that there cannot be miracles that do circumvent, accelerate, or reverse natural processes, that it can never happen. They do. But how is it that we can't recognize things according to their natural, designed working order as miracles too?

I am one of those who believes that what science describes is indeed accurate. And I see God's hand in it all of the billions of years and the indescribable multitudes of subatomic particles. And to think that all of that, over such unimaginable spans of time, had to go into designing each and every one of us individually, and everything around is awe-inspiring, and faith-inspiring!

The one who was in the incredibly difficult position, thousands of years ago, of having to render the vision I believe they truly had of the Creation in terms that were available in the world at that time, so that they could convey it to those around them, could not be expected to do so as though they were writing a 21st-century science book. Why should we expect that? I do not say this to diminish the skill, intelligence, or the divine inspiration of the individual who received this vision to transcribe into what we now know as Genesis. I think the fact that we got the beautiful and poetic glimpse that we did is remarkable enough, and I haven't seen anything like it in any other creation story outside of the Bible.

But we dare not dismiss Genesis and specifically the Creation, because of the time in which it was written. For there is something science can't tell us. It cannot tell us who created us, or why, it cannot assign a purpose to our lives, and it cannot determine whether the possibilities it illuminates should or should not be pursued and under what circumstances, beyond simple things such as, "If you throw magnesium in water, it's going to explode." So we've established that said reaction is explosive. That's great, but being explosive in and of itself is a neutral. The appropriateness of actually doing it is an entirely different matter. Now, whether or not to blow up magnesium may seem like a simple thing ("don't do it where people can get hurt" would be a pretty sensible guideline), but if you apply this same principle to more complex matters, it becomes clear that science in and of itself can't tell us whether we should do a thing that we have discovered we could do.

In Genesis (and the rest of the Bible), the identity of our Creator and His reasons for creating, and how we should relate to that Creation are laid bare for us to see and to take into our very beings. We, like Adam, continue to name the phenomena around us, living and nonliving, with greater and greater specificity. But the naming and the understanding, even the direct observation--just as it was when Adam was the first to speak names for the animals around him--does nothing to diminish the fact that these things are miracles. We have eyes to see nature as never before...if only we would observe it in all of its facets, with our minds, our hearts, our bodies, and our souls--and recognize the signature and the reflection of God imbued in every inch of it.

This is, and will always be, a miracle.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

To take the name of the Lord in vain...

"You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name." --Exodus 20:7

What do you think of when you hear this commandment? Do you think of its colloquial statement (drawn from the King James Version), "Don't take the Lord's name in vain"?

What are you used to thinking of, when you think about what this commandment means? Do you think of the swearing of oaths using God's name? Do you think of avoiding God's name in speech altogether or only under specific circumstances? Do you think of certain curse words that place God's name in a vulgar context?

Caution in our speech in this manner can be a good thing if it also schools us towards caution in our thoughts and our hearts. That said, there is, of course, the temptation--as there is with all commandments and precepts--to take the law only in this sense: that if we don't use God's name in oaths, or we don't mention Him in expressions such as "Oh my God," or whatever may be appropriate to our culture or denomination, then we're doing all we need to do.

I would like to suggest that there's far more to it than literally suggesting when we may or may not use the word "God." What about when we try to claim God as our justification for our own selfish and hateful acts? What happens when we use God, for instance, as an excuse to belittle people, to cheat them, or even to commit acts of violence? I'm not looking at just the "obvious" abuses that we see in the history books--I'm talking about even the simple things, treating those with different beliefs inside and outside of our faith, with the sort of coolness we would not think of doling out to those who are more like ourselves. If we do these sorts of things and then claim God wants us to do that, what we are doing is ascribing to Him a false motive...our own sinful motive, that is.

In essence, what we have committed is defamation of character against our Lord, by the "witness" of our words and actions.

Caution with our choice of words is a good thing--but if we become legalistically fixated on only the use of this phrase or that, we, like the Pharisees before us, may risk missing the real elephant in the room, and the spirit within us that this commandment was intended to root out.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

"Call Me Unto Heaven" accepted for publication!

Great news--my short story, "Call Me Unto Heaven," has been accepted for publication in the Infradead anthology, scheduled at this time to be published in October of 2010 by Sam's Dot Publishing, of Memphis. It was written in response to a challenge to portray the demise of the human race.

This is my first professional sale! I am very grateful to editor Tyree Campbell for taking the time to read it, and for accepting it, and also to H. David Blalock for extending the invitation to submit an entry.

I'll keep you up to date with the final publication date and ordering information as they come available.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Christian Artist: Does the Spirit = the thought police?

To hear some tell it, the answer to this question is an unequivocal "yes." To many secular writers in the US and other nations with similar legal precedents, and to some Christian writers in these nations as well, any restraint in one's speech or art is an abridgment of one's natural and inalienable rights. Conceding to the demands of conscience, or others pointing out that you have done something immoral or unethical is in effect an act of social cowardice and the question of how one's actions affect others is beside the point. To a Christian writer in particular, writing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (obviously we should not expect to do so as the authors of Scripture did, but if we write in the name of our faith, then the Spirit should be with us in some fashion), this raises a rather frightening question: is the Holy Spirit the thought police?

Obviously in this world we have seen the terrible consequences of governments or non-governmental groups restraining the freedom of speech. One can even point to the Crucifixion as the ultimate affront to free speech--the authorities in power didn't like what Jesus was saying, and acted thinking they could shut Him up forever. But if you look at the words Jesus chose to speak, you'll see that He did not speak with thoughtless abandon.

Some would apply to this the term "self-censorship." Let's look at the connotations of our society, the word "censorship" is a highly charged word, and not in a good light. Applying the word "censorship" is thus an instant ticket to shutting down a debate and in some cases can even border upon an
ad hominem attack. Anyone who engages in "censorship," whether by coercion of others or in the restraint of one's own speech becomes the Thought Police.

We are rightly revolted by Orwellian images. And I would also say that we are rightly revolted by the other main form of coercion in our society--that is, political correctness, which is enforced by character assassination. For fellow sci-fi buffs out there, I would hold up for you two images of such repression: on one side, Orwell's iconic
1984, and Ursula K. LeGuin's The Dispossessed specifically her portrayal of the collectivist "utopia" of Anares, which in fact has all the makings of a dystopia if you don't simply ride along with the "consensus"-determined status quo.

Free speech as defined in the First Amendment refers
strictly to the government's imposition upon a person's ability to speak, except when such speech is truly injurious (the classic "fire in a crowded theater" example, or other examples like putting out a contract on someone's life, or otherwise inciting to violence, or even committing fraud or libel). The government has no right to deny people to speak of their belief or unbelief or to require people to practice or not to practice, for instance, nor can it restrain political speech, including dissent as long as no violence is advocated.

So that's the first misconception. The First Amendment does
not cover the actions of a private individual or other non-governmental entity, or the administrators of an Internet forum. I imagine many of my readers participate in forums and other private websites, and just like if you mouth off at work, the admin of a site has every right to censure, delete, or are in their "house," on their property, and if they want to control what goes on on their property, that is their absolute right and you can either obey the rules or leave. The First Amendment does not force them to amend their ways to suit yours. I use comment moderation. And since this is my blog, if I see spam or attacking remarks, I won't permit it. I am under absolutely no legal OR moral obligation to allow a free-for-all.

The First Amendment also does not protect a private individual from
private blowback from their remarks. If I am rude to someone, or if I lie or otherwise speak falsehood, there is absolutely nothing stopping them from being rude in return, or otherwise being called on it. Unless something crosses that very hard, defined line of illegality as described earlier, the government cannot touch it. And should never be called on to do so.

Remember this. Legality and morality are two entirely separate constructs. Since government can only be trusted with an absolute minimum of power in order for society to function, given the corrupting influence of such power on our fallen natures (remember God's warnings against the establishment of a king in Israel, anybody?), by necessity what is acceptable under the law is going to be much greater in breadth than what is acceptable morally. The government cannot capably enforce anything else but this bare minimum, and should not. Overstepping in this manner is what creates the 1984 scenario...the thought police.

Now that we have covered what is
legal, let's cover what is right, and the ways in which that can be abused--the Dispossessed scenario.

The society in
The Dispossessed was one in which any speech the group did not agree on was punished by shunning or by demonization. This is what we know as political correctness, and most Christians will have had a run-in with it on at least one occasion. To speak too strongly on certain topics results in social censure, usually by attaching a label with "-ist" on the end of it (ex.: "elitist," "racist," "sexist," "ableist" and on and on ad nauseum). Now, if someone is speaking in hatred, to injure others or to abuse power against those individuals, such as refusing a person service because of their bigotry, then the label is deserved. But what about the individual who simply makes the mistake of disagreeing with the wrong person, however politely, and then has their character assassinated, or who speaks an unpopular opinion and the majority then paints them as a deviant?

This is in effect social blackmail, and is often used against Christians who speak too strongly--both by those who do not wish to hear any religious speech outside the confines of a church or a private home, AND by Christians who cannot tolerate a lovingly dissenting viewpoint by someone in the faith. To destroy someone because you disagree with them is put so much fear into that person that they will not speak on a perfectly legitimate subject is wrong, too. Even the terms "censor" and "thought police" have come to be used as bludgeons in this manner--say them and the person they are said to is just as dead in the water as the person accused falsely of racism.

Which brings us to Christian speech, and by extension, a Christian's art.

James makes it very clear in his epistle just how destructive an "unbridled tongue" is--and as soon as you evoke the image of a bridle, you have brought
restraint into the picture.

In essence,
the Christian surrenders free speech.

He or she
legally retains that right, and should, because the government is incapable of doing anything else properly (and barely manages what it has) and social groups should not be trusted with that power, either. Even congregations can fall under that rule and get out of hand, without much constant, prayerful self-examinations, and history is riddled with examples of that getting horribly out of hand. Ignoring that would be revisionist history.

But to forgo the right to speak something because it is unconscionable, because it is a crime against the Holy Spirit, is an entirely different matter from being frightened by one's peers from speaking, or by one's government. It is nothing less than a matter of love for God, for our neighbors, and even for ourselves. A true relationship with God is not about being battered into submission until we are too frightened to do anything else. It is about recognizing that without Him, we are deathly prone to abusing our freedoms. And to truly take Him into us, it must be done utterly uncoerced, for such is inherently against the nature of love. So if I choose not to speak words that I know will be hurtful to others, if I respect their feelings as I would want to be respected myself, then
I am not a coward. I am not surrendering to bullying or force. I am expressing love.

And no matter how much mockery or mischaracterization as "thought police" or "PC Nazis" we might endure for speaking this view, and more importantly, for
living it...know that before our God, there is no shame in letting the Holy Spirit be the one true and capable arbiter of our expression as no human can be.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Christian Artist: Innovation

One of the strangest things for a Christian artist in today's culture is the apparent conflict between the popular conception of what constitutes innovation in art, and what it means to respond to the Spirit in the works one creates.

I think that in some circles, "creative" and "innovative" has been conflated with "transgressive." The more shocking a thing is to society, the more it defies the norms, the more innovative it must be, and the more of a work of art it must be. In this school of thought, the last thing you would want would be to come across as seeming tradition-bound, or adhering to more ancient schools of art or being informed by a set of morals that affects what you are willing or unwilling to produce. And if that is really what it takes to produce something of artistic merit...well, the devout Christian artist, musician, or writer is in a lot of trouble.

Fortunately, whether all recognize it or not, I don't believe creativity and innovation have anything to do with transgressiveness. That may be found in some creative works (whether we like those works or not), but transgressiveness has absolutely no bearing on one's technical merits, and if its intention is simply destructive, rather than done in a spirit of love...then I think it does little to nourish the spirit of those who interact with it in any way except perhaps in the sense of seeming to validate one's anger.

There is a time for transgressiveness--and that is when an injustice is being done to others. We as Christians are to be responsive to that, not to stand for it when others are being belittled or otherwise trodden upon. In our compassion the time may come to defy the norms of the society we live in, as it did for William Wilberforce and others who eventually extinguished slavery in the West. Where the social norm is one of cruelty and coldness, this is a case where a "transgression" is very much appropriate, if done with restraint and love. (My previous blog post has more to say on distinguishing the difference between true righteous anger and a worldly anger.) This is something the Christian artist can and should play a part in.

But if rule violation for its own sake, or for the sake of belittling Christianity, its principles, or cruelty to anyone is the kind of transgressiveness in question...I do not believe this is the way a Christian artist should comport him- or herself. And if there are any who might see a Christian's work as being of lesser worth for lack of these characteristics, then that is an acceptable price.

With that said...what is creativity for the Christian artist? I think that in the Bible we see many examples of it, both from the writers who were given truths and had to find a way to convey them so that we could understand them and connect with them, and from Jesus Himself, who used fictional stories--parables--to illustrate His own points. We can put language or colors or notes together in innovative ways exercise our abilities on time-tested, traditional ways, as Orthodox iconographers do. We may not all use the same sorts of disciplines as an iconographer does, but we can take from them a reminder to keep God first in all our creative ways. For in our creative spirit we are very much revealing how we are made in our Father's image, and our work should reflect this truth.

Innovation is possible for a Christian. Artists like Dostoyevsky and Bach certainly broke new ground in their fields, and exercised tremendous creativity...but they did it for the glory of God. If you have been given the gift to do something that really is new, I believe this should be encouraged. There are few forms of art that are in and of themselves un-Christian. In music, for instance, there used to be the idea that certain tones were the "devil's chord." Why the occurrence of two notes that happen to have two particular frequencies together would be inherently evil I do not understand. Nor do I find genres of music inherently evil...heavy metal has been done and done well by Christians like Becoming the Archetype or Stryper (how could I NOT mention Stryper?). Rap, too. The only thing I would see as inherently degrading would be the sort of "art" that requires one to debase oneself as an absolute condition of performing that art.

Pardon a moment of crassness here, but this is why "Christian pole dancing" had better never, ever happen.

There is another facet of this I would like to mention. To some artists, the only art worthy of consideration is that done with no boundaries. Yet it is my experience that to write within certain constraints can itself be an exercise in creativity, just of a different kind. This is why if someone does want to adhere to very traditional forms or archetypes, I will never, ever look down on that sort of art--one only has to look harder, and then the soul and Spirit of the artist becomes evident. Other Christian artists may go down paths less trod, but if still guided by the Spirit, I believe we should be very careful not to be dismissive just because they may have chosen a form that we are not as comfortable using, if that form is not inherently degrading.

So to my fellow Christian writers and artists, I would say that you have no reason to fear that your faith means your creativity is any less than that of anyone else. What matters is if, in your work, you are providing a little window to God's kingdom for us here on Earth. And that is enough.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The strange experience of righteous indignation

One of the things I believe that we as Christians must be very careful of is not to confuse our own anger and temper with the true experience of righteous indignation. I think this very confusion is one of the things that makes it most difficult for us as humans to relate to God, because for us, anger is an out-of-control thing, an indiscriminate thing that operates on vengeance and not justice. We are, by and large, terrible at controlling the little anger we have, and imagining controlling something of godly intensity--what a frightening prospect!

And how often have we as Christians confused our own anger with that which is of God? How often have we become angry about some thing or another that we disliked, and tricked ourselves into believing this was God's will? How many times have we spoken words or committed acts to punish someone--as though it is ours not just to speak truth but make sure the other party really hurts and breaks down at our feet?

Recently I had a very startling experience that laid the difference out in no uncertain terms. I'd had a theoretical idea what it might be, but when I actually experienced was startling indeed.

Now let me head this up by stating that I assume a normal psychological profile when I describe this...I do not think the telltales I lay out would apply to a sociopath, so if one has never had the experience of normal anger, and of the shame and guilt that rightly comes from letting that anger go out of control and realizing that you have hurt someone, hurt your own spirit, and gone against God by doing so, then this distinction would not apply. This also does NOT apply to cases where we started out with a grudge and inured ourselves to such a degree that we no longer feel anything. This is something we can know only of ourselves, furthermore...others' claims should be evaluated rationally just as we must evaluate all that we are exposed to.

Anyway, I recently came into a position where I had to directly confront a person about some comments they were making in an unkind spirit. The strange thing about the feeling I experienced then was how absolutely controlled it was, and I honestly do not feel that I was the one making any kind of deliberate effort to control it. I understood what I needed to say, and was able to stop at that point with no more. Later on, after I was out of the situation and it started to occur to me what sorts of sarcastic remarks I could have made, just how different it felt as I thought of those things. My mind was racing, my body was reacting, and everything threatened to run out of control like a nuclear meltdown...or perhaps more aptly, like a chemical reaction with the wrong balance of reactants. And that feeling is what I get when I am about to lash out at someone unprovoked, or take a legitimate objection to something too far.

For just that moment, though, while I was responding to what I needed to respond to, I felt a taste of what real righteous indignation is like: it does not burn out of control. It does not speak simply to be cruel or to show off one's wordplay. It speaks to make its point and no more. It is a state of alertness where the mind is exceedingly clear, but not the hyperaroused responses of an unassisted human anger. And above all, it is obedient to something greater: it occurs at the direction of the Holy Spirit. And that is truly what I believe moved within me that day. Admittedly I am not always comfortable speaking about the Holy Spirit moving within me, since I am not a demonstrative type. But that is truly what I believe happened.

Bearing in mind the caveats I first mentioned above, I think this is a very important thing to bear in mind that may help us to know...are we speaking from God's righteous indignation, or from the anger of our own sinful hearts? I think if we remembered this, we would be far less likely to do damage to each other in our uncontrolled anger.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Is rush hour for the birds?

Earlier this year, I was driving home after work. I sat at an intersection in busy traffic waiting for the light to change so I could get on the highway and finally head home after a long, physically and emotionally exhausting day at work. While waiting, I looked up, and against the backdrop of a sherbet-orange sky, I saw a flock of birds that must have numbered in the hundreds, wheeling and gyrating over the road as one, looking for a place to lay their heads for the night.

This sight filled me with awestruck wonder, this display of such life, and the realization amazed me, that God designed, shaped, and knew every single bird in that multitude, that he cared for them and loved them each.

Then I looked at the ribbon of traffic stretching into the distance, and I felt this very pointed reminder: these weren't simply cars in my way as I headed home. These were not obstacles set out there for the sole purpose of annoying and delaying me. Inside each vehicle was one or more people that God knew, that God designed and shaped, and cared for just as He does for those birds, and for me. They all wanted the same thing as the birds did, and I just go home and rest.

I found myself deeply humbled by this--and I dare not look at a traffic jam the same way again.

Brain burn-out, but for a worthwhile reason

Sorry for the delay in posting! I've had a little brain burn-out lately, but that was because of the time I spent getting my story submission ready. And a couple of nights ago, "Call Me Unto Heaven" was officially submitted to consideration in an anthology!

I certainly hope for the best--whatever the outcome, I am most grateful for the opportunity to write and submit. If I hear more about it, I will definitely update you guys on the results! And if it does get published, I will be sure to provide all the details. It's my hope to hear something at some point in August of this year.

Right now, the only thing to do is pray and be patient. These things do take time, after all! :-)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

"Call Me Unto Heaven"--short story in progress

You've had a chance to see some of my musings on the faith...but as my profile mentions, I also do a little writing--mainly science fiction and fantasy. Until now, I've written only for my own enjoyment, but now I am working on a story set in the near future that I hope to share. Its title is "Call Me Unto Heaven."

Imagine that an unstoppable viral juggernaut has ravaged the human race, leading to its imminent extinction in this world. What if there had been a chance to stop it before it made that fatal change in its structure?

And what if, from all the world's previous plagues and disasters, we had learned all the wrong lessons, and instead of caring for the least of these we turned the Great Pandemic into a cruel game of blame-and-shame?

Even the one who watches it all unfold from orbit in isolation...can never truly be isolated after all.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The heart of worship is a very intense place.

Why do we as Christians worship? Why should we?

This is one of those subjects where I've seen misunderstandings from believers and nonbelievers both...and I deeply believe that how and why we approach can color our entire attitude towards our faith. I'm not talking about high-church/low-church divisions...I believe that the form worship takes is a very individual matter. What I refer to here is the reason for expressing our faith to God.

Criticisms from an atheistic perspective tend to take the form of attributing a vain ego or a toddler-like temper to God. God must be incredibly egotistical, they might say, to make worship a qualification of faith, and incredibly nasty to condemn people for failing to kowtow sufficiently. From a Christian perspective, it's not a criticism so much as a misunderstanding...God demands worship as a duty, something to do to show what good believers we are--and here's the checklist of what you MUST do when, or else you must be going to Hell for not doing enough and in the right way.

Both come from a fundamental misunderstanding, I believe, of the character and nature of God. The truth is, He is both incredibly human and incredibly unlike humanity as we currently know it. One thing the Bible makes very clear, both through His words through the person of the Father in the Old Testament and His actions, through the Persons of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, in the New Testament, is that God is deeply, deeply passionate. "Cold" is the last word we could possibly assign to our God.

I believe that emotionality frightens some people. And it's easy to understand why. Perhaps the atheist leveling the criticism that God must be vain or temperamental is thinking of what happens when humans' passions become the strongest: we lose control of ourselves. We make ill-advised decisions, we lash out in anger, and we make unreasonable demands. And we should indeed be concerned about the effects our untempered passions can have on ourselves and others. The idea of living with so, so much more than that is terrifying, considering how poorly we do with the paltry passions we have in comparison.

Yet with that extraordinary passion--emotion so strong it would overrun our defenses in a nanosecond, God is able to be both just and merciful. Sometimes I believe that when He speaks of His feelings...and He does it much more often than you might realize...we react badly because we either do not see the underlying logic, or we experience that fear of what would happen if we had to try and control it. I don't know about anyone else, but I get the distinct feeling sometimes that it was hard for God to reduce living a faithful life to an enumeration of laws, as happens in Leviticus. There was a reason for doing it, of course--because we weren't relating to Him in a mature fashion, for starters, and to get us to see how we were falling short and why we needed salvation--but God's words in the Psalms (paraphrased: I want your hearts, not just a burnt offering!) and Jesus' frustration with the coldness of the Pharisees' legalism, and by extension, Christian legalism, really leads me to believe that the separation imposed by such laws hurt Him, maybe even as much as open denials and betrayals (though I can't truly be sure about that one way or the other).

The way God reacted to that hurt, however, was to keep reaching out to us (even after the imposition of the law, the monarchy, and every other institution) to make the ultimate sacrifice for our benefit, to restore that right relationship and help us to draw closer. What wondrous love is this, indeed!

While I think it's always important to understand that God is so much more than we could possibly understand, we must also remember that He did create us in His image--that our spirits are intended to reflect His. What we feel, He drew from something of Himself. When someone we love turns their backs on us, doesn't it hurt? When someone tells us we are loved--even if we already are certain of their love--doesn't that warm our hearts?

God has far, far more emotional maturity than the two-year-old some people describe Him as. He does not "have" to be worshipped as an egotist "has" to have adulation. Rather, I believe that for Him, worship is part of the constant exchange that is LOVE. I'm sure it DOES feel good to be told that He is loved, and for us to express our thanks and our reliance upon Him, however imperfectly our worship is. But just because it feels good does not mean God will become rash or cruel because of it, as we might. I also believe that sincere worship opens us to be more receptive of His love, and that is what He wants--that He cares and wants to see us benefit from that openness.
Certainly obedience is good; it denotes respect. And respect is a good place to start. But love...that's what God wants for us--to be a part of love.

And why should we not take care to respect God's feelings? Just because He is not prone to our excesses with His emotions doesn't give us an excuse, I believe, to trample all over Him. If we know we are hurting someone, shouldn't we stop doing what hurts that person? Just because a person is resilient, and heals from the wounds we inflict doesn't mean we should keep doing it. The hurt that person experiences, and what that does to our own spirits, is a terrible thing. God's may be the unquenchable flame, but what excuse do we have to hurt Him when we know full well that He does indeed feel that pain? How can we turn ourselves cold towards another Spirit?

And why shouldn't we do what we can to warm His heart as we would want done for us? If you read the Gospels, can you imagine the way Jesus' eyes would light up (figuratively, unless we're talking about the Transfiguration) when people treated Him with kindness and compassion? Yes, He still retained that emotional maturity in His incarnated state, but it's readily evident how much it meant to Him when someone was kind and loving. It feels good--and it opens the door to a relationship, a cycle of giving and receiving love that continually amplifies itself with each iteration. Even when someone gives a gift that is not needed--as we do when we worship, for God's survival does not depend on us as ours does on Him--it's still heartwarming to know that someone cared. It's the same, I believe, for God.

To sum up--for Christians who have gone into the rut of seeing worship as mere duty, something to check off the list, maybe spending some time reading the Bible to observe the depth of God's feeling would prove a comfort. His yoke is indeed light compared to the constant litany of rules we invent for ourselves and to share in His love is a salve to our souls and an exercise in kindness and compassion, not just obedience. For nonbelievers, I think that understanding the combination of emotion beyond our experience and control beyond our ability would be helpful--and the relational rather than unidirectional position of worship in the believer's life. Worship is not some appeasement of is an expression of love and a way of opening ourselves to God's voice. And that voice reminds us that we are loved.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Memories of Another Place

C.S. Lewis has stated that much of our work in coming to know God is not so much one of learning a thing for the first time, but of remembering what in truth we have always known. (I paraphrase.) One of the criticisms I see leveled at such comments, though, is the idea that because human memory is imperfect, and sometimes our desires are imperfect and lead to further corruption of our memories, that very little in our minds can actually be trusted.

Some go so far as to suggest that nothing except that which is captured in a scientific experiment could be valid and that in essence, all that is not quantifiable data becomes meaningless (perhaps "vanity" would be another term for it, if we take a page out of Ecclesiastes?). Dr. Victor Reppert posts an excellent refutation by C.S. Lewis to that particular point today, on his blog.

I'll be taking on a different angle today than Dr. Reppert's post. What I take issue with is the idea that because our memory is imperfect that EVERY impression it receives is therefore untrustworthy and all of the data has to be thrown out. Yet I believe that very often, even though we don't always correctly make sense of our impressions, we must assume that there is something at the root of those impressions in most cases, excluding, of course, those who have experienced severe self-delusion, or a break with reality.

Now let me start off by saying that anyone who wants to claim that we who are all believers are all that severely self-deluded, or that we have all broken with reality, is leveling a very serious charge against a massive segment of the population--and is essentially claiming that we are all so incompetent (in the literal sense) that we ought not be in with the general population. And a massive self-delusion on
that scale really ought to mean that nothing our society has come up with ought to be trusted, to include even the most basic moral precepts (and I would refer you again to C.S. Lewis for a discussion of the reality of moral law even before discussing God).

Instead, for so many of us to have reached the same conclusion about moral law, about meaning, and for those of us blessed to live in such nations, to hold the faith even in a society where the government cannot compel us to, suggests just as Lewis claimed that we are indeed remembering something essential, something shared--and even if we don't always get it right, our impressions and understandings truly
do converge on something real, something outside of us and that we have all known.

Let me give you an example from my own travels.

Not that long ago, I returned to Little Rock for the first time in about a decade since having lived there for one year. As you can imagine, I was very rusty in finding my way after having been there for such a short time--and at that time not being a very experienced driver and not having very many routes I actually drove for myself--and had what seemed at first like very vague memories. Memories that by all rights shouldn't have been trustworthy.

But odd things started to happen as soon as I started moving from North Little Rock to the western part of the city, mirroring one of the routes I used to drive to go to Barnes and Noble (they didn't have the one on McCain Boulevard back then). There were certain impressions I had of the route, though I couldn't exactly get the picture to form in my mind.

  • A bridge
  • A curve to the right
  • Strong impressions of being surrounded by yellow ochre
  • The color red--and a very specific shade of rust/brick red

I wasn't sure exactly what I was going to see, but I was convinced these fleeting impressions were going to help me somehow to know that my GPS was doing the right thing. I thought perhaps there was a bridge with a red structure and pavement of ochre. As I drove, I found I wasn't quite right about what my impressions meant...the bridge and the curve were right--one of the interchanges from interstate to interstate was indeed a curving flyover bridge that bent to the right. And the pavement of that interstate was indeed that shade of ochre.

But what about the red?

I figured that out very quickly as soon as I started getting closer to my destination--and there was a building sitting there on a hill overlooking the highway, with an incredibly bright shade of rust-red brick.

As I got even closer to my destination, some other rather interesting things started to happen. As the interstate ran out, my GPS started to give directions that made absolutely no sense for where I was going. Unsure of what to do to get to the place I was headed, I picked a lane that felt safe--and as it turned out, it took me right back to that Barnes and Noble I'd gone to all those years ago! Instinct just took over and guided me somewhere familiar even though I had only the haziest impressions of where I was going.

The interesting thing to note is that even though some of my attempts to reconstruct those memories before I actually ran the route weren't quite right, every single one of those clues was meaningful, and led to something

Another memory reasserted itself on the way to Fayetteville, and this one was even more striking to me given that most of the time when the family drove THAT route, I used to sleep in the car, and maybe only paid attention to where we were going half or a third of the time. And I certainly never drove the route myself (it would've been FAR too challenging for me at the time--drivers ought to have to take a special test before they go up 540, given some of the antics I saw this time around!). I had a vague memory that there was a tunnel somewhere on the route, but I had no idea where and had certainly never bothered to pay attention to any of the signs.

Yet after so little experience that should've applied, so few opportunities to form memories, I started getting this sense at one point on the route that I was perhaps only a few miles out from the tunnel. I couldn't explain why--it's pretty hard to tell one hill and one curve from another out there, and there were hardly any exits to remember things by, either. Yet I was convinced
this was the area...

...and there it was as I came around the next curve, exactly according to this instinct that came from somewhere I simply shouldn't have remembered.

I think that our understandings of God can be like that, too. Yes, we are prone to misunderstanding--to misremembering sometimes, and trying to put the pieces together incorrectly.

Yet the pieces
are there within us, and what they point to is real...and when you couple that to the experiences of so, so many fellow Christians who have also traveled down this road and found themselves beginning to feel the same fundamental memories stirring within them (anyone remember Close Encounters of the Third Kind?), it becomes very clear. We may not have the capacity to retain everything we should. We may confuse things. Yet somewhere in there, there is truth. There is a reality it all leads towards, and while our fallibility is grounds to tread very carefully, it ought not deter us from continuing on the path and trusting that the clues will eventually fall together into a shape we recognize, and we'll be able to look back and realize...

Though we saw through a glass darkly, this is how it was all along.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Gracefulness, Gratefulness, and the Car Industry

One thing you'll learn about me is that I get a lot of insights on the road, or related to what I see on the road. That's one of the blessings of my job, which has me quite often putzing around the Memphis area. Today was no different.

Tonight a commercial caught my eye from GM. As you might have already heard, GM has just paid back the money it owed the government for its bailout, plus interest. What really amazed me was that the spokesman expressed a very graceful attitude towards his company's detractors, including those who were against government intervention. I won't be getting into that argument here.

But here's what he said: "A lot of Americans didn't agree with giving GM a second chance. Quite frankly, I can respect that." (Listen here.)

When was the last time you heard someone express real respect towards their opponents in other realms, like politics? Religion?

You might argue that this is a move intended to generate sales. And it certainly is. But here's the interesting thing. GM is a company that has had to learn the hard way what it means to be utterly, totally dependent on an outside source for its very survival. GM had a lot that needed forgiveness...and we as Christians know that the proper response to forgiveness is gratitude, and that to turn around and express an ungrateful attitude towards others after we have been forgiven is to spit upon the gift of grace Jesus extends to us.

That made me consider another car-related experience I had today. After a mishap in a parking garage, I had some scrapes on the side of my car I needed to repaint, and my car has a hard-to-get paint color. The first dealership I called for information about the paint was one that has found out they will be closed as a result of the recession. The paint was not in stock, but I got the impression they really didn't want to help me; they told me to go somewhere else.

The second dealership I called was Sunrise, a GM dealer. They also didn't have the paint on hand, but they didn't jump telling me to go somewhere else before I had a chance to get a word in edgewise. They were actually willing to have a conversation with me, and were glad to order what I need. That wasn't the first time in recent months I'd had a great experience at Sunrise after a not-so-great one at the other dealership. In the previous case, they had told me they would honor my warranty--and when they got on the phone with GM found out they couldn't. Even though they couldn't get GM to pay, even though they surely needed every dollar, they ate the loss without even being asked. They stood by their word, and that's not something I forget.

That brings up the other part of maintaining a graceful attitude, I think...understanding that we truly have something to be grateful for. God did not leave us adrift after our expulsion from Paradise--He dove into the dangerous waters of this world to save us.

I mean no insult to anyone affiliated with the dealership that's on the chopping block, but I think that maybe the issue there is that they've simply given up...and with nothing to hope for, what good is the present moment? Why worry about each customer interaction when there is no longer any long-term reputation to be concerned with? It's understandable, and very human...and I really do feel bad for the people working in that situation. Still, it's unfortunate to behold.

Sunrise, on the other hand, got the reprieve along with the rest of GM. They know they have something to hope for, and I believe they work out of gratitude for what truly was a gift extended towards their company even though many believed it to be undeserving. They are aware of grace. And that grace has prompted them to show respect and kindness to those who come through their doors.

I think this is a lesson that we as Christians should learn--we, just like GM, have gotten ourselves into such a state that we are utterly and totally dependent upon outside salvation for our survival. We do not stand upon our own two feet as we like to think we do...we must kneel. For we have that salvation--we have something to hope for...and just as we have been shown kindness and mercy, shouldn't we show that to others? What excuse do we have to be cold and unforgiving?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A Tale of Two Billboards

One of the opportunities I have in my day job is to do some traveling around the Mid-South. And everyone who is familiar with the area already knows, this is a part of the country where people are not afraid to express their belief in God.

Yet as deeply as I love this place, it's also an inescapable fact that we have become a microcosm, in the public eye, for all that is best
and all that is worst in what we have become as Christians. Yes, believers are numerous here, and ardent in their passion for God. I find myself questioning, however, whether we have let our regional demographic power go to our heads--and a bunker mentality concerning the rest of the country--brew into a perfect storm of gracelessness.

In many ways, that was the situation faced by the Pharisees in first-century Israel before the destruction of the Temple. They lived in a precarious position: they enjoyed a majority close to home, and a great deal of local influence--but zoom out one degree and we see the fetters of Roman occupation. Perhaps this was at the root of some of the gracelessness Jesus condemned in the Pharisees: a need to maintain strength and identity in the face of the occupation. As we know, many Pharisees went the route of legalistic striving, and condemnation towards all those who were seen as not living up to the standard.

As I was driving through Arkansas on I-40, I saw a set of billboards that epitomized this very same attitude. Both bore verses of condemnation in stark black and white: "THOU SHALT NOT COMMIT ADULTERY." "IF YOU ARE ASHAMED OF ME AND MY WORDS, THE SON OF MAN SHALL BE ASHAMED OF YOU."

And there was not a word of grace or love or redemption anywhere in there.

Sometimes, yes...we need a kick in the complacency. But how can we expect to elicit any other response but anger unless we can
truly see and feel that the message is delivered in love?

As I came back home, I saw another billboard. This one was a real study in simplicity...and I really find myself stopping and thinking every time I see it.


That's it. That's all it says.

Think about it. God sent his only begotten Son to save not just the disciples around him, but all nations. Including us, here in Memphis, for yes...we are just as fallen as anyone else.

That is the truth:
first we must know we are loved.

Before anyone accuses me of hiding from the harsh truth of our sins...I do not. As God's love and grace fill us, we come to understand the ways in which we need to repent--but this is a deeply personal journey that must be taken above all with God's love. It is one thing, I believe, if we ask someone else to help us be accountable, someone we can trust not to take the knife and twist it. It is another thing...and a cruel simply heap on condemnation and then claim that if people recoil in disgust and crippling shame at this attitude, that this reaction must prove they are incorrigible reprobates and hey, that's the "offense of the Gospel."

No, that's the offense of
someone's bad attitude. Let's not get the two confused.

Let me say it again:
first we must know we are loved.

Which of those two billboard messages do you think
really has the chance of drawing someone in? The one that simply condemns...or the one that reminds us, as the Bluetree song says, that our Lord is the God of this city, and His love extends to us, too?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

It's True, It's True, We Don't Exist!

One of the oddest experiences I ever had in the wild world of the Internet was to be told in the midst of a discussion on faith and Christianity that people of my kind did not exist.

How could one be a Christian and hold no fear of the works of His hands as revealed by science? But far more importantly than this one petty and false could one be a Christian without cruelty and condemnation?

To the minds of many these days, this seems to be a contradiction of terms. Indeed, we have become a byword among the nations, just as the prophets warned long ago. Look at the popular portrayals of the faith these days, and what do you see? Not the works of God's hands, but the twisted works of our own.

It's easy, when you look at the preponderance of debates in the media, to understand why someone might come to this conclusion. Extremes grab attention. They
sell. Those of us who are moderates, who try to follow Paul's admonition to gently instruct find ourselves being shouted down by voices to the right of us and voices to the left of us...and it's easy to simply give up in the face of such convergence of opposition. I should know--I very nearly left the faith, not because I lost my belief in God but rather my trust of those who claimed to serve Him.

When I returned, it was with not only a stronger understanding of why I believed--but a strong conviction that I do no good to heal our self-inflicted damage by running away from the problem. Instead, I believe my calling is one of healing...not of the body, but of the spirits we have damaged within and without. In the silence of contemplation is submission to God--in the silence of complacency, submission to the world.

And when someone can actually tell me to my online face--and mean it--that I don't exist...I see the steep price we have paid for our silence. This blog, and all of my other works, are ultimately an expression of this calling: to give boldness to the voice of moderation and above all to point the way to God's grace as best as I can.