Good Old Fashioned Suffering

I Once Thought I Would Enjoy a Lifetime of Easy Living. How Good it is that I was Wrong.

Since 9/11 it seems that so much of America has been struggling to regain its lost sense of comfort. Economically (and some would say politically) this has become even more difficult. Many wonder: Will we ever regain our ability to buy maximum quantities of stuff?

So what it we don’t? Now is the prime time for us, as a nation, to relearn the values of hard work, perseverance, community, simplicity, and — dare I say? — suffering. The present crisis can either kill us culturally and morally…. or it can make us stronger. We stand at a crossroads.

The message of the cross is this: Jesus died to pay a debt you could never repay… but to receive that gift you, too, must take up your cross and follow him. Faith was never supposed to be easy. We need God’s help. We need each other. We need to accept that in this life there are no quick fixes, but that’s okay because there are fixes in the end. Whether you , in this body, will live to see that end is beside the point.

Raisins vs. Midwest Floods

My priorities are clear.  I know what they ought to be.  But I also see very clearly in my actions what is actually going on.  A sizable chunk of this and neighboring states are underwater.  Few lives have been lost, but many have been ruined.  And I want raisins.

Human suffering matters.  I care.  God cares.  People care.  But I do not care as much as I ought to.  At the end of the day, the only human suffering that really matters to me is my own.  My blood sugar is getting low and we are almost out of raisins.  This is a problem.

But there are two bigger problems.  1) Iowa is covered by waves of mud, not amber waves of grain right now.  And 2) I don’t really care.  Maybe it’s the distance, or the overstimulation of my senses, or the fact that my news source is CNN without audio while I’m at the gym.  I don’t know.  But the bottom line is that right now raisins are vying with the suffering of my neighbors for first-place in my consciousness… and the raisins are winning.  God, help me.

We Hate the Wedding

“Which do you hate more,” I asked, “the wedding or the jewelery store?”

She replied, “That’s like asking who was meaner, Hitler or Stalin?!?”

We’re 35 days away from the Big Day.  I now approach it with stoic resolve.  Then again, I don’t have to wear the dress.  Or go to the fittings.  Or suffer through the shower.  Or have my gender identity questioned because of failing to embrace glitter and glam, but that is exactly what jewelery stores do to women with simple tastes.   And so the love of my life now hates the day that everyone tells her should be the best day of her life.  Damn.  We should have eloped.

The Epic Shenanigans of Adulthood

Part I: What

My long hiatus from blogging has brought with it much writing material. It’s not just an excuse. The “interruptions” in life can be a source of great blessing.

I am engaged and the wedding is in two months. I am nearly finished with my first year of Ph.D. studies. I am in the process of maybe selling a house, which has been complicated by ant number of issues. Unbeknownst to myself, I was without homeowner’s insurance during the earthquake, for example. But I digress.

My question is this: in what ways is adulthood qualitatively different from childhood?

I ask this because I am convinced that far too many adults have not abandoned their childhood selves and that, unless I am careful in the big decisions I face in my present, I will become one of them.

For the purposes of this essay, I will disregard such nuanced stages as “teenager” and “young adult.” I assume that if you are somewhere between 12 and 40, my discussion applies to you, as well as to many people outside that age range, which is simply my best guess at classifying those who are trying to figure out what it means to be grown up.

Children dream of becoming adults. Most of them do, anyway. Their games reflect this. But they do no want to become just any adults. While stereotypical roles reflect this –firemen, soldiers, astronauts, movie stars, princesses, and mothers – I think that even non-stereotypical playtime reflects this trend. My earliest career aspiration was to live in New York and own a costume shop, helped by a giant rabbit. My favorite book, “Busy Day, Busy People,” had somehow given me an inkling of the Big Apple. But I think, too, of my recent summers spent mowing the campus at the seminary. I wore a broad-brimmed hat to protect me from the sun and a bandana over my mouth and nose to keep out the dust and pollen. I heard from several seminary parents that their sons enjoyed “playing cowboy,” i.e., mowing the lawn like me.

Why do children want to grow up? Adults have apparent freedom and endless possibility. They come and go as they please. They stay up as late as they want. They spend money on whatever they want. They have power, beauty, strength, and knowledge to a degree that is barely imaginable for a child. A boy who longs to be strong knows that he will be stronger when he is a man. A girl who longs to be beautiful knows that she will be more beautiful as a woman. All children who long for adventure know that they will have greater means to travel and explore when they are older.

Yet if the standard children’s attitude is “I can’t wait to be an adult,” the standard adult response: “bills! [gripe, gripe] duty! [gripe gripe] if you only knew!” Too fraught with duty to dream of childhood, gripey grown-ups nonetheless know that they are missing something. As to what and why, I will devote my next post.

27 Ways to Lose your Balls

Few movies promise to be as utterly emasculating as this year’s 27 Dresses. As the title and trailer indicate, this movie ought to contain nothing that appeals to the typical male viewer. It’s refreshing, really, to see a major studio sending out a big #$&* you to their primary demographic.

“But it’s got Katherine Heigl,” some might argue. “She’s supposed to be hot.”

So was Princess Diana. Do you see me reading the biography?

What baffles me is that they’re not even trying for cross-over appeal. This isn’t a date movie. This is a cut-off-your-balls-for-a-few-hours-and-sew-them-back-on kind of movie. (Don’t ask me how they get sewed back on; I’m not a doctor; and yes, it’s “sewn.”)

In short: the title says it all. If your girlfriend/wife/signif-oth drags you to this one, she owes you big time. You just surrendered your manhood.

The Midwest as the Promised Land

Marilynne Robinson, Garrison Keillor, and Sufjan Stevens on the Blessings of Middle America

What was monotony in my teen eyes has metamorphosized: green vistas and golden fields spread flat as far as the eye can see, undulating slowly with the passing miles.  Anyone who has traveled across the American midwest can attest: boring can be beautiful.

From the outside this might appear to be a land of flatness and cold.  But those who have rested within its embrace know the truth.  Miracles happen here.  Epic betrayals, too, but hope springs eternal and the fields are ripe with redemption.

In Gilead, Marilynne Robinson provides the text of a dying father’s letter to his 7-year-old son.  “I was thinking about the things that had happened here just in my lifetime– the droughts and the influenza and the Depression and three terrible wars.  It seems to me now we never looked up from the trouble we had just getting by to put the obvious question, that is, to ask what it was the Lord was trying to make us understand….  And what is the purpose of a prophet except to find meaning in trouble?” (233)  Every life is a miracle, every act of forgiveness is an act of God.  The more prodigal the son or prodigal the land, the more bold a “wild gesture” it is to stay on and love anyway (247).  Even a dead father can reach from the grave with the promise of unconditional love.  Such wonders can happen in the city, too, but in a simple land, stripped of all worldly sophistication, such blessings taste all the sweeter.  Only in the darkness can a light shine the brightest.

Somewhere in Minnesota, Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon eckes out its existence.  The mix of nostalgia and parody helps sweeten the sometimes bitter truth: life is difficult.  The title of last week’s headline: “In Lake Wobegon, all of the beautiful weather makes ones thoughts turn to death, of course.”  Yet this is “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”  Even ordinary places can know greatness, however contrived, and in the dead of winter, thoughts of God and his provision are never far from the locals’ minds.

The strangest proponent of the blessings of the Midwest is Sufjan Stevens.  They say that he will write one album for each of the fifty states.  Maybe so, but he is taking his sweet time with the land he knows best.  Michigan wavers between the hopes and questions of faith.  “For The Widows In Paradise; For The Fatherless In Ypsilanti” reads like the promises of  Jesus to the widows and ophans of southeast Michigan.  Yet we hear also the longing of “Oh God, Where are You Now?”  The land is “paradise,” but it is greatly in need of God.  llinois is the haunt of aliens and of serial killers.  This is a land of repentance.  The most memorable refrain is “I’ve made a lot of mistakes,” from “Chicago.”  This is also a land of love, but of a love that loses, whether to the complications of pre-adolescent same-sex attraction, or to the complications of cancer.  Yet thoughout all this, the glory of God can be seen.

This flat land speaks of wonders, if this land can speak, any land can.  It’s enough to “make me homesick for a place I never left” (Gilead, 235).  Love where you are!

Atheist-Christian Dialog: On What Basis Good?

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

After two-weeks of e-mail back and forth, Skeptigator and I have posted the polished results of our conversation: On What Basis Do You Decide What is Good?  The venture is as much mine as it is his, but for sheer simplicity’s sake, the conversation is posted in full only on his site.  That way, we can both reply to one stream of comments.

However, I will give you at least the cliff note’s version here.  That should give you a flavor for what you’re in for with the full version of this conversation and with future conversations on other topics.

Introduction

Skeptigator’s original question to all of us was: Does atheism lead to humanism?”. He concluded that it had for him and that, even if “humanism” was difficult to define, it had to include emphasis on human responsibility for fixing the world’s problems via reason and science.

My question: If humanity is to solve the world’s problems, how are we to decide which problems are worth solving? And do those ends justify any means? In other words, how do you determine moral goals and the moral actions necessary to fulfill them? On what basis do you decide what good is? Or is there no basis?

My conclusions:

Skeptigator and I agree on four basic things: that we should alleviate human suffering; that reason should play a role in that process; that we should all be willing to work together in practical ways; and that this is a conversation worth having. I commend him for his desire to alleviate suffering everywhere, regardless of any benefit to himself.

The details of our disagreement stem from one primary source (surprise!): the existence of God. And not just any God, but a God who is engaged in human history and knows our suffering on a personal level. An intellectual solution to physical suffering is insufficient. “Every one of us is made to suffer,” Annie Lennox says. It is true, for which of us has not known our fair share of physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual woe? Our problem is bigger than we by ourselves can fix, although we are a part of the solution. The God of Jesus knows, cares, helps us now, and promises that final justice is on the way.

The second less obvious source of disagreement is human nature. Skeptigator, by his own admission [in original “Does Atheism Lead to Humanism” comments], sees no need to define it. I do. I have no business believing that we need God unless I believe that we are needy! By ourselves, we cannot do good. “If history has shown us anything, it is that you can kill anyone,” said Don Corleone. And we will kill anyone, I might add. Christians, Muslims, atheists and everyone else in power throughout history have always abused that power; and they always will, until this world ends, because we are human. We will always seek power, always abuse it in the name of the greater good, and always insist that this tendency is the problem of an isolated few.

The third significant issue is what began this whole conversation: humanism’s basis for determining good. Reason, human experience, and science are useful tools, but are not sufficient for establishing morality and purpose in life. Neither are they sufficient for establishing a consensus, even a wrong one. Disagreement is in our nature. Human reason has its limits, which we are wise to acknowledge.

In the end, we’re both skeptics: him about God, me about us. The burden of proof is on me, but I have none. Evidence and testimony, sure, but no proof. The only one who can prove His existence is God Himself. He refuses, for the time being, for our benefit. Faith will have to remain faith: “the evidence of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1).

Skeptigator’s Conclusions:

Faithfool obviously has a religious faith and I obviously do not. Faithfool in his quest for understanding (and I dare say a budding skeptic but that’s perhaps wishful thinking) wanted me specifically to further explain where I derive my sense of morality.

The purpose of this conversation was to offer a unique way of discussing the source of morality if you do not have a religious faith (at least from my perspective). I think Faithfool and I could have gone for much longer than this however I believe we’ve each had enough space to make our cases. I do hope that this conversation will add to a growing number of conversations between people of faith and those without. As Faithfool pointed out recently to me, “we are not the only ones having this conversation”.

I do want boil down my primary answer to Faithfool’s question, “On what basis do you decide what good is?” Essentially my answer came down to “we are”. The combination of humanity’s experience, rational thinking and a scientific worldview is an extremely powerful tool or set of tools for understanding reality and the correct moral actions. I believe that this offers a better alternative to blind faith (a bit redundant I admit). I believe that moral actions have always been determined by human reason and that religion all too often captures/justifies immoral behavior at a certain point in time and that fossilizes and becomes incontrovertible dogma.

I am willing to accept uncertainty since a scientific worldview will never offer complete knowledge or certainty. I am willing to accept the possibility that we will make the wrong choices however and perhaps more importantly unlike many religious faiths we have a self-correcting mechanism in place.

Dear God, WTF?!

An Open Letter to God

Dear God,

Heard from a friend today, who reminded me of everything wrong in the world.  Children in sex slavery in Cambodia.  Where the hell are you?  And where were you when the Holocaust happened?  Or slavery?  Or the Taliban?  Or the crusades?  Where?

So I sit, waiting for you to split the sky and come down, burning to a crisp every twisted bastard among us.  I sit, weeping, rocking gently in my chair.  I breath in the air-conditioned coolness.  I look up at the white ceiling of my new house, waiting for you to tear off the roof.  I fume with anger, and then I remember: I had forgotten.

I have known for the years about the child sex trade.  A friend in college did recon and sting operations with the International Justice Mission.  But I forgot.  I became comfortable, distracted, self-centered.  I was so busy being so excited about how many hits my blog got today.  Screwed-up bastard that I am, I forgot to care.

If you’re waiting for me to be ready, God, before you come down… if that’s what’s holding you up, thanks, I guess.

If you’re waiting for me to take action, God, if that’s what these children need… help me!  Help them!  Help me help them!

We need you.  I don’t know how much longer we can wait.

Bad-Ass Jesus

This ‘Ain’t Yo’ Momma’s Jesus.

(If you are more offended than intrigued by the title, you should skip this post… and probably avoid this blog.  See my views on the ethics of profanity.) 

 For centuries now we’ve lived with an image of Jesus that is, well, a little bit on the weak side.  He is gentle, soft, and very white.  Were it not for the obvious beard, we might question whether or not he has any, er, well, you know…. 

 white wimpy Jesus

Now there is an alternative vision of Jesus.  We don’t see it depicted visually much, other than in left-wing cartoons.  Why?  Because this right-wing all-American Jesus would look so zany.

all-american Jesus

(see original context)

No one really believes in this machine-gun-wielding Savior… but some of us talk as if we did.  Too often I hear preachers and believers saying that the Kingdom of God = the United States of America + the State of Israel.

Then there’s easy-going “Buddy Jesus” from Dogma.

Buddy Jesus

And the even more chill Homeboy Jesus (who is even friends with Ashton Kutcher???)

Homeboy Jesus 

But what is the Bible’s image of Jesus?  His inner character, if not his physical appearance?  There are aspects of “weak Jesus” (picture 1, above) that are in the Bible: he is Prince of Peace, the Good Shepherd, the Lamb of God.  He preaches love of God and love of each other.  There are aspects of the Buddy/Homeboy Jesus, too, which are true to the Bible: Friend of Sinners.  But Buddy looks more like Big Man on Campus than Lord and Savior.

Jesus is one complicated dude.  He is the Man of Sorrows, which we don’t often see, except in very old paintings.  He sweated blood and thought that he was going to die from the weight of sorrow that was on him.  Makes my depression look like Disneyland!

And he is the Lion of Judah.  He will come and conquer as a king.  That covers some of the aspects of him that we see in the Bible.  But I can only think of one word nuanced and strong enough to describes the missing piece in pop-culture’s picture of Jesus:

bad-ass (adj.): 1)touchy, difficult; 2) mean, belligerent; 3) tough, intimidating; 4) rugged, strong; 5) unequivocally awesome.

Jesus is not touchy or difficult.  He is never mean or belligerent (although G.I. Jesus, picture 2, above, might make us think otherwise).  But he can be tough and intimidating.  He had sharper come-backs than Madea and wasn’t afraid to over-turn tables in the name of God.  He was rugged and strong enough to work for thirty years in a carpenter’s shop, live with sailors (the truckers of the ancient Near East) for three years on the road as their leader, and then carry on a conversation or two while crucified.  He bore the sins of the world.  What could be more unequivocally awesome than that?  He brought love and mercy the fist time, but gave us a heads up: he will be back to enforce final justice.

Jesus was a rebel, a challenger of the status quo.  Either in his Whiteness, his Buddyness, or meekness, he has become the opposite in the eyes of many.  Churches have become part of the Establishment and, historically, have participated in much oppression.  But Jesus was the liberator of the oppressed, so much so that “Liberation theologians” have emphasized that aspect of Jesus to the point of painting him as a proto-Marxist.

Because our images of Jesus have been constructed by the cultural majority, we have seen a reaction against that, even independent of Rastafarianism.

Black Jesus

Whatever else you might say about Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” I hope we can agree that his Jesus (Jim Caviezel) finally looks Jewish.

Jesus with disciples

In some Greek icons I see a look that captures his baaaadness.  Very man, very God, very ready to do whatever it takes to save His own.

bass-ass Jesus

Across the centuries he calls, his vigor undiminished by the incompetence of his followers, myself included.  The Son of Man demands as much now as he did back then: either to be followed and worshipped, or else to be utterly rejected.  That I cannot so much as prove his existence highlights the intensity of this choice, the leap that is faith.  Ignoring him is not an option.  He leaves us no middle ground.  What could be more bad-ass than that?

God Promises Health, Wealth,… and Good Looks?

Bible B.S. + American Dream = Poison

“God is good and wants good things for you,” the preacher says.  By good things, he (or she) means money, cars, and easy living.   Who wouldn’t want to believe that?  “For you to reap the harvest of God’s blessing, you have to plant a seed and water it.”  And by plant the seed, the preacher means give his (or her) ministry money.  This is the “prosperity Gospel.”

The Bible teaches the principle of tithing, of giving a portion of our earnings to His work.  The Bible also teaches that God does want to bless us, but those blessings happen in the context of a relationship, not of a business contract; and while He blesses some people materially, it is never deserved and it is never a promise.

Such promises are believable because: 1) the preacher preaching them is has obviously been so blessed, judging by his (or her) suit; 2) we live in a very money- and image-driven culture, so we want that kind of blessing; 3) key Bible passages are taken out of context or are redefined in a way that makes such promises seem plausible; 4) the people in the greatest financial need desperately want a way out.

After encouraging a community to help those in need, Paul reminds the Corinthians: “And God is able to make all grace come to you in abundance, so that you may always and under all circumstances and whatever the need be self-sufficient.” (2 Corinthians 9:8)

Joyce Meyer, in her booklet “Prepare to Prosper,” transforms into this this passage into: “And God is able to make all grace (every favor and earthly blessing) come to you in abundance, so that you may always and under all circumstances and whatever the need be self-sufficient [possessing enough to require no aid or support and furnished in abundance for every good work and charitable donation].” (p. 21, Warner Faith, 1997)

Grace has everything to do with God’s favor, but it is, by definition, unmerited.  Grace can have material benefits, but not always.  This self-sufficiency should not be interpreted individualistically, as we Americans are wont to do; Paul uses the you-plural and this is a letter written to a community.  They together will have enough together for whatever material, emotional, and spiritual circumstance may arise.

Later in 2 Corinthians we see Paul wrestling with grace in a way utterly foreign to the prosperity Gospel:  “…there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’…” (2 Corinthians 12:7b-9a).

Paul was in pain.  We don’t know the details, whether it was some physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual problem.  But we know that he asked God to take it away, and God said, “No.”  Why?  Because God’s unmerited favor is enough, Paul, so you will have to live with the pain and be humbled by it.

God wanted Paul to suffer, the same way that He wanted Jesus to suffer, the same way that He wants you and me to suffer: that is when life is the most real, when we can draw closest to Him, and when we might draw others closer to Him.  (Romans 5:3-4; John 12:24; Philippians 2; etc.)

God promises that life with Him is good, but not easy.  The prosperity Gospel is a big fat lie.