Saturday, August 30, 2014

"Biblical" Counseling

What is Biblical Counseling?

It was the sort of title that jumps right out at you, if you're a pastor flipping through a magazine where you generally don't encounter faithy stuff.  The magazine in question was Pacific Standard, a fascinatingly readable bi-monthly mag I was gifted a while back.  It's equal parts science and whimsy, and seems more interested in finding the interesting and unusual than riding the tides of cultural faddishness.  

Pacific Standard is a quality read, and it also takes pretty much no advertising, which is at first startling, and then refreshing.  Page after page of well-written and researched articles, and no shiny ads?  Lord, I could get used to that.

The article--which appears in the September/October edition--explores the Biblical or "nouthetic" counseling movement, which arose out of conservative Presbyterian circles in the late 20th century as a reaction to more overtly secular forms of psychotherapy.

The idea?  Push back against the concept that pastors are not equipped to counsel, and that "counseling" is something best left to clinically--and secularly--trained professionals.  Best to get back to the core principles of faith, argued the pastors who presented this concept, and to use them as they were meant to be used--to heal.

Scripture is sufficient, or so goes the mantra of the movement.

On some levels, I get this.  Given that the Greek word used in the Bible for "soul" is psyche, the idea that pastors are out of their depth when it comes to souls is a little troubling.  I got this line repeatedly in some of my counseling coursework, and it always bugged me a bit.  For some reason.

The article itself is remarkably balanced in the way that the Pacific Standard always is.  It presents some of the flaws and overreach of this movement, sure, particularly in the tendency of some practitioners to avoid or dismiss helpful clinical interventions.  Some practitioners are also less helpful than others, as they focus on "curing" homosexuality and insufficiently obedient wives.

But it also notes that it *works* a surprisingly large percentage of the time, with a success rate essentially identical to other secular methodologies.  It notes that many of the practitioners and leaders in the movement do not rule out working in tandem with medical science, and that they're motivated by a genuine desire to care for others.

It's talk-based and semi-directive therapy, after all, just grounded in a particular corner of a faith tradition.

What I wondered, though, was at the foundational assumption of Biblical counseling: that what mattered was that it be "biblical."  

I could see rooting a counseling method in the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.  Personal transformation towards a self aligned with God's most gracious purpose?  That was at the heart of what he taught.  When I talk to people about things that are troubling them, I'd hope that's what I'm doing.  It's certainly what I'm trying to do.

But "biblical" can mean so many different things. The Bible, as one discovers when one spends a lifetime studying it, does not have a single voice.  That's what makes our canon so rich, and so real, and such a deep source of wisdom.  And there is so very much powerful, life transforming truth woven into it.

But seen through the wrong eyes, very "biblical" things can be damaging.  The Bible can be made into an excuse to justify ancient biases, against women, against other nations or peoples, against those who are differently wrought.

"Christ-centered," perhaps.  "Spirit-led," maybe.  "Oriented towards the Reign of God Jesus of Nazareth taught and lived out and was willing to die for?"  Well, that's a bit too wordy, but conveys the idea.  And sure, you get that from the Bible.  But there's scripture, and there's Scripture.

That a thing is "Biblical" does not, of itself, convey authority or even any coherent sense of direction.   

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Best of All Possible Worlds

In the best of all possible worlds, that's his actual hair.
It was a semi-random connection.  In fact, I can't even remember what I was studying, but suddenly, I was reading Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz.

Ah, the joys of being a small church pastor.

Leibniz, in the event that you don't regularly come across him on TMZ, was one of the most brilliant minds of the early modern era.  He was a seventeenth century philosopher and mathematician, and was notable for, among other things, inventing calculus at exactly the same time Newton did.  Because, you know, he needed it.  That, and he developed a binary logic system, the conceptual precursor of all modern computing.

In the seventeenth century.

He was also a deeply committed Christian, and what had caught my eye was the name of a "proof" for God's creative handiwork, something that's popularly called "the best of all possible worlds" argument.

That argument, roughly, was that our world was the best of all possible worlds.  Everything about our world had been designed optimally, Leibniz suggested, even the difficult things.  Challenges existed to create strength.  Struggle and suffering existed to create courage and endurance.  The Department of Motor Vehicles existed to instill patience.  And so forth.

This argument for divine beneficence doesn't really hold, not if you look at the dynamics of our little species.  Holocausts and wars and a cornucopia of petty unnecessary human cruelties are far too deep a blight on our world to imagine that this is the best possible thing that could exist.  When Voltaire launched his ultimately successful challenge to this assumption, that was kinda the point he drove home.

Yet the cosmology that Leibniz felt undergirded his "best possible world" argument was startlingly contemporary.  The universe, he suggested, was not just one single necessary reality.  It was, instead, just one possible universe.  In the mind of God lay the knowledge of every other possible thing that might conceivably exist, every probable outcome, and every variant iteration of every sentient being.  The mind of God, as Leibniz would have it, contained the vision of the multiverse.

This, from the co-creator of calculus.  Dude.

Throughout his writings, this idea was iterated and reiterated.  In his Essays on The Goodness of God, he wrote it as a myth, in which a priest is lead to the truth by a vision of Pallas Athena, Goddess of Wisdom:
The halls rose in a pyramid, becoming even more beautiful as one mounted towards the apex, and representing more beautiful worlds. Finally they reached the highest one which completed the pyramid, and which was the most beautiful of all: for the pyramid had a beginning, but one could not see its end; it had an apex, but no base; it went on increasing to infinity. That is (as the Goddess explained) because amongst an endless number of possible worlds there is the best of all, else would God not have determined to create any; but there is not any one which has not also less perfect worlds below it: that is why the pyramid goes on descending to infinity. (Leibniz, Theodicy, p. 416)
Leibniz thought, of course, that the only world made "real" was our own.  That meant it was, by necessity, the best.  The rest remained unspoken by God, like a story untold, or a book conceptualized but not written.

I don't agree there, as our understanding of the cosmos points more and more to a wildly richer, deeper, and nonlinear creation.  But then again, I honestly don't know that the actual, physical, and material existence of other universes makes them any more accessible.

The best possible universe we will ever know is the one we inhabit, after all.

It's what gives such existential weight to our choices, and what makes grace so very, very important.

Who Is and Is Not a Pastor

Who is a "pastor?"  Who speaks meaningfully for the Christian faith?

That question popped and hummed around my mind this morning, as some of my progressive friends anguished over the latest terrible thing circulating on the Huffington Post about what a Christian leader has said.  Michael V. Wilson is the pastor/preacher in question, as he'd posted a peculiar and inflammatory video calling for a Constitutional Amendment to incarcerate gays in some sort of gay gulag.  

A constitutional amendment to imprison gays would insane and antithetical to the liberty outlined in the rest of the Constitution, of course, so wildly off that it'd go nowhere.  It is, however, the sort of thing that people get riled about and pass around on the interwebs.  Look!  A horrible, offensive, insane pastor!  Oh, what a horrible thing Christianity has become!  This being controversial and all, there were hundreds of comments, many reposts, and in just a day or so, over 100,000 Google-hits.  

I'm a curious sort, so I actually bothered following up on Pastor Wilson.  Who is he?  What sort of community does he lead?

Real pastors are not hard to trace.  Like say, me.  As the part-time pastor of a very small church, I'm not exactly the biggest fish in the sea.   But you can know who I am.  

Right here on the blog, you can see my social media identity, and the identity of my congregation.  Google my very very common name and the name of my church?  There it is.  More information about me.  You can hear my voice, and see news articles from local media quoting me.  Go deeper, and you'll find record of me through my denomination.  I am the person I say I am, and you can independently verify that.

Why is this?  Because I'm not hiding anything.  Why in the blessed name of Jesus would I?  I actually want you to know about my church, where it is, and how to come experience it and consider being part of the gracious Way we walk together.   Because, you know, that's my job as a pastor.  That's perhaps the most important part of being a pastor.

It shouldn't be hard to find a pastor, particularly a pastor with an intentional media presence.

So I went looking for my dear brother Pastor Wilson.

Wilson's website is called "Preaching Politics," and it has extensive links to the radical right wing media.  It's all wild, inflammatory, fringe-politics stuff.  Link-images on the home page network him in with groups affiliated with the Pajamas Media blog network, along with a few fundamentalist sites, and a link to BibleGateway, which is an utterly awesome online bible resource.  I use it all the time.

But anyone can link to anything, so that tells me nothing about who he actually is.  And Wilson?  He doesn't seem to claim to be a pastor, frankly.  He doesn't claim to be much of anything.

I tried to go deeper, and it got weird.  There's no link to a social media profile or page, which is odd for any media-savvy leader.  There's no information about his identity at all, just a picture or two.  He appears to be Texan, and at one point took a picture with a kid who he claims as his grandchild, but even that's vague.  He does not want you to know who or where he is.

Vaguer still is his "church."  His website indicated some unclear affiliation with something called The Church on the Rock, so I clicked through to the page.  It's a picture of a dark brown church building across an empty parking lot.  There are no people, just an empty building.  It's a drab, lifeless picture, the sort you could take if you cruised through any mid-sized church parking lot at seven-fifteen on a Monday morning before the staff arrived.  

On that page there was no text, no information at all about the church.  Not what they believe, not where they are.  Instead, there were four "announcement" videos, presumably for a congregation.  Each was 40 seconds long, so I watched them.

It got weirder.  Each one of the four videos is a video of Wilson, standing in front of a green screen.  Yes, a green screen.  Using the green screen, he's "in front" of a blurry generic church office background.

"Hello, I'm Michael Wilson," he says in the first video.  "Next month is Januarynthat means it's time for the discipleship class."  Where he said "Januarynthat," the video had been crudely cut.  What followed the cut was a generic description of a new members class in a stereotypical fundamentalist church.  

In the second video, he says, "Hello, I'm Michael Wilson.  Next month is Aprilnthat means it's time for the discipleship class."  Same cut.  Same place.  And after the cut, the same video sequence, exactly.

That was true for all of the "church" videos.  

There's nothing else about the church, or where to find this "discipleship class."  No address.  No phone.  No sermons.  Just four very odd videos.  If you've spent any time around evangelical churches, you know this is seriously, seriously sketchy.

So to Google I went, with some targeted searching.  While there are many congregations called "Church on the Rock," and some are in Texas, but none of them has a Michael Wilson formally affiliated with them.  None.

For some small church pastors, particularly pastors of tiny, rural congregations, this might not be surprising.  A lot of little family-sized churches don't have a web presence, as they still relate to one another the same way they did forty years ago.   But those congregations are old, and part of the old-line.  They also don't have pastors who are web-savvy enough to produce green-screened videos...but who won't do the same for the community they're trying to build.

If you went looking for other far-right small-church conservative pastors--like that bushy dude who burned the Quran, or the bizarre Republican candidate for Lieutenant Governor in the last Virginia election cycle--you could find them.  They were crazy, but they were real.  You could find their churches.

This is something else.  This is a thing that does not add up.  Michael Wilson's identity as a "pastor" comes apart like wet tissue paper in your hands, the way that any untrue thing does when you dig into it deeper.

Is he a preacher?  Perhaps, sure, in the technical sense of the term.  In the pre-web days, anyone with a bullhorn could ensconce themselves on a street corner and berate passers by.  But as someone woven together with a community, the shepherd of a flock?  No.

He's just an eccentric right-wing guy with a video camera, editing software and some opinions.  Which are his right to express, but which should be mine to ignore.

What I struggle with, honestly, is why...just a few days after he pitched it out many souls would briefly care enough to worry about it.

Or, frankly, why I would care.  Jeez.  I have other things to do.


Sometimes I think the internet is driving us insane.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Mark Driscoll, Luhv, and the Meaning of NeoReformation

I'm not sure why, precisely, so many folks in my social media feeds seem to care about Mark Driscoll.

Driscoll, in the event you do not know him, was the pastor of a large nondenominational Seattle congregation.  He was the purveyor of a hip, muscular, hyperaggressive style of Christianity.  Jesus was a butt-kicker, according to Driscoll, a manly-man who brooked no mess.

I got to know of him during the brief rise of "emergent" and "emerging" Christianity back in the last decade.  Relative to the deconstructive, self-doubting, pomo crowd that tended to make up that movement, Driscoll was something of an anomaly.

Driscoll's approach to faith was an alpha-male testosterama, and he was perfectly willing to emphasize the "tough" part of "tough love" to the point where the latter seemed to evaporate away into nothing.  He yelled a people a whole bunch, to the point where his preaching reminded me of the pre-fight monologues in the WWE.  Sure, he was confident.  Bullies always project confidence, as they cut down everyone and cement their own power.  Tens of thousands flocked to hear him.  But I never understood the appeal, frankly.  Why would I go to church to be yelled at and berated?

Now, his large church is struggling, and his media-empire is shaken.

I struggle to understand why he should matter.  He's just this one guy, who only ever had authority because people--a tiny fraction of the population of a single nation--gave it to him.  Now, as his pattern of aggression has reached a tipping point, his influence within Christian culture is dissolving.  It felt inevitable.  I feel no shadenfreude-glee at the collapse of his work.  It's just sad.

One lingering fragment of Driscoll's work, though, was that he was supposed to represent a "Neo Calvinism" or...more painfully.. a "Neo-Reformation."

Thing is, I could never see anything new or reforming about anything he was doing.  Oh, sure, he wore hip t-shirts and talked the lingo and used presentation software.  But that was just window-dressing.  It meant nothing.

What Driscoll and Piper and others have been hawking as "new" was just the same old judgmental, isolationist, abstracted-from-reality approach to theology that has always defined Pharisaic faith.  It's the kind of theology that presents "love" as if "love" was just a sound we make.

"Luhv," he would say, but though vibrating air that came out of his well worn vocal cords seemed to be the same sound I make, it meant something completely different.  It meant obedience to power.  It meant control.  It meant the dominance of the strong over the weak.

It meant projecting the dynamics of our primate-nature onto the heavens, and declaring that "God's Love" looked just like you doing exactly what I say or else.  The Creator of the Universe is just a tiny bit more demanding than that.

That's not to suggest that a new reformation isn't necessary.  As fundamentalist literalism has done to scripture what Catholicism once did to ecclesiastical authority, there's a real need for a return to what matters.

Maybe one of these millennia, we'll figure that out.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Understanding Evil

In a recent article distributed by CNN, human rights author James Dawes suggested that calling the actions of ISIS "evil" was counterproductive.

"We only call people 'evil' as a pretext for killing them," Dawes said.  And there is, without question, truth in that.  Once you have affixed that label, it's far easier to radicalize your perspective, to see only a caricature of a person.  You shroud them in your own image of them, obliterating their humanity, seeing only everything that justifies your choice to hate them.

It's how we approach our falsely binary political "system," certainly.  The Clintons were not a left of center political couple.  They were murderous jackbooted liberals who were taking away our freedoms!  George Bush was not a genial, straightforward guy with a gladhanding way.  He was a genocidal monstrous tyrant who secretly engineered 9/11!  Obama is not a centrist intellectual.  He's a socialist crypto-Muslim traitor!

It's the easiest way to engage in conflict.

Once we decide someone is evil incarnate, that becomes all that we see.  And because it is all that we see, we can fail to go deeper.  We become so focused on destroying that personification that we do not see what shaped them as a person.  So we slice away at the surface, shaving at it, poking it.  We don't go to the heart of it.

That's not to say, of course, that ISIS is not evil.  They are.  Their actions, their ideology, and the fevered mockery of faith that rules them?  All of those things must be called evil, because they are the inverse of good.  Of course, you can always putter around with academic deconstructions of the idea of the Good, but...dude.  It's compassion, love, grace, patience, kindness, and mercy.  Those things are good.

The danger of naming things "evil," according to the article, is that it causes us to view things in a binary, absolutist way.  And I'm fine with that, up to the point where Dawes uses that observation to make a binary, absolutist statement.

"There is only one good reason to denounce a group as evil--because you intend to injure them."

This is not so.  Calling out a group as evil can also mean you intend to stop them from engaging in evil.  It does not mean you are going to seek their harm, but rather, that you're still willing to ascribe moral agency to them.  Only sentient beings can engage in evil, after all.  And it is not an "injury" to prevent a person or group from engaging in monstrous actions.

Naming actions as evil, though, demands that we go deeper.  Why is this happening?  Why are individuals acting in this way?  Why is an ideology so monstrous finding fertile ground?  Dig deeper, and we find that hunger, poverty, ignorance, and oppression are the poison that brings up that bitter crop.  The more desperate or purposeless a life feels, the more likely evil is to flourish.

And when we try to understand evil, we aren't saying "tolerating" evil.  Seeing through the eyes of hate only deepens love's horror at that state of being.

That is not love's end, as it pushes to the heart of the broken other.  Compassion seeks to truly understand the heart of evil, so that we can turn it, and heal it, and end it.

Friday, August 22, 2014

ISIS and the Purposes of God

"It's all part of God's plan," we like to say.

"It all works together for good," we say, part of the mysterious plan of God's providence.  This was something, frankly, that I used to believe myself.  We just let go, and let God, and all will be well.  All we have to do is trust that it'll all work for the good.

But as my faith has evolved and grown over the decades, I no longer believe that to be so.  Most particularly, I no longer believe that every action of every human being is part of the divine intent.

The recent actions of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria seem an agonizing case in point.  As they butcher their way across that troubled region, murdering and enslaving and raping, all of the bloody and difficult work to rebuild Iraq seems close to unraveling.  Whether we should ever have poured the lives of our citizen soldiers into that misbegotten quagmire in the first place is another, painful matter altogether.

Right now, though, that mess seems only to be deteriorating, spinning down into the dark chaos of ignorance, violence, and tribalism.

From that mess, the release of a video in which ISIS beheaded American journalist James Foley really did strike home.  As the son of a journalist who spent time in that troubled region, I feel the anguish of his family and friends strongly.  How would you watch as your loved one is forced to speak words he does not believe, and then is butchered like meat?  What a monstrous thing.

More significantly, how does a human being do such a thing to another?  And not just to one man, but to many, many others.

It is that latter reality, the actions of the ISIS members, that I cannot claim as part of some broader overarching divine plan.  Nor, frankly, would I ever tell someone that the murder of their loved one was a necessary part of God's plan for our lives.

It is not.

I believe this, oddly enough, because I will not allow myself to deny the humanity of the individuals responsible for this horrific act.  It would be easier to write them off as monsters, because they act as monsters.  That would make it easier to cope with them, and far easier to kill them.  Dehumanizing the Other always makes it easier to kill them.

But they are sentient beings, albeit ones who have chosen to live under the thrall of a monstrous ideology.  They are still free to choose their actions.  It is what makes them culpable, ultimately.

If God had structured creation as one single linear narrative, in which there was only one beginning and only one end, then this would not be true.  The members of ISIS would just be part of that story, and the blood and the suffering they inflict would have always have been their purpose.  God's purpose.

And if it is God's purpose, then they are not to blame for their actions, not in any meaningful sense.  If there is no freedom, there can be no sin.

I no longer believe, because it does not seem to be so, that there is only one way things can happen.  That's just not how God made things.

And if creation is not just one story, if we are indeed free to choose to move down other potential paths, then our choices count.  The Creator has laid out, clear as crystal, what it means to live rightly and in peace with one another.  If we choose the hateful path of bloodshed and sorrow, then God will allow us to shape our time and space into that dark thing.

Is that God's gracious desire for us?  No.  Neither is it necessary for us to choose that path.

Turn away, God says.  Turn away, because you don't need to live as you are living.  If only more of us realized that.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Seven Spiritual Lessons from Guardians of the Galaxy

I went to see Guardians of the Galaxy the other night with my sons, as the summer of twenty-fourteen wound its way to a close.  It was a Tuesday night at the local theater, meaning it was student night.

Cheap tickets, free popcorn, bottomless sodas, and a hoo-hah comic-book space-opera?  Those are all the ingredients for a perfect summer moviegoing experience.

Did I enjoy it?  Sure.  It was totally enjoyable.  Of course it was enjoyable.  It was made to be enjoyable, a spun sugary confection carefully calibrated for the consumer palate.  Wham bam zap, went the movie, pitching out bright colors and bathos, like carnival cotton candy and the tilt-a-whirl.

What's not to like?  Carnivals are fun.

And because as a pastor I always, always, always have my theologian hat on, I found myself with my antennae up for those blessed teachable moments.

Lord, did I have my antennae up.  It's what's expected, right?  I mean, seriously, these sorts of blog posts are what the web eats up with a spoon.  The Seven Lessons of the Thing You and All Your Friends Just Saw!  Three Important Teachings that Piggyback My Blog in With That Huge Marketing Push!

But for the love of God, this was just summer fluff, a great yarping bliss-out of comic-book colors and cybernetic raccoons.  It has no more meaning than one of those old 1930s Buster Crabbe Buck Rogers serials, or that deliciously campy Queen-soundtracked Flash Gordon from the early 80s.

It was the cinematic equivalent of dumping a couple of bags of Pop Rocks in your mouth.   Blam pop poppity pop, goes the candy in your mouth, a moment of empty bright carbonated sweetness.   It's not more than that.  Why does it need to be more than that?  Not everything has to be more than that.

What?  You're cheesed at the click bait?  You still want Seven Spiritual Lessons?  Oh, come on.  Don't make me.  I...

Oh, all right.

Um.  Well.

1)  Take the Hand You're Offered.  Because, well, you should.  You don't know when it'll be withdrawn, or when you need to do it so the energy from that strange glowing mystic purple rock won't blow you to pieces.  Unless you're the villain, and you need to jump that spaceship so you can escape and make it to the sequel.

2)  Stand Up for What You Believe In.  Preferably in a small group.  In a circle.  In the frat-boy-decor common area of your awesome space-ship.

3) We are Groot.  Because ultimately, it's all about being together with friends, even if you have a four word vocabulary and are some sort of talking plant-god voiced by Vin Diesel.  I really hope he wasn't paid by the word on that one.

4) Seize the Day!  You have a short lifespan, perhaps not as short as a raccoon, which generally lives for no more than three years in the wild.  Maybe five, if it's cybernetically augmented. life!  Carpe Diem!  Yeah!

5)  Um.  Your You Sometimes?  You know, like making lighted spores drift from their bark, or impaling a couple of dozen faceless enemies on a giant wooden spike.

6)  Murder is Against the Law.  Like, it's the worst crime.  You really shouldn't, unless it's some faceless extra or that unarmed prison guard who surrendered.  I mean, he made such a funny sound when they threw him to near certain death.  Hoo hah!

7)  You Are the Special.  You have something inside you that...Wait.  That was the Lego Movie.

7)  Peter Quill is Like Jesus. Dad wasn't human, and he had like, these super powers, that like, saved all of us.  Or something like that.  I don't know.  I got bupkis here.

There.  You happy?


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Amazing Miracle Jesus Diet

It's been a year since I took a hard look at myself, and decided that my ever-expanding girth was starting to become an issue.

Oh, sure, I was far from obese.  But at five nine and somewhere between 178 and 180 pounds, I was feeling my mass.  I'd been rail-thin growing up, so I really didn't ever worry much about it.  But as I aged my way into my forties, my metabolism was slowing.  I felt more and more lumbery and cumbersome, not to mention cumbery and lumbersome.   I was at the point where it was getting to wear on me.  I didn't feel healthy, and my capacity for self-delusion wasn't anywhere near enough to mask my increasingly barge-like profile.

Plus, there was that picture of me in a wet swim shirt at a church event.  Oh, the humanity.

I had always hated the idea of dieting, particularly succumbing to one of the endless fad diets that seem to cycle through our collective consciousness from year to year.  Plus, I'm cheap.  Me, pay money for a diet plan?  Feh.

So I came up with my very own super amazing miracle Jesus diet that will work for almost anyone!  And it totally, totally worked!

I'd write a book about it, but I'm not sure the word count would pass muster with any sane publisher.

On page one, it would say:

Eat less.

Somewhere in the middle of a sea of blank pages, it would then say:

Exercise more.

That'd be it.  Those four words.  Nothing more.  That's all that'd be in that book.

In fact, hold on.  Let me write it, and publish it.

Just a sec...upload file...get huh...done!

There we go!  Ah, self-publishing in the Amazon era.  Gotta love it.

Eat less, exercise more.  For a few people, this won't work.  I'll admit that.  Some folks have major metabolic issues, or congenital disorders, or deeply-seated food addictions.  My heart goes out to them.

But for so many human beings, it's always been that straightforward.  You don't need to pay anyone anything, dangit.  I mean, jeez, if anything should save you a few bucks, it's losing weight.  You're buying less food, eh?  And yet we manage to botch even that.  Pills and shakes and books and memberships and blah blah blah, spending enough money trying to figure out how not to eat that we could make a huge dent in global hunger. 

Seriously.  The United Nations has estimated that to insure that no human being would starve, it'd cost $30 billion a year.   At the same time, here in America, we throw somewhere between $20 billion dollars and $60 billion dollars every year at the "weight loss industry."  Yeah, I know, that's a pretty crazy range, but this "industry" is not like building cars or growing corn.  Is a diet soda part of the "weight loss industry?"  What about gym membership?

It's a wildly squishy number, but the low end, most conservative estimate would go two thirds of the way to ending hunger for humankind.

So as millions starve, we try to figure out how not to eat ourselves to death. 

Human beings are insane.  We really are.

Just eat less, and exercise more.  Do those things.  So simple.

Whichever way, using my sure-fire method, I managed to drop from around 180 to the mid-150s, right smack in the middle of the healthy range for my height.  Took me six months of eating less and exercising more.  What, you think it happens quickly?  Why would you think that?

Was I occasionally hungry?  Sure.  I was eating less.  Of course I got hungry.  My body had adapted to consuming more calories than I needed.   Hunger is what it feels like when your body is spending more energy than you're consuming.  Which, if you're trying to lose weight, is kinda the goal.  So I'm hungry.  So what?  I wait until my next meal, and just feel hungry for a while.  I'm hungry now, as I write this, because it's going to be dinner time in about two hours.  Whoop dee doo.  I am not starving.  I'm just peckish.  

Did I consume anything I felt like consuming?  Of course not.  You can't do that.  I cut out the empty calories first, cutting waaay back on delicious hoppy beverages and pointless industrial-bag-o-carb anxiety-snacking.  Then I dropped the caloric input from basically healthy food to a level that would consistently result in weight gain.

As the weight slowly began to come off, I picked up the "exercising more" part.  I didn't go crazy, or spend a dime.  I walked more.  I started using that old hand-me down weight set more regularly.  That was about it.  Nothing magic, nothing complicated.

Just eating less, and exercising more.  So simple.

Which is where, in a wildly tangential way, is where the Jesus thing comes in.  Jesus never said a blessed thing about weight loss.  Not a thing.  The whole idea would have seemed absurd to him.   But he did teach in a very specific way, about a very specific path.

Of all of the great faith traditions in the world, nothing should be easier than following Jesus.  Love God.  Love Your Neighbor.  That's it.  In those words rests the whole of the One Sacred Law, the completeness of what you need to do to be a walker of the Way.  It is wildly simple, as pure and potent as a tumescent singularity.  It is so easy, so light.

But we prefer to lose ourselves in the complicated.  We prefer a mess that we can hide in.

Nothing comes harder for us than the simple.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Take Up And Read

My annual week at the beach is now just a warm hum in my memory and a faint umber in my flesh.  Beyond the playing in sand and surf, the beach has always meant one thing to me: reading.

This year, my seven days at the beach involved reading, and a blessed break from the march of churchy books I've been reading for my doctorate.  It five novels, around 1,500 pages or so of storytelling goodness.  

Three of the novels were recent offerings from the publisher that, God willin' and the crick don't rise, will soon be working with me on getting my own novel to print.

Those were intimidating, at first, serious books written by clearly gifted authors.  I'm going to be in the company of these folks?  Sure, I've self-published and ePublished.  But looking at that stack of books, hardbacks one and all, was peculiar.  They bore the labels from the library, that place of deep magic remembered from childhood.  I felt a bit like a clueless, as-yet-unsorted muggle-born, wandering into Hogwarts and gawking at the towering, godlike seventh-years as they bent reality to their whims.  

It took me four days to read them, and then I moved to one I'd loaded onto my Kindle.  It was by Stephen King, just because, well, it had been a while.  Darned fine yarn, as it so happened.  And the last was one my wife had read on my Kindle, and came with her recommendation.  It did not disappoint.

I inhaled them, as I do with books, as I always have.  I breathe them in, and whole days disappear as I lose myself in the worlds they create.

What struck me, as I packed up my books from a week of intense, blissful reading, was the book that I had brought and not read.  I'd brought my study bible, as I do, everywhere I go.  But I'd not cracked it, nor had I been tempted to crack it.

It's not that I haven't read it recently, of course, or that I don't read it as part of my usual weekly discipline.  Reading and studying scripture is a part of my every week, as I first meditate over the selected readings, seeking one that seems to resonate or harmonize with my soul and the things of the world.  I refresh my understanding of a text, reading through commentaries in preparation for interpreting it in worship.   I find that fascinating, because the text--as the Spirit moves in it--is always different in different contexts.  It's why, after over ten years of interpreting from the many and various books of the Bible, I still find the process of preparing the Sunday sermon a life-giving place.  It is a task I enjoy, like the good feel of a well-made tool in your hand, or the good sweat that comes from working the earth when preparing for a planting.

But what struck me, in that week of reading other stories, was just how important it is to know other tales.  Bringing the ancient and sacred texts of our tradition alive requires an immersion in other stories--in books, in film, in the stories shared by those around us.  Relating those living stories to that life-giving story, understanding that dance, that exchange?

It makes that One Story--the one we know, and in which we are free to participate--more meaningful, more filled with purpose.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Sand Ozymandias

You sit, and you watch, as the work of a long morning comes apart.

Sandcastles are such peculiar structures, a cement blending of fluid chaos and flecks of stone, blended and built, shaved and sculpted.  And they always come apart.

The collapse comes, first, at the hands of the wind.  It teases the moisture away, chaos dancing away with chaos, wind liberating water.  The waters of chaos gone, the stone loses memory and falls away, fleck by fleck, carefully carved balustrades disintegrating in a moment of forgetting.

The sea rises up next, always does, hiked up fat by the call of the moon.  It teases and tickles up the beach, touching the hem of the castle, gently, stalking, until finally it surges up and forward, one quick blow, reclaiming itself and returning the sand to flat, featureless drabness.

Air and ocean, the tides and gravity, the flow of time and the movement of spheres, returning all to their own order.

I wonder if Solomon ever found time for sandcastles.  He'd have enjoyed them.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Different Instructions

I'd always done it the way I was supposed to, and it never worked right.

Years ago, we had a little Saturn wagon.  We were young and the kids were babies, and it was our only car.  But life moved on, and our suburban existence required that we join the cult of the minivan.  Which we did, buying a lightly used Honda.  12 years later, that van is no longer lightly used, but still gets the job done.

When we wanted to take our bicycles anywhere in the Saturn, we'd mount 'em on the back with a bike rack.  It fit perfectly, and worked great.

But when the four of us packed up for the beach, the same rack just never quite fit the van correctly.  It was completely unstable.  The bikes would bounce around wildly, oscillating from side to side in a way that seemed sure to dump them into following traffic.

I'd install it, exactly as I had done on the Saturn, exactly as I'd read in the manual.  And every year, it wouldn't work.  We'd talk about buying a new bike carrier, but I'm just too cheap.  I'd tighten it down, torque it, fiddle with it, snarl at it.  Nothing.

So for ten years, the bikes in back bucked and leaped at every road imperfection as we bumbled our way to the beach.  I'd grit my teeth and hope that all would not be disaster and despair, a cast-off tangled mass of spokes and chains and pedals embedded under a jackknifed semi.  Most likely blocking the Bay Bridge, my anxiety voice would whisper, as we crossed it.

Until last year, when while grumblingly removing the stupid rack we'd again not gotten around to replacing, I noticed the fading installation instructions, seventeen years old, still in the box.  I read them, again, for the first time in a decade and a half.  There it was, the thing I'd not bothered to look for, because I knew what I was doing.

For sedans, one way.  For hatchbacks and wagons, another.

And for vans?  A third way, involving a different alignment of two retaining straps.  Which, last year, after ten years, I did.  It worked like a charm.

Stable, easy, smooth.  The bikes were as stable as if I'd welded them to the van.

Just a simple change, such a remarkably simple change, and the thing that was a source of anxiety vanished like a dream on waking.

For all those years, I'd assumed that the problem was the rack, and not the way I was using it.

There's a metaphor for life in there somewhere, I think.

Thursday, August 7, 2014


I got the letter in the mail, mixed in with the usual miscellaneous advertising circulars, credit card offers, and other debris.

"BLASPHEMOUS," it shouted at me in all caps and bright red lettering.  "SACRILEGE!"

Of course, I opened it.  But I knew what was in it.  It wasn't from a church, because churches don't ever send out general mailers that angry.  Ever.  Never happens.  Warm fuzzy love with nonthreatening multiethnic smiling beautiful families?  That's their schtick.  So who produced this?

It was, of course, from a "freethinking secular humanist magazine."

"You and I are under attack," the letter began, sounding for all the world like a coked-up Rush Limbaugh.  And yeah, I know, it was painkillers.  But imagine what he'd be like if he was on blow.  Lord have mercy.

Anyhoo, the schpiel kicked in, and it was pure fear-based marketing hokum.  This is the magazine "they" don't want you to read!  We dare to ask the offensive questions!  We're the sort of free-thinking forum that they despise!

Inside, a smiling insert of Richard Dawkins.

"And if that's not enough, I'll sweeten the pot," it went on, sounding for all the world like a neoatheist Billy Mays.  "Act now, and we'll rush you a free bonus copy of our book attacking religion!"

Wait, that's wrong.  It was a FREE BONUS.  Sorry.  I'm not quick with the bold and the all caps.

It concluded with an anxiety-tag, as all fear-based marketing does.  If you're intelligent and independent, you'll love this magazine.  You aren't a stupid slave, are you?  Surely, you're not stupid enough not to buy our magazine...and did we mention the FREE BONUS?

It was marketing piffle, of course, but what most struck me was just how unfree it was.

The entire pitch and the promised content focused on "them," the terrible religious people who make everything terrible with their terribleness.  "We are not them.  They are stupid, and we are free from them!  Let's talk about how stupid they are, and how free we are from them.  Have we told you about them, and about how terrible they are?

We have?  Well, we're not done."

They are not free, any more than that friend whose every conversation is a bitter rant about their ex is free.  Freethinking involves not being constrained, to being open to new encounters.  In this country, with freedom of speech and access to any information you want any time you want, freedom of thought is utterly unfettered.

What this magazine promised instead was a smorgasbord of focused polemic, locked into a tight orbit around the object of its hatred.  What it offered was neither progress nor liberty, but the dark target fixation of a bilious obsessive.

So I'll pass, thank you very much.

When I want exciting, critical, rational freethinking, I read Scientific American.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Piloting A Tiny Church

How do you serve and support a healthy small faith community?

That's one of the core questions of my doctoral research, and I've been wrestling with it for the last month or two, as I've pored through dozens and dozens of books dealing with every form of small church life.   I've studied cell churches and house churches, storefronts and intentional communities.

I've read through book after book about tiny little old-line congregations, the families and tribes that gather in those little buildings that are scattered like wildflowers by the roadsides of America.

What I have not done, not for an instant, is look into the dynamics of "growing" these churches into huge churches.  That's the goal we're supposed to pursue, of course.  We are told that we must grow, must constantly be adding to ourselves until we're meeting in a glistening Jesus MegaCenter with a parking lot that spreads out to the far horizon.

We are to be faith-a-preneurs!  We are on the Holy Ghost CEO track!  We want to be the Amazon of the Christian world, the One Box to Rule them All, the next Rick Warren or Joel Osteen.  Our little church is like a mustard seed, we say, as is the tiny salary they pay me.  And so we study the "growth track," study the huge shiny stars, our eyes set on our radiant Jumbotron future.  We think big, we hope big, we see only big.

This is why we fail.

Trying to learn what it means to effectively serve a healthy small faith community by studying corporate Christianity is utterly pointless.

A metaphor for that truth popped out of my geek-brain the other day:

You do not learn to fly an X-Wing by studying the plans for the Death Star.  You can review those schematics all day long, and you'll still be just as useless at the controls of a snub fighter.

You get good at flying an X-Wing by putting in hour after hour in your T-16, diving in and out of Beggars Canyon until you can bag Womp rats in your sleep.

You get good at doing small by doing small until you are good at it.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Taking Care of Your Fornicatin' Self

I stood in the grungy little office of the motorcycle shop, as the proprietor went over what they'd done to get my bike back up and running.

The owner and chief wrench at that shop mostly builds bare-knuckled Harley and Triumph custom ratbikes, but he used to race Gixxers, so he knows my Suzuki like the back of his dirty, tatted hand.  He was sharing the diagnosis with the eagerness of a boy describing a favorite game.  It was a complex issue, involving water, ethanol-based fuel, and the degradation of plastic components in multi-stage valves in the fuel injection system.   I followed along, sort of, nodding assent and dropping comments that I hoped didn't make me seem too blitheringly incompetent.

The prognosis wasn't great.  It'd run like a top, unless I rode it hard again through a major rainstorm.  Then, I'd be looking at the same problem again.  Drat.  Guess I'll have to change my habit of riding through huge thunderstorms and blizzards.  Rule of thumb: if the ride looks to be so epic and technical as to be worthy of a subsequent blog post, wait it out.  Sigh.

We kept chatting for a while, and as we walked to the back lot to snag my bike, he began playfully chatting about his neighbor, a pastor.

He knows I'm a pastor, and grew up in the area around my church.

He also has a vocabulary that is entirely in keeping with a hole-in-the-wall motorcycle shop that's sited between a "smoking and vaping accessories" store and an adult novelties emporium.   Hey, a good, honest mechanic is a good, honest mechanic.

So on he went, about this pastor he knew.

"Yeah, like, I've got this neighbor who's a pastor.  Nice guy, but man, his house is a [fornicating] [excrement] hole. A total [fornicating] embarrassment.  He never mows.  Never cleans.  Leaves his [stuff] all over the [fornicating] yard.  Works so much, it's like he doesn't even [fornicating] live there.   I see the light of his TV on late at night, but he ain't never around."

I nodded at the concept conveyed through the thicket of reflexive profanity.  Yeah, pastors are often terrible at taking care of themselves, I said.  They get so caught up in their churches, they forget to do the basics for themselves.  Health gets neglected.  Spouses are neglected.  Homes are a shambles.

"You got that right," he continued, as he wheeled the Suzuki over to me.  "Only time that [fornicating] house gets cleaned up is when his whole church shows up to clean it.  Grass up to here, total mess, and then, bam, there's like fifty of the [fornicators] all over the [fornicating] place.  I'm, like, [fornicate], dude, take care of your own [stuff].  How can you be a [lovemaking] pastor and be telling people how to live better [lovemaking] lives if you can't even handle your own basic [stuff]?"

Generally, I'd pose that truth with slightly less pungent language, but it's a truth nonetheless.  That peculiar pattern of mutual dependency between a congregation that demands every waking moment of a pastor and a pastor whose ego enables it?  It's unhealthy.

And it's not just unhealthy for both parties involved.

It's the enemy of evangelism.  If you're so consumed by the busyness of professional ministratalia that you can't attend to family, can't manage your life and health, can't keep your [stuff] together?  Other people will notice this, meaning, the human beings who aren't part of that codependent dyad of your ego and the unrealistic expectations of your community.

They will look at how the fruits of your faith are made manifest in your life, and say, huh.  I guess there's no point in being part of that.  I guess that makes no difference at all.

And that, brothers and sisters, would be a [fornicating] terrible thing.

Monday, August 4, 2014

America: Now With 50% Less Gay!

When I first saw the research findings a few weeks ago, I knew it would cause a stir.

The National Health Interview Survey is a CDC administrated survey of the population of the United States, one with an unusually large and representative sample.  This was science for the sake of understanding population dynamics, with no agenda.  It was solid, meticulously-designed empirical research, geared to answer an array of questions about our society.

Among the questions: do you self-identify as gay, lesbian, or with a non-traditional sexual identity?

The return on those particular data-points:  About one point six percent of the American population self-identify as gay, or lesbian.  About point seven percent are bisexual.  One point one said they were "other" or did not answer.  Ninety six point six percent were straight.

This is a robust finding, and that worries activists for those who differ from the norm sexually.  Why?  It's less than half of the percentage typically claimed or found in less rigorous studies, and vastly lower than popular perception.

The worry is bluntly political: if there are fewer gay people, that's a problem, because that means fewer votes.   Fewer votes reduces political influence, and reduced political influence will embolden reactionary forces in our culture.  "Look how few gays there are," right-wingers will shout.  "We should be able to oppress them with impunity!"

Or so the thinking goes.

There is a temptation here, no doubt, for advocates to attack the messenger, to pick through the research for flaws in methodology in an attempt to discredit it.  Or to look for ad hominem ways to attack the research team.  But that's dangerous ground, because when you start attacking science, it means you've ceased to be interested in reality.  The researchers involved are already viewing this critically, examining the study themselves without concern for political points.  Because, you know, that's what good science does.  But in the meantime, it's the best available finding.

How can there be so few?  Our culture spends a huge amount of energy on this issue,'s that little?

It seems to change the flavor of the issue, taking it from whole-milk to two percent.

It also doesn't *feel* right.  I know so many more LGBTQI folks than that, you say.  I know so many, I even know what all those letters mean.  But your observations are anecdotal, and particular to a subculture.  If you're a creative, and hung around with the drama crowd in high school, sure, you knew more gays and lesbians than that.  If you live in an urban, progressive area, sure, you know more than that. This makes sense.  If you're not actively toxic and hateful towards a certain group of people, you'll tend to know more of them.  They won't lie to you about who they are, or just avoid you altogether.  That's how that works, kids.

This finding reminds us that none of our immediate, local realities is quite as representative as we think.  That's why science is so very useful, eh?

I don't think this is much of a worry, though, for two primary reasons.

First, sure, the number is lower.  We're talking about a smaller minority.  Why does that justify oppressing that minority, or refusing basic human rights to that minority?  It does not morally strengthen the hand of the ultra-conservatives.  If anything, it weakens it.

Here, a small group.  Why are you so insistent on repressing them?  Why is every other sermon your pastor preaches focused on hammering on those sinful gays, if there's a tiny number of them?  Why do your organizations spend all this time going on about what a huge threat tolerating this tiny minority will be?  Perhaps that's a sign that something's gone seriously wrong with the priorities of the people shouting at you.

Second, the number still works, and it works tribally.   What do I mean by that?

Two percent means the odds are there's one in every fifty.

More significantly, there are three in every hundred and fifty.

One hundred and fifty is an important social number.  It's Dunbar's number, the rough number of individuals that make up organic human social networks.  The number of people you know personally, and are part of your sense of the world and your place in it?  That's around 150 total souls.

Even with the social sifting in our culture, everyone will know someone who was that way.  Within every American's network of belonging, there will be one or two or three people--a friend, a co-worker, a cousin, a child--who self-identify as gay, lesbian, or some other orientation.  We know them.  They are our friends and our family, and we love them, and now that we know how much our culture has hurt them, we want that to change.

Because, as Horton said, a person's a person, no matter how small a demographic percentage they represent.

Or something to that effect.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Jesus Hates Happy People

It was a striking statement, one that caught my attention.  I was working my way through a very thorough but very conservative/ evangelical book about cell church development as part of my doctoral research, and there it was.

The author was recounting a story told by a friend, who was trying to plant a cell church in Europe.  It was a terrific struggle, and though they were using all of the tools they'd learned in planting congregations in both the US and the developing world, it just wasn't working.

The problem, as they identified it, was that the country was "hard soil" for planting the seed of God's word.  As they unpacked that, they articulated their takeaway as to why: because people were basically happy.

They had friends.  They had family.  They didn't fear for themselves financially.  They needed no new relationships to bring fulfillment to their lives, and had no sense of being "lost" or hopeless.

"Hard soil," the book affirmed with a knowing nod, and continued on without further comment.  Though I'm familiar with this particular reality, it seems a thing that shouldn't be glossed over.

Happiness is the enemy of the Gospel?

If the spread of your faith is contingent on people being anxious, lost, or hopeless?  That, it seems, is a critical problem.

And yes, there's a truth to it.  If you are poor and oppressed, the message of Jesus is a message of liberation.  If you experience life as an affliction, that message is one of healing.  If you walk through life bloodied by the edges of your brokenness, you're going to yearn to be made whole.

The Way of Christ does this.

It is also true that if your happiness is derived from your participation in a system that harms and oppresses and breaks others, Jesus has beef with you.  As did the prophets, frankly.  Being fat and happy in Babylon is dangerous existential ground.  I feel this personally, because it is meant for me personally.

But that's not the end of it, nor can it be.

I do not think, to be honest, that the Way should only seem compelling to people and in cultures that are struggling or oppressive.  If there was no longer poverty or anxiety, and the clawing anxiety of consumerism was gone, and everyone was simply content?  A message of sustaining purpose and gracious, welcoming fellowship would be just as relevant.

If it is not, then we're doing something wrong.

Because the message of the Reign of God is not just about the "not yet."  It is just as relevant in those moments of "now."

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Church that Doesn't Need You

It's been quite the week at my little congregation.

This Monday morning, a multigenerational group of teens, young adults, and adults took off in two rental vans, headed for a youth service mission trip to West Virginia, something that's been a regular staple of the life of the church for years.

There, my congregation is helping rebuild and repair homes during the day, and spends time in worship and fellowship at night.  It's a wonderful blend of direct, hands-on and material care for others and Christian faith-expression.

In preparation for this trip, I've spent the last few months in a flurry of doing... nothing.

Not a thing.  I don't organize it. I don't schedule it.  I don't go pick up the vans, or carefully plan the evening worship and prayer events.  I don't gather the materials, or insure that we've got enough participation.  I don't coordinate with the parachurch organization that sponsors it, or send planny emails back and forth with the pastors of the two other congregations that will be participating.

It is not even the expectation that I go, and so I don't.

Because in my little church, that's not been the pastor's job, not during the time I've been there.  Nor was it the expectation of the pastor before me.

And no, I haven't handed this off to an associate, or a youth pastor.  We're a little church, meaning I'm a half-time pastor in a community that has been served by part-timers since 1847.  So church members do their own thing.  It's gotten woven into the congregational DNA.

The mission trip is a fine example, something that is entirely the work of some passionate, committed souls in the congregation.  They and the youth organize and prepare for it, handling the whole thing, from incept to implementation, completion to the worship experience that celebrates and reports back on the event.

Why?  Because it's good, and a joy to do in the way that hard work to a good end is a joy.

It's tempting to get all Robespierre-leadershippy on such a thing.  You know the semi-apocryphal classic "leadership" story, right?  What?  You don't? Well, gosh, I guess it's share time.

As the tale goes, Robespierre, the psychotically self-absorbed and self-righteous Jacobin who helped turn the French Revolution into the bloody Reign of Terror, is sitting in a restaurant.  A mob comes storming by, shouting and waving banners.  "Look!  There go my people," shouts Robespierre, leaping up and rushing to get to the head of the mob.  "I must lead them!"

The absurdity, of course, is that all that mattered to Robby was that he be up in front, that he take the energy of the group and use it for his own glory.  It's leadership as ego-fodder, and that's a real danger for pastors--and anyone in leadership, frankly.

Because when the pastor must be in charge of everything, must guide everything, must control everything?  They create dependent and spiritually stunted communities.

That's not to say there's no role for a pastor.  You should add life and health, sure.  Your presence there should deepen and strengthen the life and gifts of others, and your teaching should manifest the best calling of the congregation.  An essentially healthy church lets you know you're fulfilling that role, and encourages you on the Way.  I've been blessed with that encouragement from my little fellowship over the last few years, and it's been profoundly affirming.

But when our need to be needed gets in the way of the gifts and graces that others have to offer, we have become an active impediment to the movement of the Spirit in a fellowship.

Gatherings of mature Christians should not function that way.  In a healthy congregation, there are folks whose energies, vision, and creativity will operate in parallel with those of a pastor.  It's the role of the formal leader to support, sustain, pray for, and celebrate those gifts.  It's my role to teach and preach and model the Way in my own existence, and to support every soul I see helping others towards that gracious path.

Because that's the Spirit at work, right there, and we get in the way of the Spirit to the peril of our
communities.  Oh, sure, there'll be times when you do have to step in.  If a church is completely lost, consumed by conflict, or frittering away its energy on anxiety, you need to be there.  If a community exists only for itself and its own needs, you need to be there to guide them back to the path.

But those moments are fewer and farther between than our egos want us to believe.

So this week, I watch my little fellowship do great things that they don't need me there to help them accomplish, and it's awesome.