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Submitting to the Reign of God (Or, How to Become a Mystic)

I want to conclude this little mini-series on mysticism with some thoughts on how mere mortals can join the ranks of the mystics. As with virtually everything else that I write, I cannot claim any true originality here, only in the sense of putting these ideas together in the manner that I have.

To begin with, it should go without saying, but you must first of all desire to submit to the reign of God. This is so obvious, but then again, I am the master at discovering what everyone else already knows. If you do not want God to reign in your life, or in anyone else’s life, He simply will not force himself upon you. To want God to reign in your life you must be willing to surrender every other king in your life – money, prestige, power, status, country, possessions, even people. To say, “Thy kingdom come” means just that – not a democracy or a meritocracy, but a monarchy. Those who say they want God to reign in their life while continuing to submit to the principalities and powers of this world are deceiving themselves – and God cannot be deceived.

We are to seek God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. It is an all-or-nothing adventure. To join with Peter walking on the waves of the storm-washed sea we have to be willing to let go of the boat. This is the problem I see with most “Christianity” in America today. We are half-hearted at best. We want God plus America (or America plus God). We want God plus the Constitution. We want God plus the greatest armed forces the world has ever known. We want God plus every technological discovery that we have or ever will create. We do not want God, we want God plus something else. We want God.1. That is NOT seeking the kingdom of God. That is NOT seeking God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. That is not seeking God’s kingdom first, and allowing him to add “all these things.”

Next, a person seeking the reign of God in their lives will conform their life to the pattern of Jesus. They will study the life and teachings of Christ as their only sure guide to learning the will of the Father. The beatitudes become no longer a list of virtues to emulate, but the reality of everyday life. The parables no longer serve as topics for academic study, but an entrance into the kingdom. Along with the life of Jesus they will absorb as much of the rest of Scripture as they possibly can. They will learn from the great inspired mystics – from Moses and Isaiah and Jeremiah and Daniel and Paul and Peter and John. Every page of the Bible will be to them a treasure of untold value – revealing the heart and will of God in heaven, whose reign they purely and entirely seek. Jesus, however, will be the center around which every other detail of Scripture revolves. Christ is the center, the norm, of a mystic life. It was Christ who inaugurated the ultimate reign of God, and it will be Christ who returns to fully embody that reign.

Third, a person seeking the reign of God will decide, based on what the Scriptures and Jesus teach them about the reign of God, whether they want to accept that reign or refuse it. Just because the reign was fervently desired in the first place does not mean that every person will decide to accept that reign. The rich young ruler went away sorrowful, even while he was on the very threshold of accepting the kingdom of God. The apostle Paul wrote of a certain Hymenaeus and Alexander who had made a shipwreck out of their faith, and who had apparently decided to rescind their allegiance to the reign of God. Experience tells me that many fit Jesus’ parable of the seed that falls on the weedy soil – the heart accepts the message with gladness but there is just too much “stuff” that chokes out God’s kingdom. So, following desire and discovery there comes the point of decision. Is God going to reign, or not? There is no other question, there is no other answer.

Finally, the one who places God as the king in their life will actually live as if God is the king of their life. How do you think Abraham had the courage to leave his father’s faith and country? How do you think Joseph was able to risk his life to remain pure? How do you think Moses had the nerve to stand up to Pharaoh? How do you think Daniel and his three friends had the courage to defy the king? How do you think Paul could stand up to Herod? How could John write from Patmos to tell the seven churches to stand up against Caesar? The answer to each and every situation was that these faithful, these disciples, these mystics, all had the kingdom of God securely implanted in their heart. They knew who was the king, and the earthly power that threatened them was simply not worthy of their fear, and certainly not of their devotion.

We are a nation of sanctimonious cowards. We fear the government. We fear losing our Constitution. We fear what will happen to us if, by some horrible circumstance, we are caught without our fully loaded handgun on our person. We fear what will happen if we stop building multi-million dollar airplanes to drop multi-million dollar bombs. We fear losing our freedom, yet we are too ignorant to realize that is striving for every human comfort and safety we have sacrificed our greatest freedom – the freedom to live in and expand the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God knows nothing of Constitutions and guns and airplanes and bombs. The symbols of the kingdom of God are a towel and a cross. The towel is to serve this world, and the cross is to die to it and for it.

As I started this series, I said that the world does not like mystics. The world punishes, persecutes, and even kills mystics. Jesus predicted his followers would be hated. Paul predicted his churches would face tribulation. John saw only martyrdom for those who remained faithful to the word of the cross. To share in the resurrection of Jesus we must first share in his death. When we invite the kingdom into our life, the hatred of the world will soon follow. But if we are to follow Jesus, how can it be any other way?

The cross is not the terrible end of a pious, happy life. Instead, it stands at the beginning of community with Jesus Christ. Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

One day the Pharisees asked Jesus, “When will the kingdom of God come?” Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God can’t be detected by visible signs. You won’t be able to say, ‘Here it is!’ or ‘It’s over there!’ For the kingdom of God is already among you. (Luke 17:20-21, NLT)

The kingdom is among us. I pray we want it. I pray we are searching for it. I pray we care enough to learn what it means. I pray we decide to accept it, and live like we accept it.

I pray we all, in whatever measure we can, will accept the call to be mystics – and begin to live as if the kingdom has arrived.

What Mystics Can See That Others Cannot (Or, Refuse To)

In my last post I said that some of my favorite people were mystics. The names I mentioned were all biblical characters, with the exception of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Barton Stone, and David Lipscomb. I could have mentioned a number of others, including Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and maybe even C.S. Lewis, among others. As I have reflected on my post I felt that I needed to explain a littler further what I mean by mysticism, and how these individuals fit into my understanding of what it means to be a mystic.

First, mystics have a profound vision of the kingdom of God. You can see this very clearly in the inspired mystics – Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Jesus, Paul, Peter, John. These individuals received either a very clear vision of God, or received inspiration and illumination far beyond the “normal” avenues of study and meditation. I place these visionaries on an entirely different plane than non-inspired mystics. The “non-inspired” mystics have also had a vision of the kingdom of God – one that drives their writing or preaching on a level that exceeds most “common” or non-mystical writing. There is a sense in reading these individuals that they see, or hear, or have been given, insight into the kingdom of God that is reserved for the few who (1) truly desire to have that kind of insight and (2) open themselves to receiving that kind of insight. None of the “non-inspired” mystics just woke up one morning with the clarity of vision that they have shared with the rest of us. God rewards those who seek him – he will be found if he is sought after. Mere seeking will not avail, however, if there is no heart prepared to welcome him. Mystics spend as much time preparing their heart to receive the kingdom as they do in seeking the kingdom. I think that is why so many earnest seekers never find the kingdom. They are simply unwilling to accept it when it is shown to them.

Second, once the kingdom is revealed, these individuals seize it. They believe God, not just believe in God. There is a radical transformation that takes place in the heart of a mystic, even if the mystic came from a position of belief to begin with. Some, such as a C.S. Lewis, came from a position of agnosticism, if not even outright atheism, and so their transformation is all the more astounding. There is a sense, however, in which believers can be converted – once the vision of the kingdom is received and accepted. The apostle Paul was perhaps the quintessential example of this – he was converted from faith to faith. I think the same could also be said of Isaiah, and Peter seemed to be on a never-ending cycle of renewed and expanded faith.

Finally, the mystics of whom I write did not stop with a simple apprehension and acceptance of the kingdom. They went out and lived as if the kingdom was really here, live and in living color, as the old saying used to go. They did not wait for “pie in the sky by and by.” They lived, taught, and wrote to transform their world into the kingdom that God intended. For their vision and their efforts many were killed – most of them in fact were either imprisoned or persecuted in some form or fashion. They remained faithful to their vision, however, and through their lives the world caught a greater glimpse of what the kingdom of God will ultimately look like.

This is why I place Bonhoeffer, Stone, and Lipscomb within the category of “mystic,” although for some the characterization may be laughable. These men, so disparate in many respects, all had a vision of the kingdom informed by the writings and teachings of the inspired mystics that we find in Scripture. They searched longingly for the kingdom, and when they had prepared their hearts to receive it – God let them see what the kingdom could be. Then, they went out and lived as if they kingdom was indeed, “among them” just as Jesus emphatically said it was. They challenged the status quo. They lived as kingdom subjects, and suffered as only kingdom subjects will suffer.

As I said, some of my favorite people – authors and saints – are mystics. I am coming to see the difference in their life and mine. I glory in their vision, and their faithful expression of that vision.

And, before anyone says it – yes, I know that these men were all flawed human beings, with the obvious exception of our Lord. None of them was perfect. This is why we proclaim our allegiance to Jesus, and not to any mortal human.  The lives of the others can be illustrative, however, of what it means to be a disciple, a mystic. For their example I am truly grateful, and if some day someone looks back on my life and says, “there lived a mystic” then I will owe that epitaph to the example of these faithful, though flawed, mortal beings.

What If I’m Wrong?

It is not a popular concept anymore, if, in fact, it ever was. What if I’m wrong? In today’s world there is no right and wrong. But, there again, what if the people who think this way are, despite their assertion to the contrary, wrong?

What happens then?

It is frightening to pay attention to many speakers, preachers and Bible class teachers in particular. Imbued with the “sage on the stage” mentality they view their conclusions as unassailable truth, when, in fact, often times their conclusions are nothing more than guesses, educated or not. This is especially so when such conclusions are buttressed with the quotation from a passage of Scripture. The truth of Scripture is somehow magically transferred to the the presenter, baptizing the false statement and absolving the presenter of any sin. Of course, the error is more frequently than not compounded by the fact that the passage of Scripture is taken out of context, but hey, if we are proving the truth of our flimsy argument and absolving ourselves of sin, what does a little context have to do with anything?

But, I return to my question – what happens if I am wrong? (Let’s speak in first person singular terms here, just to avoid the temptation to be judgmental.) Or, perhaps to be more truthful, what happens WHEN I am wrong?

When was the last time you saw, or heard, someone actually, sincerely confess error? I don’t mean confess around the error. Politicians and other public figures have mastered the art of first-person-once-removed confession. “I’m sorry if anyone was offended by the allegations made against me.” Notice there is never any regret at being wrong, only that certain individuals might be offended. In some rare instances the figure might admit that the allegations are serious, but on the other hand, “there is no evidence to support the allegations.” Never, “the allegations are absolutely false.” It is just that there is never any evidence to support the allegations. My lawyer is too good to allow any evidence to show up.

Enough with the politicians. They are far too easy a target. What about your preacher, your Bible class teacher – what about you? When was the last time you heard your preacher stand in the pulpit and say, “I was wrong”? When was the last time you told your class, “I was wrong”? When was the last time you told your class, “I might be wrong here” and fully, truthfully meant it?

Here again I am not talking about the massive flood of “I used to think this about (you name the hot-button issue of the day), but now I think this…” That is mere pandering to the masses, and that in and of itself is conduct unbecoming a minister of the gospel. Any minister who changes his mind concerning homosexuality or bending gender roles or the role of the Holy Spirit just to climb aboard a bandwagon has sold his soul to the devil. I am talking about a genuine confession of error in life or in doctrine that affects a person to the core of his or her being.

I am talking about a Saul of Tarsus to the Apostle Paul kind of transformation. A confession that moves a person from persecutor to persecuted, from trying to take life to being willing to surrender one’s life for the sake of the same cause. I am talking about being absolutely convinced of the truth of a concept to the absolute conviction of the error of the same concept. I know it happens, but, how does it happen and what are the consequences?

To make the argument that I am always right, that I am flawless in my interpretation of Scripture, that I know the absolute truth to every question of translation, interpretation, and application is absolute heresy. No one can be that perfect. We may share in a measure of perfection, we may taste perfection from time to time, but even the most secure of our conclusions comes with the tinge of reality that I am human, my intellect is fallen, and there is always more information out there than I can access or grasp.

Does that mean we throw up our hands and give up? As Paul would say, “By no means!” Absolutely not! I may not know with divine certainty why baptism is essential for salvation, why men and women are created equal but with different roles, why certain practices are pleasing to God while others do not please him, but that does not mean I surrender my God given intellectual gifts to try to understand those questions – nor to search for greater certainty that those “truths” are indeed true. And it certainly does not absolve me of confessing when I am wrong about any conclusions I offer as being true, but are not.

If I had one saying that could describe my philosophy of learning it would be this, “If I am wrong, please point out the error of my way, as I do not want to believe any error, nor do I want to teach any error. But please use evidence beyond personal opinion so that I can test the validity of your conclusion, as you have obviously tested the validity of my conclusion and found it to be false.”

Two people who hold diametrically opposing viewpoints on any issue cannot both be right. Homosexuality cannot be both acceptable to God and a sin. A congregation that forbids the public leadership roles to women and a congregation that allows women full leadership roles cannot both be pleasing to God. Christians cannot both affirm the uniqueness of male/female genders and affirm the rights of individuals to “change” their gender. Baptism cannot be both essential to salvation and an optional act of choice. Man cannot have both free will, and be subject to eternal predestination.

These concepts I hold to be true. If I am wrong, please let me know why, and where I can learn a better truth. Don’t expect me to just give up if you disagree with me, but if I am wrong I want to change my beliefs and behaviors to conform with the truth.

What happens if I am wrong? . . . Maybe my topic is not important, maybe it is eternally important. But the question itself should never cease to guide my search for truth.

Thanks for flying with me in the fog…

People in Whose Presence I Stand in Awe

Okay, been posting a bunch lately, but over the summer and into the fall I have been involved in a very introspective process. As a tangential benefit of this study I have learned I stand in awe of a number of individuals. I just wanted to share who those people are.

First, I am in awe of those who have earned a PhD degree from a real university (not one of those paper mills). I slaved over a paper that came to just over 180 pages in length, and one of my supervisors told me her doctoral dissertation was over 400 pages in length. I have SO much more respect for the holder of legitimate Doctorates of Philosophy – in any field, history, philosophy, religion. Those who belittle education better not cross swords with me – I am not in the mood to praise ignorance and stupidity.

Second, I am utterly in awe of those who play instruments or sing on a professional level. I mean real musicians, not “America’s Got Talent” musicians. I mean concert musicians, pianists, guitarists, wind instruments, string instruments of all kinds. Just about anyone can play three chords on a cheap guitar. But I am fortunate enough to get to witness some amazing young people who can sing and play with the most amazing skill – even at their level of development. It is awe-inspiring. I simply bow in honor to them.

Third, I am in awe of anyone who can build something with their hands – carpenters and metal workers especially. I am gifted at turning large pieces of wood into sawdust, and that is about it. So, when I see a hand-crafted table, or an ornate ironwork, or even a quality painting, I just quiver.

Once upon a time I had dreams of being a leading professor, or a concert pianist, or a carpenter. I now know none of those things is going to happen. But, I can appreciate the skill of each of these groups of people even more. Now, when I hear a lecture, or hear a concerto, or examine a hand-made wooden table, I can just enjoy it, instead of envying the one who produced it. That makes for a much more pleasant experience.

Thanks to all who have achieved such heights in their chosen fields. I tip my hat to you all.

The Evaporating Center of the Churches of Christ

Have you ever watched a puddle of water evaporate? It seems like nothing is happening for the longest time, and then it is gone. Slowly, inexorably, the water just becomes vapor, then a damp spot, and then, nothing.

I feel like I am watching a puddle disappear, and that puddle happens to be the only church I have been a part of, loved, and occasionally argued with. The vast center of the Churches of Christ is simply evaporating. More quickly in some places, more slowly in others – but the tide of change is undeniable.

When I was a child, then a young man, and even into my young adult years certain things could be counted on. Death and taxes were two of the more unpleasant, but there was a definite comfort in knowing my faith family was solid. Oh, we had our crusty fundamentalists and our wild-haired “digressives,” but like most families the outliers were pretty much used for illustrations and family reunion jokes.

Now, the joke is on the middle.

The fundies and the un-fundies have long been sharpening their knives, and now the hostilities are fully engaged. The more progressive the one side gets, the more reactionary the other side becomes. This just infuriates the progressives (who steadfastly protest that they do not care what the fundies are doing) and so they "push the envelope" even further. Anyone who just wants to follow Christ and wear his name is accused on the one hand of being "soft" on doctrine and of being a cultural coward by the folks on the other side of the aisle.

I used to stand comfortably in the middle of this grand, varied, and sometimes confusing assembly. Now, I am not even sure where the middle is. I fear it is gone.

  • I cannot believe in a 6,000 year old earth because I studied and learned how that number was ciphered out. I must be a liberal.
  • But, I believe in the inspiration and authority of all of the Scriptures – even the ones that claim Moses wrote the greater part of the Pentateuch, and that Isaiah actually did write all of the book that bears his name. So, that makes me a reactionary.
  • I have received multiple degrees from ACU and now have my Doctor of Ministry almost complete from Fuller Theological Seminary. By virtue of guilt by association, color me a flaming progressive.
  • Except that I believe there is firm scriptural and theological evidence for such issues as baptism for the forgiveness of sins, acapella congregational singing, and male spiritual leadership. Avast, I’m a knuckle dragging troglodyte.
  • I believe in the necessity of a highly trained, deeply educated “professional” ministry staff. Hefty lefty, am I.
  • Except that I also know all too well the intoxication that comes with an advanced education that is divorced from reality. An education is only as good as the grounding of those who provide it – and a thermometer is not the only thing in this world with numerous degrees and no intelligence. I must be a tighty righty.
  • I believe in the power and strength of a solid, healthy tradition to anchor our peevish human ways. Way out in right field! But I despise a stifling traditionalism that squelches the moving and leading of God’s Holy Spirit. So I’m so far out in left field that I’m selling popcorn and hot dogs.

I know I am introspective by nature. When I take one of those psych tests I raise the “melancholic” bar to impossible heights. It’s not fun always seeing the dark clouds behind the silver lining. If I sound like a bucket of cold water – well, that’s me. But I used to find solace in knowing my church family had my back.

I’m sorry, but the only thing I feel now is that one side or the other only wants to bury their knife in the middle of my back.

It’s not only lonely trying to be in the middle, now it is emotionally and spiritually dangerous.

Some Thoughts On Guitars and Spirituality

Andrés Segovia

Cover of Andrés Segovia

I grew up loving guitar music. My father had several classical guitar records that I would play over and over again. I remember being enchanted watching a classical guitarist on TV, wondering how his fingers could fly so effortlessly across the fretboard. When I had a chance to take guitar lessons I jumped at the opportunity. I was going to be a concert guitarist. I even purchased several guitars – each and every one a very lovely dust collector.

Christopher Parkening

Cover of Christopher Parkening

Many years later I learned why I never quite made it to Carnegie Hall. I was watching a video on Christopher Parkening, regarded by many as one of the most accomplished classical guitarists alive today. Someone asked him how long he spent practicing. Parkening never fully answered the question as I remember, but he did point out that when he was a student he learned that Andres Segovia, certainly regarded as one of the finest to ever play the instrument, practiced for over 5 hours every day. Steve Kaufman, a legend in bluegrass music, warms up for an hour before a concert.

Roy Clark

Cover of Roy Clark

Oh, so that is why I never was asked to sign a record contract. I wanted to be a great guitarist – be right up there with Mason Williams and Roy Clark and Chet Atkins and the Romero brothers. There was only one problem (well, actually there were more, but let’s simplify things here…). I wanted all that greatness in about 15 minutes of doodling a day. To put it in perspective, I spent less time practicing than the great guitarists did in loosening their fingers to get ready to practice.

I wonder how many of us would really like to be known as a devout spiritual person. Maybe not a great spiritual person (because that would be a mark of pride, not generally considered a part of spirituality), but certainly someone who would be recognized as one who swam in the deep end of the spiritual pool. Yet, when we are told what it takes to leave the kiddie wading pool and actually launch out into deep water, we realize that maybe we did not want to be that great after all.

I have learned, much to my displeasure, that the great spiritual disciplines can be as difficult to master as the guitar. Very few of us are born spiritual giants. The spiritual disciplines of prayer, meditation on Scripture, fasting, worship and others take time to develop. But more than time, they take dedication and perseverance. They take physical effort. And, mastering any skill takes a significant amount of will power.

So, I’m afraid that for many of us, our desire to be spiritual people sounds a lot like my adolescent “desire” to be a concert guitarist. I wanted all the results; but none of the gritty, day-to-day, dull boring practice. I wanted to be great, but not that bad.

So, how much time have you spent in prayer, reading Scripture, and worship this week?

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Super Christians or Servants?

Stubby is better than you

Stubby is better than you (Photo credit: aloha orangeneko)

It has happened again. When in happens in multiples it gets your attention. One is an accident, two is a coincidence, three times – well, you had better pay attention.

And they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they were silent; for on the way they had discussed with one another who was the greatest. And he sat down and called the twelve; and he said to them, “If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” And he took a child, and put him in the midst of them; and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”  (Mark 9:33-37 RSV)

It would appear that there is no end of those who want to discuss among themselves who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. As I mentioned, I have come across several just in the last few days. The last one was the straw that broke this camel’s back, and so I had to vent some steam here.

There are a multitude of ways in which some declare their own superior discipleship over lesser “mere Christians.” Some do it through speaking in tongues or some other miraculous manifestation of the Holy Spirit. Some do it through rituals or practices -say fasting or praying or going on “faith walks” or the such. One favorite among preachers within the Churches of Christ is to measure Bible studies and baptisms. Some youth ministers can’t wait for summer camp so that they can carve a whole new row of notches on their spiritual six-shooter. I suppose, if I wanted to, I could add that some measure their superiority by their advanced educational degrees, or at least their advanced knowledge even if they do not have the paper to certify a degree. I mean, after all, did not Paul tell Timothy to “study to shew thyself approved unto God”? (2 Timothy 2:15, KJV) How much more of a direct command can we get than that?

The point is, it does not matter whether we quote Matthew 28:18-20 or 1 Corinthians 14:5 or 2 Timothy 2:15 until our faces turn blue – all our soap and blather will not change one basic, fundamental fact that is taught in Scripture from Genesis to Revelation – God’s grace is equal and equally undeserved and there are no levels of superior or inferior spirituality when it comes to the servants of the kingdom.

I mean, really, how many times are we going to have to hear the words of Jesus??

Listen to Paul explain, again and again, that there are NO super Christians:

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. No neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. (1 Corinthians 3:5-7 RSV)

This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. (1 Corinthians 4:1 RSV)

For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake…But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. (2 Corinthians 4:5, 7 RSV)

See also 1 Corinthians 12:4-13:13, Romans 12:3-8. Ephesians 4:9-16.

"All is Vanity" by C. Allan Gilbert....

“All is Vanity” by C. Allan Gilbert. Life, death, and meaning of existence are intertwined. (Woman gazing into boudoir mirror forms shape of skull.) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is so distressing to me when I hear or read these promoters of super-spirituality is that it is so believable! We want to believe that if we work a little bit harder, pray a little more fervently, teach one more Bible class that someone else or are able to parse a verb in one more language than someone else that God must pay us a little more. He has to reward us a little higher. We so desperately want to believe that there are levels of spirituality, so that I can be just a little better than the scum-sucking, bottom-feeding pew-sitter taking up space and wasting valuable resources of the church. And that is the deadly sin involved in this judgment – I am better than you because according to my measurement I am just a better, holier, more spiritual disciple than you are.

So tongue speakers measure spirituality by speaking in tongues, introverts measure spirituality by hours of prayer and devotions, personal evangelists measure discipleship by the number of Bible studies conducted and baptisms accomplished and scholars measure spirituality by articles written and conferences held.

And it is all so dreadfully, profoundly, disgustingly, sinful! Pride is a sin and it does not matter who is doing the bragging.

Why can we not just accept Paul’s teaching and realize that it takes all of us to make up the kingdom? If you have a miraculous gift – fine and wonderful. But don’t condemn me because I have another gift. Can you pray for hours uninterrupted? Wonderful! Do not cast off those who are a little more distracted. Can you initiate, teach and conclude dozens of Bible studies a year? Yahoo and praise the Lord – but do not sniff down your nose at those who cannot, and according to Scripture, even should not, be doing so. And can you translate the Bible from all the original languages into dozens of others? Jump for joy and pass the printing ink – but do not condemn, judge or dismiss those who do well to read from one easy-to-read translation.

One more passage from the mouth of our Savior:

So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.” (Luke 17:10)

Let us do our duty, fulfill our gifts, lift up those who are striving to fulfill their gifts, and let us for once and for ever get over this adolescent fixation on whether we are more spiritual that someone else simply because we have a different gift.

Amen?

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Aircraft Accidents, Professionalism, and the General Decline of Education

The Star-Child into which Dr. Bowman is transf...

The Star-Child into which Dr. Bowman is transformed, looking at Earth. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Okay, that topic line ought to generate some curiosity. Truth be told, I’m kind of curios about it myself. I have some ideas about where I want to go, but we’ll see if I can get there or not.

The United States has been shocked over the past several weeks over two seemingly unrelated major aircraft accidents. In the first, an Asiana Airlines plane coming in for a landing in San Francisco clipped a sea wall and burst into flames as it slammed to the ground. In the second, and most recent event, a UPS plane also coming in for a landing mysteriously got well below the landing path and slammed into a hill a short distance from the runway. In both accidents there were fatalities. The reason “why” something tragic like those accidents occurred can never take away the pain of the loss of those human lives.

There are major differences between the two accidents. The planes were built by two different designers. The first was a major people-carrying airline, the second strictly a cargo carrying jet. The first had at least three pilots in the cockpit and was landing in the daylight with good visibility. The second had two well-qualified pilots, was landing at night (or, extremely early morning) and there were reports of low clouds and less than perfect visibility, although not low enough to mandate a precision instrument approach.

The questions are baffling: Why would (at least) five well qualified and highly trained professional pilots fly two state-of-the-art modern jets right into the ground? Why were there no distress calls in either case? Why did the automated systems in the planes not alert the pilots with enough time to recover from their low approaches? Were the pilots too fatigued? Were they distracted by other aspects of the planes’ highly technical computerized flight systems? Was there insufficient or defective communication between the pilot-in-command and the pilot flying as first officer? (Just because a pilot is listed as “captain” and “first officer” does not necessarily mean each was flying in that capacity on that leg. It is customary for captains and first officers to alternate legs of flights so that each can log time as “pilot-in-command” time in their log books, and to log take-offs, landings, instrument time, night flight, etc., as necessary components to keep their credentials up-to-date. Captains fly from the left seat, first officers fly from the right seat, regardless of who is “pilot-in-command” on that leg).

It is interesting, but speculation has focused on one common thread in both accidents – the growing dependance on automation and the resulting loss of piloting skill among super modern jet pilots. As computer technology has become more and more complex inside these jet cockpits the role of the pilots has morphed. Modern jet pilots are far more “systems managers” than they are “stick and rudder” pilots. Few jets are manufactured with cables connecting the pilot controls to the flight surfaces, meaning that there is no “feel” experienced by the pilots. In the case of the UPS plane, the pilots fly with a little joy-stick mounted on the side of the airplane, much like a computer game controller on your family entertainment center. The computer is constantly evaluating every control input by the pilot, and in some situations will actually override the control input by a pilot. No doubt this is a good thing in some situations, but, once again, it removes certain command decisions from the pilot. The maddening thing is the pilots are not required to know less: in fact, they must learn more – but they are not learning more about flying, they are learning more about managing complex computer systems. Perfectly good airplanes are not supposed to be flown into the ground. Something is very wrong with our technology obsessed culture.

We are not altogether in the situation that Dave faced with HAL in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” but we are getting close.

As I write this it is still far to early in either accident to know for certain why each accident occurred. Knowing a little about cockpit management and having studied some accident reports I can think of some scenarios for the first accident (the Asiana flight at San Francisco) but the UPS flight is simply a mind-bender to me. UPS is a top-notch, extremely well run organization with some of the best pilots around. Flying freight is a great gig. No passengers to complain, relatively uncrowded skies to fly in, great companies (UPS and Fed-Ex for sure) and extremely lucrative pay packages. I am sure that both of the pilots on the UPS flight were living their dream. That they would fly that jet into the ground is, to me, simply unimaginable. I suppose some day we will know what happened in those last few seconds, but it simply defies common logic at this point.

education online

education online (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

Which, in a long and circuitous route, brings me to my third topic – that of the decline of education in the United States today. In many ways we are the most technologically progressive and the most educationally regressive society that has ever existed. Our college students can operate virtually any type of computer equipment with expert proficiency and yet many cannot write a coherent English sentence. Our elementary school children are taught that spelling does not matter as long as they can get close to how the word sounds. Students are promoted to the next grade level with no regard for their ability to perform, but simply because holding them back would damage their fragile self-esteems. And now, with the explosion of on-line (so called) education, more and more people are being given certificates and diplomas for accomplishing nothing more than watching a few videos and taking a few multiple choice on-line tests.

In economics, if you continually print more and more paper dollar bills, the overall value of those bills drops. Our “one dollar” bill is nowhere close to the value it had several decades ago, simply because the Federal Reserve keeps printing more and more and more, just to prop up the economy. In education, when you hand out worthless and meaningless diplomas and certificates you are in effect “devaluing” the value of your diploma or certificate. Quite honestly, a high school diploma does not mean as much as it once did. And Bachelors degrees and Masters degrees are catching up with blazing speed.

If you read this space often you know this is a common rant with me. I just hate to see education go down this road. We should be demanding more, and all we are doing is demanding different. There is something tragically wrong when a child can enter college and not be able to spell correctly, write a coherent sentence, and to be able to analyze a complex paragraph or short story. I have no idea how the folks in the hard sciences are doing – maybe they are faring better. I just know what I hear and see, and it is not pleasant.

The sad thing is it is not the student’s fault that they are not being taught. You cannot learn what the teacher refuses to teach. I wonder if the “group promotion” concept did not have more to do with the educators’ fragile self-esteem rather than the students’ need to be recognized. If all of your students pass on to the next grade you must be a pretty good teacher, right? Who cares that they cannot read, write, or do basic math. Just pass them up to the next teacher and make those students his or her problem.

I guess that works to a certain degree.

Until airplanes start falling out of the sky for no good reason.

(Editor and author’s update: After posting this the lovely and very perceptive Mrs. Freightdawg gently questioned me – okay, she lowered the boom on me. Because of my rather injudicious choice of language, it might appear that I am accusing individual teachers of blatantly refusing to teach the necessary basics of education. This is NOT what I intended to convey. Many teachers are forced to teach nonsense and they deeply resent having to do do in order to teach to some governmental standard. I feel for those teachers. When you are between a rock and a hard place it is impossible to find a comfortable position.

That having been said, I stand by my assertion that the overall product of the American educational system is just weak. Maybe the problem goes way beyond the local and state schools systems. Maybe it is totally a failure at the federal level. Whatever the cause, the answer is simple: go back to basics – reading, writing, arithmetic, grammar, spelling, penmanship, and basic fundamental science courses.

If I offended any teachers out there I am sorry – that was not my intent. My purpose was to draw attention to the dismal product of our overall American educational system. Until we lean how to fix that, our children will always be at risk, and ultimately, so will our culture.)

Homosexuality – Nature, Nurture, Rebellion or ?

Sisyphus

Sisyphus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To begin, the standard warnings: I am not a geneticist. I barely survived high school biology. Neither am I a sociologist, psychologist nor psychiatrist. I am a minister, and college instructor and as such you can call me a professional theologian, although the ivory tower types would certainly have room to look down their noses at me. I try to be as faithful to the text of Scripture as I can, knowing that I have certain biases and characteristics about my life that shape, whether consciously or unconsciously, my reading of Scripture. Also, I want to approach this subject in a pastoral context. The question to ask is not how do we condemn someone, or make their life miserable, but how do we bring every life (and we are all broken in some way) into the healing power of Jesus? I hope my comments are viewed as such.

The issue that I want to examine today involves the behavior of homosexuality, and in particular, what seems like a growing movement within Christian churches to view homosexuality as a God-given, inborn trait. This inborn reality and the behavior that follows must either be accepted and celebrated (the Anglican/Episcopal church, many churches within the Presbyterian Church USA, many Lutheran churches, etc) or at the very least acknowledged as real, yet overcome through self-denial or outright rejection. I want to challenge this growing acceptance of a theory that I believe is false at its very core, and therefore dangerous for Christians to promote.

As we begin, let us ask what advantage is being sought when a person says, “This is how God made me, I cannot change; therefore you must accept me for the way in which I am created by a loving and all-powerful God?” This person is laying a foundation that if someone chooses to disagree with him or her, the antagonist must be in disagreement with God. No self-respecting Christian wants to disagree with God, so the inclination is to surrender the first half of the statement while trying in some manner to overcome the second part. In my opinion that is an exercise in futility. The person who builds this foundation has done so intentionally to block the Christian into a corner. You either agree that God created this person with these traits, or you reject the creative power of God at the outset. Once you accept that God has created the trait it becomes an exercise in sophistry to attempt to label the behavior as sinful. For every argument that is made there is a ready-made defense. The Christian who argues in this matter becomes Sisyphus, forever doomed to pushing a boulder up a craggy hill.

So, for me the issue revolves around the question of the naturalness, or the normalcy, of the homosexual inclination. Are some people simply born with an irresistible need, and therefore desire, for sexual, psychological, and emotional support from a person of the same sex? If you answer “yes” to that question, how can you argue that the expression of that need can be considered as an abomination, a perversion, of God’s so-called “plan” for human sexuality? If God gave a person a need for sexual release with a person of the same sex, how can he condemn the practice of that release? In my opinion, this is an unanswerable question.

There are, make no mistake, abnormalities and genetic malfunctions of a myriad of types and variations within the human body. Some people are prone to obesity, some to diabetes, some to outbursts of anger and rage, some to the inability to process alcohol, and some even to kleptomania (the urge to steal). No one seriously would argue that these abnormalities or malfunctions should be accepted and celebrated. No one who is morbidly obese enjoys being unable to perform even the most basic of human activities. No one who is diabetic would glorify the issues that they must  deal with. Certainly, most alcoholics would give anything to be rid of the problem that they struggle against on a daily basis. The issues are clear, and the response is virtually unanimous – we fight against these diseases and genetic problems only by first acknowledging that they are diseases and genetic malfunctions.

And so my question to those who argue that homosexuality is an inborn, genetic “gift” from God is this – would you accept and promote a search for the identification and “cure” of this genetic trait? If not every inborn, genetic trait is a positive, healthy, “natural” one, how can we argue that a “homosexual” gene is a positive, healthy, “natural” gene?

There are a couple of facts (as I see them) that even homosexuals cannot deny. One is that homosexuals cannot reproduce without either (a) a surrogate female to carry a baby for two homosexual men, or (b) a male to donate sperm to one or both females in a lesbian relationship. Homosexuality is, by that very definition, unnatural. If someday a genetic link is discovered that determines a person to be homosexual, then I would also suggest that link must be defined as abnormal, recessive, or defective in some way.

One other fact that I believe homosexuals must accept is that there are individuals who have lived a life practicing homosexuality and who have made the conscious decision to leave that lifestyle and live either in a heterosexual union with a husband or wife, or as a celibate single. If, as some suggest, homosexuality is a genetic trait, this would be impossible. Now, the public response from most homosexuals is that “these people were never really homosexuals to begin with, they were simply acting like homosexuals.” This is the old Calvinist response reworded. When someone who lived most of their life in the church suddenly disavowed anything having to do with Jesus it was argued – “This person was never really a Christian, so their rejection of Jesus just revealed that they were reprobate all along.” Never mind that during the person’s life of homosexuality, (or Christianity) neither they nor anyone even closely related to them would suspect that they were anything but homosexual or Christian. Once again, we return to pure sophistry. We try to prove a negative. Logic, and ultimately the revelation of Scripture, ceases to be applicable.

The inability, or the refusal, to confront someone actively involved in a sinful lifestyle is not compassion. It reveals the worst form of negligence. We cannot confuse acceptance of a sinful lifestyle with compassion. The most compassionate thing is sometimes the most painful. Jesus said, “Go and sin no more,” not “go with my sympathy.”

I want to close by saying that human sexuality is complex and mysterious. We will no doubt never understand the depths of what it means to be male and female. But, just as God has given us food to enjoy and to promote growth, and drink to enjoy and to promote growth, he has give us our sexual natures to enjoy and to reproduce the human race. God has also given us very strict limits as to how we exercise that sexual nature, just as he has given limits in terms of food (not to starve ourselves, and not to the point of gluttony) and drink (not to starve ourselves, but also not to the point of inebriation). We simply cannot redefine the terms of sexuality based on evolving, and some might say devolving, cultural standards.

We must also admit that the event of conversion is equally complex and mysterious. I cannot explain why one person would reject their homosexual lifestyle and another person says that such a process is impossible. I do reject the “impossible,” however. With God everything, is possible. Otherwise, none of us could leave our life of sin and become new creatures.

As always, I stand willing to be convinced otherwise if I am in error concerning any aspect of what I have written. I am certainly not omniscient in this or any regard. These are my conclusions, opinions and related questions as I stand at this time, and I invite others to join in the conversation.

In everything, may God be glorified, and may we seek to be shaped into the image of His Son.

Color of Skin or Content of Character?

English: Dr. Martin Luther King giving his &qu...

English: Dr. Martin Luther King giving his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington in Washington, D.C., on 28 August 1963. Español: Dr. Martin Luther King dando su discurso “Yo tengo un sueño” durante la Marcha sobre Washington por el trabajo y la libertad en Washington, D.C., 28 de agosto de 1963. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When will we be able to move past our racism? (I speak primarily of the United States, but other countries no doubt have their racial issues as well.) When will we, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, judge a person based solely on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin? I have an answer, but I will save it for the end of this post.

I reacted very strongly to the verdict in the George Zimmerman murder trial. I thought the verdict was wrong, a fiasco, a blatant miscarriage of justice. Within 48 hours one of the so-called “unbiased” jurors revealed she had signed a book deal to “tell all” about the trial and the deliberations. Public outrage blew that bald-faced self-promotion out of the water. But this same juror showed up on a national TV show and spoke about her experiences. She referred to the defendant as “George” repeatedly. She spoke explicitly about a “stand your ground” law that was never even referenced in the trial, nor in the jury instructions (the wording, as far as I can tell, came from a self-defense provision, but not the law that received the nickname, “stand your ground.”) She allowed that Zimmerman should not have exited his vehicle that dark and rainy night, but almost in the same breath said that race had nothing to do with the jury’s deliberations, nor did she think that racial profiling was a part of the case.

In other words, this supposedly unbiased juror confirmed every one of my public and private fears about this trial. She connected totally on an emotional level with Zimmerman (poor little Georgie, he got a boo-boo on his noggin). Even though Trayvon Martin was doing absolutely nothing wrong, and that Zimmerman never should have exited his vehicle, she still bought into the defense argument that it was Martin that initiated the confrontation, not Zimmerman. We will never know who started that fight, and all we have is Zimmerman’s story. According to this juror there were three votes for guilty and three for acquittal when the jurors first started their deliberations. One juror actually felt Zimmerman was guilty of 2nd degree murder, two others felt he was guilty of manslaughter. That means that the three who leaned toward acquittal were able to change the minds of the three who leaned toward conviction. I wonder how they managed to do that?

Actually, I think I know. All through this trial Zimmerman was portrayed as the victim. Martin has been referred to as a thug, a hoodlum, a gang-banger, street trash. Zimmerman sat in the courtroom all spiffed up in his designer suits looking absolutely cherubic. And don’t feed me that “half Hispanic” line. Zimmerman looks as lilly white as Princess Kate. Those jurors saw this as a white/black issue, whether they would admit to it or not. It was simply inconceivable that a good white boy would be the instigator of a racial conflict. That black boy got what he “deserved.”

This morning a poll was released that just further confirmed my suspicions. As long as the link is valid, you can find the story here. To summarize, the poll revealed that by a significant margin white people and Republicans feel that there is no racial problem in the US, and that the justice system is just fine. Not surprisingly, black people and Democrats feel that racism is alive and well in the US, and that the justice system is broken. In my mind this disparity can only be interpreted one way – when you are in power, when you have absolutely no fear of being profiled by the color of your skin, when you do not have to fear having some vigilante with a loaded gun follow your 17 year old son simply because he “looks suspicious,” when you can put on a suit and tie and have a juror call you by your first name, then the world is pretty rosy for you. Conversely, when you cannot go to a convenience store and buy a snack without having somebody question your behavior, when you cannot walk down the street without having people move away from you, if you fear having your child pulled over by a policeman for “driving while black,” if your son can be shot dead and have the killer acquitted from even the most benign charges, then you are not going to have a very cheerful view of America and its judicial system.

By an overwhelming majority, white people and Republicans just simply do not get this. There is none quite so blind as he who will not see.

For the record, I am a white middle aged male. But a few years ago one of my very good friends told me about being stopped by a policeman in Houston, TX, for no other reason than he was a black man driving where he should not have been driving. “Driving while black” is what they call it. Maybe for the first time in my life I felt another man’s pain because of blatant racism. It changed me.

If I am not mistaken, God calls this behavior “sin.” And he has always called it “sin” and he will always call it “sin.”

How will America heal its racial divisions? The only way that I see forward is for all of us, white, black, brown, yellow, red – even green or purple, to actually confess that we have a racial problem. That’s right – all of us. White on black, black on white, brown on black, red on white – every color against every other color. Racism does not cut one way, or even two ways. Racism cuts every direction, and we cannot even remotely consider ourselves to be a Christian people as long as we harbor prejudices against someone simply because of the color of his or her skin.

Maybe one day we will be able to judge people based on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. But as the Zimmerman verdict, and the very public comments by that juror demonstrates, that day will not occur any time soon.

Certainly not as long as a few scratches on the back of one man’s head are viewed as more significant than a gunshot wound in a young man’s chest.

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