Monday, December 24, 2007

The Defeat of Cynicism

Pope Leo the Great, Christmas Sermon

Dearly beloved, today our Saviour is born; let us rejoice. Sadness should have no place on the birthday of life. The fear of death has been swallowed up; life brings us joy with the promise of eternal happiness.

No one is shut out from this joy; all share the same reason for rejoicing. Our Lord, victor over sin and death, finding no man free from sin, came to free us all. Let the saint rejoice as he sees the palm of victory at hand. Let the sinner be glad as he receives the offer of forgiveness. Let the pagan take courage as he is summoned to life.

In the fullness of time, chosen in the unfathomable depths of God’s wisdom, the Son of God took for himself our common humanity in order to reconcile it with its creator. He came to overthrow the devil, the origin of death, in that very nature by which he had overthrown mankind.
And so at the birth of our Lord the angels sing in joy: Glory to God in the highest, and they proclaim peace to men of good will as they see the heavenly Jerusalem being built from all the nations of the world. When the angels on high are so exultant at this marvellous work of God’s goodness, what joy should it not bring to the lowly hearts of men?

Beloved, let us give thanks to God the Father, through his Son, in the Holy Spirit, because in his great love for us he took pity on us, and when we were dead in our sins he brought us to life with Christ, so that in him we might be a new creation.

"'Christmas! Christmas!' when there is no Christmas."

"'Peace! Peace!' when there is no peace." One of the Jewish prophets cried out against the false prophets who declared peace when there was violence all around. You have to wonder how the false prophets could have gotten away with it -- could have gotten any kind of a hearing that would arouse a response. I mean -- when there is violence all around, isn't it obvious? How could someone declare peace and have anyone take the message seriously? It's a mystery.

On the other hand, one of my favorite little malaprop is: There's a seeker born every minute. In other words, people will hear what they want to hear, believe what they want to believe.

Channel surfing late last night I ran across a travel channel show about tribal life. I didn't catch the name of the island, but it was some island that had been occupied by US forces during WWII. After they left, the natives started up a cult of expectation of their return. The cult is called "John Frum," as in "John from America," and it raises the American flag each day, has Friday worship in which the hope and expectation is expressed that John Frum will return to bless them. No, I'm not making this up. Google it.

People will believe what they want to believe. Perhaps I'm just feeling extra cynical this Christmas. Lets see: this year I've just heard from a friend whose wife left him last week, though he's been trying hard to keep the marriage together. I have other friends whose marriages are on the rocks, or completely gone. Another friend's son has just been diagnosed with cancer. Etc., etc. I talked to the first one mentioned just a bit ago, and he wished me a Merry Christmas. He meant it, too, even though his heart is breaking and mine aches with him. I don't know what to do with that.

So, chalk it up to a bad mood if you want, but when I see our government trying to convince us that we're all about peace, I'm juuuust a tad skeptical. When I see materialistic churches trying to "put the Christ back in Christmas," my skepticism turns black. Can we be that blind?

Ok, sorry -- dumb question.

But what bugs me most is my own ability to affect any of it. "Cosmic Therapy" indeed. The truth is that I can't even fix myself, so certainly I can't expect to be able to fix the world. I know, of course, that only God can fix the world. But I continually despair of our human attempts to have any impact at all.

In a few minutes my family will attend a Christmas Eve service that will proclaim the entry of God into his creation with the hope that creation itself will ultimately be redeemed. Marana tha.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

HB 1804 must die!

Mr. Shane Jett, the Republican Representative from Oklahoma's District 27, has considered proposing legislation that would help to curtail the effects of our recent immigration law, HB 1804, on the Oklahoma economy. You can read about it here.

Though his legislation does not go far enough, it's a start. It doesn't address the moral issues, but only the economic issues. I suspect that's the best that can be done immediately -- address people's wallets. HB 1804 itself was enacted out of fear that "they" (meaning the undocumented immigrants) were taking money out of "our" (meaning those of us whose families got here earlier, whether legally or illegally) pockets. In other words, it was pure selfishness.

But, I support what Mr. Jett is trying to do. Hopefully, this will be only a first step toward getting HB 1804 off of the books. Here is most of the text of a letter I have sent to Mr. Jett. It explains my feelings about HB 1804 as clearly as I know how.

Dear Mr. Jett:

I appreciate very much your effort to compose a bill that will enable a guest worker program, and I want to encourage you to do so as quickly as possible. For a variety of reasons I see HB 1804 as immoral, bigoted and racist. It is an embarrassment to the state of Oklahoma. Thank you for your compassion to our neighbors who are less fortunate than many of us and who are doing their best to make a better life for their families.

Let me tell you about a Hispanic young lady who was in one of my classes this semester. This young lady is very intelligent, and aspires to go to law school. I have no doubt she has the ability to do so. She certainly has the drive, and was an outstanding student. But in mid-October, she didn’t show up in class for 2 weeks. I knew she had been planning on doing a mission trip with her church to Peru, so at first I didn’t think much about it. But absence was very atypical for her, so in the second week I began to be concerned. I emailed her, but she didn’t answer. Finally, at the end of the month, she appeared in my office nearly in tears because she had to drop most of her classes. She told me the whole story: her father had been arrested for having hired undocumented immigrants in his business. Though she and her family are all citizens, they tried to help others move here and establish themselves. The INS had been going door to door in her neighborhood checking for undocumented immigrants. Some of her father’s employees had been arrested; others had been forced into hiding. This young lady had had to take over her father’s business and try to keep it running (her family’s only income) while her father was in jail, and she had to keep it running with a skeleton staff. Quite a task for a 19 year old!

Mr. Jett, this is a Christian family. These are solid citizens. Yet this young lady had to see her father treated like a common criminal because he had extended Christian charity to people less fortunate than himself as they tried to improve their own lives. She also had to drop out of school in order to run her family’s business. So her own career is in jeopardy at this point!

You are right that HB 1804 makes no sense economically. It also makes no sense morally, and I believe we need to have it overturned as quickly as possible. The way it has been implemented, with the INS going door to door in south Oklahoma City, is reminiscent of how the Nazis treated the Jews in the WWII era! It seems to me that those who pushed for it and who support it have forgotten why it was their own families immigrated to this nation. They have also neglected to ask themselves to what length they might go to establish a decent life for their own families. I know that I would be willing to break an immigration law if it would mean a better life for my children and grandchildren. Those who try to argue that these undocumented immigrants are simply criminals because they have broken a law have failed in their moral reasoning to understand the situation. The vast majority of these folks are not people who are simply living as outlaws in order to avoid working for a living! Their “crimes” cannot be understood on the same level as, for instance, drug dealers, murderers or thieves. A more parallel case might be breaking speed laws in order to get your child to a hospital in an emergency!

I don't know that we can get that law thrown out, but I want our legislature to know how I feel about it. And I believe this is an unjust law, and that means it is a good candidate for civil disobedience.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007


Comments at OC Outreach, 11/05/07. These are mostly quotes from other sources (mostly documented, but perhaps not adequately for academic standards), with a few notes of my own interspersed.


Abbot Palladius: “the first step away from God is a distaste for learning, and lack of appetite for those things for which the soul hungers when it seeks God.”

David Hume: “And as every quality, which is useful or agreeable to ourselves or others, is, in common life, allowed to be a part of personal merit; so no other will ever be received, where men judge of things by their natural, unprejudiced reason, without the delusive glosses of superstition and false religion. Celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, solitude, and the whole train of monkish virtues; for what reason are they every where rejected by men of sense, but because they serve to no manner of purpose; neither advance a man's fortune in the world, nor render him a more valuable member of society; neither qualify him for the entertainment of company, nor increase his power of self-enjoyment? We observe, on the contrary, that they cross all these desirable ends; stupify the understanding and harden the heart, obscure the fancy and sour the temper. We justly, therefore, transfer them to the opposite column, and place them in the catalogue of vices; nor has any superstition force sufficient among men of the world, to pervert entirely these natural sentiments. A gloomy, hair-brained enthusiast, after his death, may have a place in the calendar; but will scarcely ever be admitted, when alive, into intimacy and society, except by those who are as delirious and dismal as himself.” (David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. 1898 ed. Quoted from; accessed 11-04-07).

"Is not the neglect of this plain duty (I mean fasting, ranked by our Lord with almsgiving and prayer) one general occasion of deadness among Christians?"
--- John Wesley, *The Journal of John Wesley*

No “Precious Moments”: Jesus’ method of evangelism

“Peacemaking, he said repeatedly, is hardly possible without a well-formed spiritual life, with the usual elements of prayer and fasting, quiet reflection, and sacramental life. Prayer was at very top of the list. How can one love a person one will not pray for? Or, without prayer, find the strength to overcome despair?” (Jim Forest, “Meeting Thomas Merton.”)

The early church expected those who fast to give away what they would have eaten, either in money-value or in food, to those in need. (Shepherd of Hermas 3.5.3; Augustine's Sermon 208). Origen (Homilies on Leviticus, 10) even praised those who fasted in order to give to the poor.

Fasting = solitude, silence and humility = repentance.

Abbot Moses of Scete: “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”

“It was said of Abbot Agatho that for three years he carried a stone in his mouth until he learned to be silent.”

Abbot Pastor said: A man must breathe humility and the fear of God just as ceaselessly as he inhales and exhales the air.”

One of the elders was asked what was humility, and he said: If you forgive a brother who has injured you before he himself asks pardon.”

Thomas Merton observed, "It is in deep solitude that I find the gentleness with which I can truly love others. The more solitary I am the more affection I have for them; it is pure affection and filled with reverence for the solitude of others. Solitude and silence teach me to love others for who they are, not for what they say."

Merton, The Way of Chuang Tzu. Translator/Editor Thomas Merton. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1965. ISBN 0877736766

Yen Hui:
What is fasting of the heart?
The goal of fasting is inner unity.
This means hearing, but not with the ear;
hearing, but not with the understanding;
hearing with the spirit, with your whole being...
The hearing of the spirit is not limited to any one faculty, to the ear, or to the mind.
Hence it demands the emptiness of all the faculties.
And when the faculties are empty, then the whole being listens.
There is then a direct grasp of what is right there before you
that can never be heard with the ear or understood with the mind.
Fasting of the heart empties the faculties, frees you from limitation and from preoccupation.
Fasting of the heart begets unity and freedom.
Yen Hui:
I see. What was standing in my way was my own self-awareness. If I can begin this fasting of the heart, self awareness will vanish.
(4:1, pp. 75-76)

Enemy = you/ego.

“Yet another elder said: If you see a young monk by his own will climbing up into heaven, take him by the foot and throw him to the ground, because what he is doing is not good for him.”

To one of the brethren appeared a devil, transformed into an angel of light, who said to him: I am the Angel Gabriel, and I have been sent to thee. But the brother said: Think again – you must have been sent to somebody else. I haven’t done anything to deserve an angel. Immediately the devil ceased to appear.”

“The next step in the process is for you to see that your own thinking about what you are doing is crucially important. You are probably striving to build yourself an identity in your work, out of your work and your witness. You are using it, so to speak, to protect yourself against nothingness, annihilation. That is not the right use of your work. All the good that you will do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love. Think of this more, and gradually you will be free from the need to prove yourself, and you can be more open to the power that will work through you without your knowing it.” (Thomas Merton, in a letter to Jim Forest. Quoted in “Meeting Thomas Merton,” lecture given by Jim Forest at the meeting of the Thomas Merton Society of Great Britain and Ireland at St Lawrence Church in Winchester, England, 29 November 2003;; accessed 11-04-2007).

Meister Eckhart:

“Man never desires anything so earnestly as God desires to bring a man to Himself, that he may know Him.

God is always ready, but we are very unready; God is near to us, but we are far from Him; God is within, but we are without; God is at home, but we are strangers...

“If it is the case that man is emptied of all things, creatures, himself and god, and if god could still find a place in him to act . . . this man is not poor with the most intimate poverty. For God does not intend that man should have a place reserved for him to work in since true poverty of spirit requires that man shall be emptied of god and all his works so that if God wants to act in the soul he himself must be the place in which he acts. . . . (God takes then) responsibility for his own action and (is) himself the scene of the action, for God is one who acts within himself.” (Meister Eckhart, “Blessed are the Poor” [sermon], in R. B. Blakney, Meister Eckhart, a Modern Translation, NY: 1941, p. 231; quoted from Thomas Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite [NY: New Directions, 1968], 9.).

Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite, “Author’s Note”:

Where there is carrion lying, meat-eating birds circle and descend. Life and death are two. The living attack the dead, to their own profit. The dead lose nothing by it. They gain too, by being disposed of. Or they seem to, if you must think in terms of gain and loss. Do you then approach the study of Zen with the idea that there is something to be gained by it? This question is not intended as an implicit accusation. But it is, nevertheless, a serious question. Where there is a lot of fuss about “spirituality,” “enlightenment” or just “turning on,” it is often because there are buzzards hovering around a corpse. This hovering, this circling, this descending, this celebration of victory, are not what is meant by the Study of Zen—even though they may be a highly useful exercise in other contexts. And they enrich the birds of appetite.

Zen enriches no one. There is no body to be found. The birds may come and circle for a while in the place where it is thought to be. But they soon go elsewhere. When they are gone, the “nothing,” the “no-body” that was there, suddenly appears. That is Zen. It was there all the time but the scavengers missed it, because it was not their kind of prey.

“Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not be totally changed into fire”?

Sunday, October 28, 2007

"How would YOU Feel if. . . .?"

In a NY Times article today (October 28, 2007), the story is told of a church that has stood against the death penalty but now struggles with what to do in the wake of murders of three of its members, three of the Petit family. Click here to read it.

The question posed by this incident is worthy of consideration. But it is NOT worthy of being reduced to either a political issue or an ethical "case study." Not, at least, now.

I'm posting it here because the question is sometimes put to me in the classroom when I tell students I'm against the death penalty: "But how would YOU feel if . . . .?" followed by some scenario more or less parallel to the story in the article.

I sometimes characterize myself as a pacifist with violent tendencies. It's true. And if my family were killed the way Dr. Petit's family was, I'm sure I would want horrible things to happen to the killers. That's what I would feel.

But it's not what I WANT to feel, nor is it how I want to act. I would want my friends and family to help me hold to my convictions against revenge and against violence. Here I'm taking a page from Stanley Hauerwas, who says he frequently tells people he's non-violent so they'll hold him to it. That's what I need. Convictions like this can't stand in solitude. "It takes a village," someone once said. I prefer "it takes a church." I need a church to hold me up and hold me to my convictions.

But I'd also need compassion . . . true COM-passion, or people around me who would weep with me and feel my pain. That's what Dr. Petit needs from his church right now. I pray he's getting it.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Comments and prayer in OC chapel, Oct. 2, 2007

We are in a time of national strife. We are a nation sorely divided on significant issues surrounding the morality of the war in Iraq. It is all too easy to be on one side of that argument and to vilify the other side: to call those who protest the war cowards or accuse them of not being patriotic; or conversely to label as “war mongers” those who support it.

I am not here to tell you which side of that issue you should take. But I do want us to take a moment to reflect on the enormous destruction that is taking place in Iraq.

Every day there are wives who hold the dead bodies of their husbands – bodies with the life dripping out of them onto the street, onto the hands and into the clothing of the one who holds them. Every day there are abductions, and the families of the victims will never hear from them again. Every day there are children who are killed by car bombs, and their mothers, if they have survived, weep over their corpses. Every day there are children who witness the murder of their mother or their father. Every day there are people maimed by the violence around them – people who are innocent bystanders. Every day there are people driven from their homes, leaving everything behind they hold dear.

We, as Americans, have had our own share of weeping and loss. And we frequently pray for the safety of our troops. But nowhere in Scripture are we told to pray for our troops. We are, however, told to pray for our enemies, and I have rarely heard such a prayer. May we offer it now.

Holy, loving Father: may we be instruments of peace, not of hate or violence. May we remember that we are your children, but that the people of Iraq and Afghanistan are also your children, and that you love them just as much as you love Americans. May we know how much you grieve over the injustices done to them or that they do to themselves; that you weep with those who weep. May we know that you are in and with those we find it most difficult to love, but that you love them and that we are also called to love them as you do. Lord, give us hearts to see them as you see them, to also weep with those mothers who weep over their dead children, with those wives, mothers, fathers, children, who weep over their dead loved ones, and who this very day are burying them.

Lord, we pray for those who still live with war and murder around them every day. We pray for their safety. We pray for their quality of life – that they will have food, water, shelter, and most of all that peace will come to them. We pray for the nation of Iraq and the nation of Afghanistan. May their leaders be people of peace.

Lord, we pray for our enemies, for those who hate us and would persecute or kill us. Help us not to stoop to their level – to the level of hate. Help us to heed the command of Jesus to not only not kill, but also to not hate them. Help us even to LOVE our enemies, just as you loved us when we were your enemies. We pray that our enemies will come to see and know your love for them, and to see and know that they should also love rather than hate. Lord, that is a tall order, but we ask it in hope and with faith in your ultimate power.

Lord, forgive our pride, even and especially the pride we Americans sometimes feel because we are Americans. We pray for peace. We pray these things in the name of Jesus who died to bring peace. Amen.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Another Guarantee of Continued Violence in the Middle East

Guaranteed. Place your bets now, before the rush. We have just guaranteed more years of violence and mayhem in the Middle East -- and probably in many places around the world. How? It's easy.

You just give thirty billion (that's 30 with 9 zeros after it) dollars worth of military aid to the nation of Israel so they can maintain their military advantage over everyone else in the Middle East. See the story here. Oh, and at the same time, DO NOT ask them to treat the Palestinians with any kind of justice!

The Israelis have unjustly occupied Palestinian territory since -- 1948? No doubt there has been injustice on the part of the Palestinians over the years, but their oppression at the hands of the Israelis is just as -- at least! -- horrendous. Many web sites recount the history of this conflict, but one I've found useful is called "Palestine Remembered."

My point here is not to place blame (there is more than enough to go around, and it doesn't stop with the Israelis or the Palestinians), but to point out the obvious: the US is continuing to feed the fires of conflict in the Middle East. If we were serious about peace, we would work hard to resolve the Palestinian conflict. When we side with Israel (as we have always done), we provoke all of the allies of the Palestinians. We're not trying to solve this conflict -- I suspect it is way too profitable for the US oil and military interests. This is big business!

I want my country, the United States of America, to live up to its claims of being a peace-loving nation. We can only do that by bringing peace in Palestine. The "War on Terror" (a stupid name for it, just for starters) is only throwing gasoline on brush fires. The root of the issue is in Palestine. When we can stop the oppression of the Palestinian people and bring a resolution there, we will have made great strides toward reducing the terroristic threat world-wide. Period. The US can do this -- we have the political and economic (as if they're different!) clout with Israel to get it accomplished. But it will require that we give up some of our own economic interests. Hmmm. Fat chance.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

"'Scores die' in Iraq bomb attacks"

That's the headline over this story on the BBC website, posted just today (August 14, 2007). Over 175 members of a religious sect known as Yazidi were killed by suicide bomb attacks, apparently by fellow-Kurds.

This is the kind of violence the US presence has provoked in Iraq. Now, in a vacuum of power caused by the end of the Hussein regime, the ethnic groups in Iraq and the religious sects are vying for power.

Of course, the ethnic and sectarian tensions were present before, but were checked by the power of Hussein's central government. And of course, there was the threat of Hussein's next whimsical ethnic cleansing. Or so the story goes.

Is Iraq a safer place now? Is it a better place to live? Is the quality of life better now than it was before? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding "NO!" We have opened Pandora's Box, and now we don't know how to shut it.

I want us Americans to know the truth about what we have caused, and continue to cause. I want us to remember to grieve for the thousands and thousands of dead Iraqis, not just the dead Americans. The website "Iraq Body Count" reports that a minimum of 69, 334 Iraqi civilians have been killed, and a maximum of 75,775. On October 11, 2006 CNN reported that over 655,000 Iraqis had been killed in the war. The director of a 2003 door to door survey in Baghdad and southern Iraq has published his findings on this site, "Iraqi Civilian War Casualties. He includes names, ages and causes of death. This is the Iraq war made personal rather than letting it remain a remote conflict in an obscure part of the world, easily overlooked or forgotten.

Every day there are human beings dying -- being killed -- by both US forces and Iraqi militia or "death squads." Each one of these people has a family -- a husband or wife, a parent or grandparent, a child or children -- who now grieve. These are not just body count numbers, but people -- individuals. Each one is a life ended. Each one was a child of God, no matter what we think of their politics or religious beliefs.

When we think about what to do next in Iraq, we can't think only of US national interests. We cannot think only of the deaths of American soldiers and civilians (because so much of the war effort has been contracted out to private enterprises, some estimate that there are more American civilians in Iraq than American soldiers!). We have to remember also that the Iraqi people have suffered incredible loss -- tantamount to genocide. Many times more Iraqis have died than Americans.

Is it any wonder that the Iraqis want us out?

It has been argued that if we leave now, we will leave the Iraqis to their own self-destruction -- that the civil war that would ensue would be worse than our continued presence. That's an excuse, I think, to keep our armed forces there and to continue to pursue our national interests there. Let's get it out of our heads that we're just there to do the Iraqis a favor. If that were the case, our troops would also be in Dafur, and in many, many other places around the world where there is civil strife. The only way a war effort can be sold to the American people is by claiming national interests. Face it, we're not altruistic in the use of our troops. We send them out where it will ultimately help our economy. If it were mere altruism, we wouldn't risk American lives.

So, would the situation in Iraq be worse if the US troops leave? Or would the Iraqis find a way to police themselves and end the civil war presently going on?

I believe they would. It certainly wouldn't be easy or quick, but it seems clear to me that this conflict will NEVER end so long as US troops are there. We're their enemy, and they won't give up until we're gone -- just as many Americans would resent, for instance, a Chinese occupying force, and would never give up until they were forced out. So long as the enemy (us!) is present, there will be war in Iraq. Period. Oh -- unless every last Iraqi is killed. But that would be genocide, and we're against that -- aren't we?

Are we doing the Iraqis a favor by forcing democracy on them? I doubt it. Democracy is dependent on a number of ideas that existed in the Western world as a result of the enlightenment -- ideas like individualism and egalitarianism -- and that DO NOT exist in the middle east, and these ideas are not necessarily Biblical or the best ideas of humanity. (More on that another time, perhaps.) But without those concepts and practices having become a part of a culture, democracy will make no sense. And that's Iraq -- an inherently communal society that values societal roles and traditional hierarchies.

So, we're doing them no favors, but merely creating more strife and killing. Staying won't solve it, and leaving won't end it, at least not immediately. However, leaving will allow it to end eventually. Staying will have the opposite effect, and ultimately will result in more destruction of life than leaving.

Go to the Iraqi Civilian War Casualties and read the names. Look at the pictures. See the faces of those killed and injured. Love your enemies.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Why I Retired From Baseball

Basically, at about age 20 I realized I would NOT have a career in the big leagues. Why? Hmmm. Somewhat long story, but here goes.

For spring break my sophomore year in college (1979) some friends and I (all on the Michigan Christian College baseball team) went to Florida. Now, first of all, back then spring break in Florida did NOT resemble anything now broadcast on MTV. Not that I've watched much of that. Seriously. I'm not kidding. Anyway, to prove that point: we did go to the beach, and we did meet some girls there -- all from David Lipscomb University. No kidding. No partying.

Anyway, we also went to a couple of major league spring training games. We went to the Yankees spring training facility to watch them play against the Orioles. I was impressed by the athleticism and sheer strength of the players, especially compared to my own! It appeared that both of my shoulders would fit on any one side of theirs. (I was so thin back then, believe it or not, that when I graduated from high school I was "willed" by fellow graduates a pair of snow shoes so I wouldn't fall through the cracks in the gym floor!) But they didn't look like football players -- absolutely no excess weight. Just sheer, natural strength. So far, though, I was undeterred from my career choice of being a major league baseball player.

But, as we watched the game, a player strode to the plate and hit a line drive. I promise -- it never got more than six feet off the ground, and it slammed into the outfield fence in left-center. I'd never seen a ball hit that hard, and I remember realizing in an instant that I could never do anything like that. I just didn't have the talent, and the whole situation was just too intimidating. I knew I would have to quit.

What I didn't know at that moment -- and only realized later -- was that the player who had hit that line drive was (then little known) Eddie Murray, who would finish his career with 504 home runs and would be elected to the baseball Hall of Fame. In 1979 he was entering his third year in the majors, and had hit only 37 home runs. Wimp. See his career stats here. All I knew at that time was his name.

So, I got intimidated out of a sure-fire career in the major leagues by a future Hall-of-Famer. Ok -- maybe not "sure-fire" (except for the part about NEVER making it). I blame it all on Eddie Murray.

Sometimes I wonder (still!) what might have happened in my life if a few little things had gone differently -- if I'd had better coaching, or hadn't injured my thumb on my throwing hand by playing basketball that year, or hadn't been over-awed by Eddie Murray. The answer is: we'll never know. It's fun to wonder, especially when I hear baseball announcers lamenting the dearth of good pitching in the majors. The dream is probably better than the reality would ever have been.

Some people would claim divine providence -- that God had other plans for me to become a minister or a theologian. Of course, there are others who attribute my present career to Satan! So, did God arrange for me to see Eddie Murray so I would give up on the pipe-dream of playing major league baseball and turn to theology? Did God arrange it so that I would sprain my thumb and be unable to pitch for part of a season? Or was it all "chance"? Or, was it Satan?

Only a few things seem clear in this issue. One is that God does NOT micromanage the entire universe. Not everything that happens is according to God's plan. If it were, there would be no sin. Since sin and evil certainly exist (I know this can be debated, but one issue at a a time, please!), and since (Biblically speaking) we can't blame God directly for them, there must be another cause of sin and evil that is NOT God. Therefore God does not control every event in the universe. Some things are, then, OUTSIDE of his control. (Note: I am not arguing that God CANNOT control all events, only that he DOES NOT.)

Could we say that God controls all events that are NOT sin? In other words, since seeing Eddie Murray and the Orioles play the Yankees that day is (most probably) not sin, is it possible that God arranged the whole thing?

I suppose it is possible, but it doesn't seem likely to me. Think of all (or at least some) of the arrangements that would have to be made for such an event to come about. Eddie Murray would have to be healthy: no spring training injuries, no flu bugs, no spring training fatigue, etc. (And don't think that "etc." is insignificant -- it probably stands for millions of other possibilities!) He had to be "swinging away" and not trying to bunt for a base hit or sacrifice bunt -- so in part this situation depended on what players who batted just before him had done! His manager would have to be in agreement: he needs the at-bats, the opposing pitcher isn't some young kid who throws wildly at 98 MPH and might hurt the young star (Murray), there is no one else who needs work more than Murray or that management needs to evaluate, he doesn't need time off, he won't be assigned to a different game, he won't be traded, etc. And we might try to consider the broader possibilities: Murray's family had no crises, no big events, and the weather had to cooperate. Etc. What about the possibilities in the game? Murray would have to be "seeing the ball" really well to get that kind of hit (unless we assume direct divine intervention, i.e., that God swung the bat FOR him), the pitch would have to be just right, bat speed just right. ETC. The catcher would have to call for the pitch (and he is obviously trying to call a pitch that would NOT allow such a hit!!!), and the pitcher would have to agree. Obviously the pitch wasn't a "pitcher's pitch," i.e., it didn't do exactly what the pitcher intended, so Murray was able to lace it into the outfield. Or perhaps it WAS the "pitcher's pitch," but the scouting report on Murray was wrong, or he had learned to hit a particular type of pitch that he hadn't been able to hit the year before -- so that the scouting report was RIGHT, but outdated. And he had to hit it precisely on the right part of the bat -- no broken bat blooper would do, no ground out, no lazy fly ball or measly single. ETC.

What about me? I had to be watching intently rather than being distracted by my friends around me. My ego had to be in just the right state for the hit to have the effect it had on me -- not too confident or cocky, but yet not so un-confident that I wouldn't have a dream of playing major league baseball. I had to have the cooperation of my friends -- we all had to agree to make the trip to Florida, we all had to come up with the money, convince our parents we could do it without killing ourselves (a dicey proposition if ever there was one) or becoming completely corrupted. We had to agree to go to major league spring training camps rather than the beach or Disney World. We all had to be healthy enough, we all had to get up on time, be willing to pay the gas there, ETC. ETC.

Did I, my friends, the manager, the pitcher, the catcher, and/or Murray himself have any free will in these decisions? For God to have orchestrated the entire situation, wouldn't free will have to have been suspended almost completely for all those involved? Does God DO THAT?

I suppose he could. We do have Biblical examples (such as Jeremiah) where the text says that God chose a person's path before he/she was ever born. But even then, human beings seem to be able to choose a different path -- would we argue, for instance, that Jesus was coerced by God -- that he had no free will to choose to follow God's will for him? I doubt it. And consider Jonah -- he chose a different path, literally. And then God DOES get coercive. Could he still have chosen differently? It appears so, though that might have had dire consequences (I mean, what would it take to follow up on spending three days/nights in the belly of a large fish? I don't even want to imagine what would be worse!)

So, God CAN get rather coercive at times. But, coercion is different than the removal of freedom. Under coercion one can still defy. One merely has to be willing to pay the consequences.

In other words, it seems unlikely that God set up a coercive situation for me to see Eddie Murray hit a line drive that would make me think about becoming a theologian rather than a baseball player.

I think that also answers the question about Satan's involvement. If God himself will not suspend free will, would he allow Satan to do so? Doesn't seem logical.

Maybe God just wanted to see the Yankees get beat again. That sounds like the God I worship.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Praying Over My Head

I love baseball. I played the game from the age of seven or eight until I turned fortyfive a few years ago -- when I finally faced up to the truth that I would never make it to the bigs. :-) Actually, I had faced up to THAT truth years before. But at about age 45, the truth faced was that continuing to play was getting both progressively futile and embarrassing and progressively painful!! I knew my days were numbered when I was forty, still playing in summer league softball, and I made a dash from first to third on a ball hit to left field -- a dash I'd always been able to make with ease; but now "dash" had to be qualified, I discovered. I discovered that fact when I was still twenty feet from third base and saw that the third baseman already had the ball! Where had my lightning speed gone? Oh -- it had stayed in the 80s, but this was the 90s. Anyway, my only hope was to attempt a diving, headfirst slide. Putting my life on the line, I went for it. As I dove for the bag, I felt something in my left shoulder pop. But not to worry, I also felt my feet fly up over my head, and one foot hit the third baseman's glove and knocked the ball loose, so I was safe at third. I stood up -- my left shoulder felt a little weird, but didn't seem hurt. I played the rest of the game and all my body parts seemed to function ok.

But, we had a double-header that night, with an hour off between games. When I started to warm up for the next game, I realized that I couldn't get my upper left arm to move over the level of my shoulder. I had torn my rotator cuff (I found out weeks later when I finally went to the doctor). It took two years to heal fully.

Now, I'm not claiming that Curt Shilling took a page out of my book with his "bloody sock" stunt, but I played that second game that night and did pretty well. Thankfully I didn't have to catch any balls over the level of my shoulder -- all grounders (I played shortstop). The adrenalin got me through, and the pain only set in later. (Advil is my BFF!)

Everyone does things at some times that we look back on and wonder how we did it. I was never a great athlete, but every now and then I could make a play that might fool someone into thinking I was (if they didn't watch too long and see me boot the next four ground balls or something). Any time that happened, I was really "playing over my head." Sorta like the Milwaukee Brewers for the first half of this season. (Watch them fade in July! Go Cubs!)

I'm lousy at prayer. My prayers are usually just long complaints to God about my pet peeves and unfulfilled selfish desires. I wish I could do better -- and on occasion, by God's grace I have -- but most of the time I feel like God ought to tee me up and whack me down the fairway -- or into the water bunker (would that be an allusion to baptism? Hmmm.).

When I see this tendency in my prayers -- when I make an effort to do better -- I frequently turn to the prayers of people who are better than me. Yes, I know, that's a long list. But it makes the research easier.

Anyway, here's one that I have bookmarked on my browser so that I can click to it when the world and my own selfishness threaten to keep me from sleeping. It's an ancient prayer called the Aidan Compline. You can see the prayer with a short history and instructions by clicking here. But, here are the words. See if these don't help you "pray over your head." They are particularly moving when used (as originally intended) in a group with various leaders (see the instructions for that).

* O Christ, Son of the living God,
may Your holy angels guard our sleep,
may they watch over us as we rest
and hover around our beds.

* Let them reveal to us in our dreams
visions of Your glorious truth,
O High Prince of the universe,
O High Priest of the mysteries.

* May no dreams disturb our rest
and no nightmares darken our dreams.
May no fears or worries delay
our willing, prompt repose.

* May the virtue of our daily work
hallow our nightly prayers.
May our sleep be deep and soft
so our work be fresh and hard.

I will lie down and sleep in peace
for You alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.

My dear ones, O God, bless Thou and keep,
in every place where they are.

* Into Your hands I commit my spirit;
I give it to You with all the love of my heart.

* How precious to me are Your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
Were I to count them,
they would outnumber the grains of sand.
When I awake, I am still with You.

I make the cross of Christ upon my breast,
+ over the tablet of my hard heart,
and I beseech the Living God of the universe -
may the Light of Lights come
to my dark heart from Thy place;
may the Spirit's wisdom come to my heart's tablet
from my Saviour.

* Christ without sin, Christ of wounds,
I am placing my soul and my body
under Thy guarding this night,
Christ of the poor, Christ of tears.
Thy cross be my shielding this night,
O Thou Son of tears, of the wounds, of the piercing.

I am going now into the sleep:
O be it in Thy dear arm's keep,
O God of grace, that I shall awake.

* My Christ! my Christ!
my shield, my encircler,
each day, each night,
each light, each dark.

* My Christ! my Christ!
my shield, my encircler,
each day, each night,
each light, each dark.
Be near me, uphold me,
my treasure, my triumph.

Circle me, Lord,
keep protection near
and danger afar.

* Circle me, Lord,
keep light near
and darkness afar.

* Circle me, Lord,
keep peace within;
keep evil out.

The peace of all peace
be mine this night
+ in the name of the Father,
and of the Son,
and of the Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

"Save Dafur" video

Click here to watch. Then act.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Patriot's Dream by Gordon Lightfoot

Granted -- Gordon Lightfoot is a Canadian. We probably shouldn't hold that against him. But these lyrics, from his 1972 album Don Quixote, may speak powerfully to Americans (with apologies to Canadians, who for some strange reason like to insist that THEY are Americans, too). I've wondered sometimes why more US citizens weren't protesting the war in Iraq, and why the anti-war movement took so long to gain momentum. Perhaps it's because we didn't have good songs to move us like we did in the 1960s and 1970s during the Viet Nam war. Maybe we need some good new anti-war songs. In the meantime, try this one out. You can listen to it on Ruckus here ( But, here's the lyrics.

The songs of the wars are as old as the hills.
They cling like the rust on the cold steel that kills.
They tell of the boys who went down to the tracks
In a patriotic manner with the cold steel on their backs.

The patriot's dream is as old as the sky.
It lives in the lust of a cold calloused lie.
Let's drink to the men who got caught by the chill
Of the patriotic fever and the cold steel that kills.

The train pulled away on that glorious night.
The drummer got drunk and the bugler got tight
While the boys in the back sang a song of good cheer
While riding off to glory in the spring of their years.

The patriot's dream still lives on today.
It makes mothers weep and it makes lovers pray.
Let's drink to the men who got caught by the chill
Of the patriotic fever and the cold steel that kills.

Well there was a sad, sad lady
Weeping all night long.
She received a sad, sad message
From a voice on the telephone.
Her children were all sleeping
As she waited out the dawn.
How could she tell those children
That their father was shot down.
So she took them to her side that day
And she told them one by one,
Your father was a good man ten thousand miles from home.
He tried to do his duty and it took him straight to hell.
He might be in some prison, I hope he's treated well.

Well there was a young girl watching in the early afternoon
When she heard the name of someone who said he'd be home soon.
She wondered how they got him, but the papers did not tell.
There would be no sweet reunion, there would be no wedding bells.
So she took herself into her room and she turned the bed sheets down,
And she cried into the silken folds of her new wedding gown.
He tried to do his duty; it took him straight to hell.
He might be in some prison, I hope he's treated well.

Well there was an old man sitting in his mansion on the hill.
And he thought of his good fortune and the time he'd yet to kill.
He called to his wife one day, "Come sit with me awhile."
Turning toward the sunset, he smiled a wicked smile
"Well I'd like to say I'm sorry for the sinful deeds I've done,
But let me first remind you, I'm a patriotic son."
They tried to do their duty and it took 'em straight to hell.
They might be in some prison, I hope they're treated well

The songs of the wars are as old as the hills,
They cling like the rust on the cold steel that kills.
They tell of the boys who went down to the tracks
In a patriotic manner with the cold steel on their backs.

The train pulled away on that glorious night,
The drummer got drunk and the bugler got tight
While the boys in the back sang a song of good cheer
While riding off to glory in the spring of their years.

The patriot's dream still lives on today
It makes mothers weep and it makes lovers pray.
Let's drink to the men who got caught by the chill
Of the patriotic fever and the cold steel that kills.

I heard an NPR piece a couple of months ago about a new Neil Young album that was wholly a protest against the war in Iraq. I haven't yet heard it. Hope to soon.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

GOD'S WHEEL by Shel Silverstein

God says to me with kind of a smile,
"Hey how would you like to be God awhile
and steer the world?"
"Ok," says I, "I'll give it a try.
Where do I set?
How much do I get?
What time is lunch?
When can I quit?"
"Gimme back that wheel," says God,
"I don't think you're quite ready yet."

Friday, June 15, 2007

that's what I'M talking about

A couple of posts ago I wrote about being consistently pro-life. That post actually got a few comments (proof that other minds exist -- unless I just imagined the comments! -- darn). Anyway, here's a link to a recent post on Jim Wallis's "God's Politics" blog that is along the same lines:

So, waddya think?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

THE GENERALS by Shel Silverstein

Said General Clay to General Gore,
"Oh must we fight this silly war?
To kill and die is such a bore."
"I quite agree," said General Gore.

Said General Gore to General Clay,
"We could go to the beach today
And have some ice cream on the way."
"A grand idea," said General Clay.

Said General Clay to General Gore,
"We'll build sand castles on the shore."
Said General Gore, "We'll splash and play."
"Let's leave right now," said General Clay.

Said General Gore to General Clay,
"But what if the sea is closed today?
And what if the sand's been blown away?"
"A dreadful thought," said General Clay.

Said General Gore to General Clay,
"I've always feared the ocean's spray,
And we may drown!" "It's true, we may.
It chills my blood," said General Clay.

Said General Clay to General Gore,
"My bathing suit is slightly tore.
We'd better go on with our war."
"I quite agree," said General Gore.

Then General Clay charged General Gore
As bullets flew and cannons roared.
And now, alas! there is no more
Of General Clay or General Gore.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

The War Prayer

Recently, Mike Cope made a blog post about saying the Pledge of Allegiance in a worship service. You can read it (and all the comments if you have 2 hours to kill!) by clicking here and finding the post for May 30, "Pledging Allegiance in the Assembly?"

One of the comments linked to this video -- a graphic rendering of Mark Twain's "The War Prayer."

Perhaps we can yet learn to pray for our enemies.

One argument sometimes used to justify killing our enemies is that it is indeed the loving thing to do. After all, since we know that our cause is just and that their cause is UNjust, how loving would it be to allow them to sin by killing US? It is much more just to kill them than to allow them to sin.

This one can make you shake your head like a dog who just got fooled into eating onion. But, it may be the best argument in favor of Christians serving in the military, so it bears some consideration.

The first problem with it is that it assumes that "our" cause is, indeed, just -- i.e., that we're NOT after their oil, that we are NOT all about imperialism, and that OUR lifestyle really represents human good. Uh, I think there are many people who would disagree with all of these assumptions. If our cause is NOT really just, then we should allow them to kill us and assume THAT is righteous or just. In fact, if we prevent them from killing us (and defeating our unjust cause), then WE are sinning.

Second, the argument necessitates the killing of ANYONE who is "unjust." Christians get to become the world's police force to keep everyone from sinning. If this argument holds true, then I am OBLIGATED to keep people from sinning, and if I do NOT keep them from sinning, I have forsaken my obligation and I AM SINNING! Therefore, I am obligated to take up a position outside the strip clubs and kill whoever tries to enter. Oh -- and it licenses me to kill abortion doctors, not to mention tax evaders and jaywalkers. I'm starting to like this! Not.

Need I point out that not even God prevents people from sinning? Why do some people think they have such an obligation? When they argue in this way, and when they act on its basis, they aren't "playing God," they're putting themselves ABOVE God -- doing the "Bruce Almighty" thing by telling God they can run the world better than he can.

One of the things we Christians have always said about Jesus was that he was "perfect," by which we mean he was sinless. I believe this is true, but I wonder if he KNEW this about himself. Could he have told anyone about it? Or would thinking this about himself and/or telling someone about it have been boasting -- therefore sin? Of course, we've all heard someone say: "It ain't braggin' if you can back it up!" Oh, really? I'm pretty sure that "verse" isn't in the Bible, for starters. But then I'm also sure that I've heard people talk about their accomplishments until I'm pretty much ready for the barf bag. And it doesn't matter if they're real or imagined accomplishments. It's still bragging.

In the move The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus is portrayed as saying "I feel so sinful!" It wasn't quite a confession of sin, as I understood it, but a statement of identity with the rest of us sinful human beings -- a statement of how being a part of a sinful humanity made him feel. It is the cinemagraphic statement of the Biblical virtue of humility. If Jesus was truly perfect (again, as I believe he was!), he would also have been perfectly humble, which would have necessitated feelings of unworthiness, perhaps even feelings of sinfulness. To believe otherwise about himself would be arrogant and unloving -- he would be placing himself above the very people he came to reach, inspire, and with whom he claims to identify fully! To do this would have been to place himself outside of God's purposes for his life -- and to fail to "fulfill all righteousness"!

In other words, for any person or group of people to claim that they are righteous and get to judge and execute that judgment on the "unjust" or "unrighteous" is equivalent to being arrogant and unloving -- and therefore placing oneself in the category of "judged." So, the argument collapses of its own weight. No one can take the role of "judge" without simultaneously sinning and placing oneself in the role of "convicted sinner."

And then there is Jesus, who in John 12:31 said "Now is the judgment of this world." What "shape" would that judgment take? He continued by saying: "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." John then comments: "He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die."

I'm not quite sure what all to make of that except to say that if I am to judge like Jesus judged. . . . I would like this to be true in all of my life: "I pledge allegiance to the cross."

Sunday, June 03, 2007


My wife has a cousin who lives in Texas, 14 miles south of the Oklahoma border. She's 28 or 29 years old, and she has never been out of the state of Texas in her life. Seriously. I'm not kidding. Not even by accident. I mean, you might figure that one day she might have accidentally taken a wrong turn and just ended up in Oklahoma for a few minutes! But, no, never happened (that she'll admit). And she has no intentions of ever venturing out of her "Texcoon." (In case my attempt at a derisive pun isn't clear, I'm trying to combine "Texas" and "cocoon.") And I'm not worried about the (im)possibility that she'll read this, either. Sadly.

I read in the newspaper this morning that one of our senators from Oklahoma, Senator Inhoffe, has a bill before the US Congress to limit federal agencies' use of languages other than English. There is debate about just what his bill will accomplish, but it seems clear that at least it will require a level of competency in English from immigrants in order to navigate federal agencies that will make it difficult for many of them. Many organizations that advocate for immigrants are opposed to the bill and consider it discriminatory.

I have to wonder if Senator Inhoffe has ever travelled much outside of the "good 'ol US of A." Well, I'll bet as a US Senator he has -- and carried an entourage with him. Yes, carrying a little (or large) slice of America with you is the perfect way to keep yourself insulated from all those foreigners . . . and keep yourself from possibly feeling awkward because of customs you don't know or understand.

So I'm betting he's never had a real experience of another culture -- the experience of being immersed in it, of being the only American for miles around, or the only English speaker -- the experience of trying to figure out street signs in a language (or perhaps even an alphabet!) of which you can recognize nothing -- an experience of receiving the hospitality of people who don't know you, have no obligation to you, shouldn't like you (because you're an American!), but who help you because they are just good people and they want you to like their country and culture -- of which they are very proud -- and an experience of trying to fit into something you just don't quite understand.

Some of you who read this will have had such experiences. I've had my share (and I'm always looking for more!). Budapest, where we arrived late (with my wife and 3 sons, youngest one age 6 at the time) on a Sunday, managed to find the right bus toward our hotel in the suburbs, but didn't realize that it would skip some stops because it was Sunday. There was no way we could have figured that out from the bus map. We couldn't even pronounce the street names we were passing (to do so would have required sitting and staring at the sign and trying to sound out, one syllable at a time, combinations of consonants that do not occur in English and vowels with odd marks on top that were meaningless to us). So, we ended up in the wrong place, late on a Sunday evening, trying to find a location we couldn't even pronounce, out in the suburbs where there were no cabs to flag down and where no one spoke English. Thankfully, we had a cell phone and the number of the hotel. We called, but no one could speak English! Phone conversations don't work well this way -- we couldn't even use sign language. They hung up, we called again, and this time it was the voice of the hotel owner, and he spoke English! All we knew to tell him was that we had gone too far on the bus. He figured out what had happened (and explained it to us), tried to figure out from our halting pronunciation of street names where we were, and came to get us in his own car. Oh -- and it was bitterly cold. We were on the verge of desperation, frankly. But he was incredibly helpful to us -- really a "second mile" person! He went far beyond what was required, and we ended up having a marvelous time in the city over two days. Budapest is still one of my favorite places on earth!

We also spent 3 months in the city of Vienna, trying our best not to look like Americans. It was certainly a feeble attempt, but the Viennese were gracious and patient with our mistakes. For instance, in a restaurant I tried to order (in German) a grilled chicken ("huhner") but instead asked for a grilled "hunt" -- that is, a dog. She gave me a chicken. I was grateful.

We have a lot of immigrants in Oklahoma, and many don't speak English well. I wonder if we "natives" (a real misnomer for us if not an outright lie) treat them as well. I wonder how much more difficult our country will be for them if we pass that bill.

I suspect that the bill comes from a narrow, narrow perspective -- a perspective that believes that the US is the best nation on earth, and everyone else would love to be an "American" (sorry Canadians, you don't qualify!), and if they don't, well, they're just dumb. And if they don't speak English, well, they're just dumb. Oh -- and certainly they CAN understand it if we just speak it slowly and loudly enough!

I've noticed that other people are just as proud of their county and heritage as any Americans -- and sometimes more so -- and that their heritage is much longer and richer than ours! -- and all that without claiming that their country is "the best nation on earth," or anything like that. Imagine! Being proud of your heritage, loving and valuing it, without claiming it's better than every other heritage on earth! Tough concept for some, apparently.

Add this: they're love of their heritage has nothing to do with their economy or military strength. So often our claims of being the "greatest nation on earth" are really only claims that we spend a greater percentage of our national budget on weapons and military than most -- because we CAN! Because our economy allows us to do that, and our military strength allows us to defend our economy in order to keep it running smoothly and profitably. Militarism and capitalism are in bed together. Go figure. But anyway, other cultures are proud without having that pride being focused on their ability to beat up everyone else. (Maybe this says a lot about our LACK of cultural heritage!)

The same narrowness that keeps my wife's cousin in Texas when she's only fourteen miles away from Oklahoma drives Senator Inhoffe's bill. Senator, please get out of your "Oklacoon." It's a big, wonderful world -- and there's plenty of your Oklacoon to share without being threatened. Let's learn to "welcome the stranger." They'll learn English soon enough. There's no reason to make it harder for them.

One more. Why is it that American Christians combine nationalism with their Christian faith? On the Sunday night before Memorial Day, the church where I'm a member had what I can only consider an idolatrous service of worship to the American God. One underlying assumption is that WE are "God's Chosen Nation," because WE are indeed BETTER than all other nations because WE are MORE RIGHTEOUS than all other nations. How many ways is this logic bad? How much evidence does it ignore? Answers: many, all. What feeds that perspective? The same narrowness that keeps my wife's cousin in Texas and Senator Inhoffe in his Oklacoon. Sad.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

On Being (Pro-Life)

Tomorrow the sports pages of newspapers all across the country will carry articles announcing the death of Josh Hancock, a 29 year old St. Louis Cardinals' pitcher.

Two days ago, on Friday, April 27th, we buried my wife's uncle, George Rektenwald. He was 60 years old, and died of complications related to his pancreas. We thought he was getting better.

Eleven years ago, my wife and I buried our stillborn daughter, Hannah. She died before she ever saw the light of day; before we ever knew her. Our hearts still ache every March 31st, her day of both birth and death.

People will mourn Hancock, just as those who loved George are mourning him and as we still grieve for the loss of our daughter.

People all over the world are grieving over the shootings at Virginia Tech just over a week ago.

I didn't grieve much over the VT shootings, nor will I spend much time grieving over Josh Hancock. Those losses were tragic, but they were not mine. I do hurt for and with the families who are grieving -- knowing a little of what they're going through.

I grieve a little (!) for the babies that are aborted in the US (et al.) each day, week and year, and I grieve a little also for the US soldiers that are being killed each day in Afghanistan and Iraq. And I grieve a little for the Iraqis who are killed each day -- and the Afghans and the Palestinians, etc., etc.

But one person can only do so much grieving. There are only so many tears one can cry. Tears and grief have to be saved for those we are closer to, and it's much easier to ignore all the others.

Perhaps this partly explains an inconsistency in the way most people think about what it means to be "pro-life." In the US, to be "pro-life" generally means to be "anti-abortion" or "against choice" in regard to abortion.

However, I've never met a "pro-choice" person who was also "PRO-abortion," i.e., who was in favor of killing babies. (I'm ignoring the issue here of whether a fetus is a baby.) The "pro-choice" people I know are folks who see that abortions should be a last resort, and that they should be rare, but who believe that there are occasions when it should be a woman's right to choose to abort a fetus. So, in some sense they are also "pro-life" -- abortion isn't usually seen as a casual or cavalier "choice" that one can make, on the level of deciding which soft drink button to punch at a vending machine.

On the other hand, most of the "pro-life" folks I know are only "pro-life" when it comes to babies, and American babies at that. Most "pro-life" folks also happen to be in favor of a large national defense. This is consistent with the politics labelled "conservative" in the US -- we're all about protecting what's ours! And if protecting it means bombing the crap out of Iraq, Iran, Cuba, Afghanistan and North Korea -- and killing lots of non-American babies in the process -- well, them's the breaks.

For several years I kept track of the voting records of members of congress on issues that affected life and quality living. Actually, I did this by taking advantage of the research done by Sojourners. There was precisely 1 (ONE) member of congress who was consistently pro-life: Senator Mark Hatfield from Oregon. Hatfield was against abortion, but also against a large national defense and the exhorbitant spending necessary to maintain it; he was for health care for everyone, also (if memory serves).

All other Senators and Representatives were inconsistent. If they were against abortion, they were in favor of dropping bombs on innocents (or would at least allow for it in national interest) and against most social-welfare programs. If they were pro-life in regard to war and social-welfare issues, they were pro-choice on abortion.

I am decidedly pro-life. I hope to be that consistently. That means that I treasure ALL human lives -- including the Iraqis and the Afghans and their babies, and including American babies. I think being pro-life means we have to be against war, against capital punishment, and in favor of issues that raise the quality of life for those who are disadvantaged in our society.

In other words, being "pro-life" means much, much more than simply being "against abortion." That's way too easy and frequently way too self-centered.

There is a Jewish Midrash (commentary) on the text in Exodus where the Israelites have passed through the sea on dry ground, then turned around to see the Egyptian army in hot pursuit only to have the walls of water crash in on them, drowning every last soldier. The Midrash tells of the angels in heaven breaking into loud shouts of praise to God for this great victory he had wrought over the enemies of his people. God hears the shouts, and asks the angels what they are doing. They reply (I'm paraphrasing from memory here): "We're praising you for your great victory! You are a great God! You have utterly defeated your enemy! We rejoice and praise you for your great power and might!" To which God responds, "How can you rejoice when my children are drowning?"

You see, I can't be "pro-life" only for American babies. To be truly PRO-LIFE means that I must be against the forces of death wherever they are to be found. I must be against ALL powers of death and of hate that leads to death. I am in favor of life -- for American soldiers, Iraqi soldiers, Afghans, Palestinians -- and the list goes on and on. "Pro-life" isn't just about abortion. It's about LIFE!

Maybe if I really valued life -- ALL lives -- I would grieve a little more for those we kill (or cause to be killed) so that Americans can continue to burn fossil fuels. Maybe it means . . . loving my enemies?


Saturday, March 31, 2007

Mock Violence and Violence

My youngest son turned 9 yesterday. We had a party for him with 10 or so of his friends from school and church – 2 hours in a room full of 8-10 year olds! Aaarrrrgggghhhhh. It was torture -- sort of. Some of those kids are NOT well-behaved! Some of them clearly lack respect for adults and a sense of propriety, and you have to wonder about their up-bringing. But, we lived through it, and the kids all had fun.

One of the gifts my son received was a “dart gun” that shoots foam darts. It has the look of an Uzzi (or so it seems to my non-trained eyes), and can hold eight darts at a time. You can shoot them off rapid-fire – about one per second if you’re fast. It has a rotating loading mechanism sort of like a Gatling Gun. Oh, and the darts glow in the dark! My son is thrilled with this toy. I have to admit it -- it's fun. We'll have fun shooting at characters on the TV screen (the darts will stick to the glass).

I played with guns growing up – played with toy guns, had a BB gun and a pellet gun (CO2 powered) – and later hunted. I bought my own .20 gauge shotgun and received an heirloom .22 caliber rifle from my grandpa. It had the name of one of my uncles carved into the stock, and I carved my own name into it as well. That .22 is the only one I still have – the shotgun was stolen years ago (I still fear a knock on the door late at night by police officers there to arrest me for a shooting with a gun registered to me! I reported the theft, but still. . . .).

I loved hunting, but mostly for the outdoors – tramping in the woods. I stopped hunting when I got married – my wife couldn’t stand the thought that I might shoot Bambi. (But, ask her about her attempts to shoot Mickey!)

So, I’m not anti-weapon. Neither is my wife, who grew up in Texas playing “Cowboys and Indians,” etc., complete with mock gun battles. Neither of us has turned out to be a mass murderer or a child abuser. But we’re both a little concerned with our youngest son’s fascination with weapons.

I wonder what role mock violence plays in the violence of our society – and in the violence of individual lives. I’m sure there are no clear answers to that question. But clearly, lives of people surrounded by violence tend toward violence.

Here’s an example. Tony Lagouranis’ duties in Iraq included the interrogation of prisoners at various locations, including the infamous Abu Ghraib prison. The article found here describes his experiences and his fears about how what he did and witnessed being done to prisoners will affect him.

Human beings are creatures of habit. Even those of us who abhor “ruts” for our lives have habits of daily activity. We wake up each morning and know where to find our toothbrushes, combs, underwear, shampoo, and countless other things – most of which we could and perhaps to) find with our eyes shut. We go through these daily functions without thinking – to the point that we may not notice we’ve done them: have you ever forgotten while in the shower whether you’ve washed your hair? You think about it, and you just really can’t remember whether or not you’ve done it. Then you do it again, and perhaps the action itself reminds you that you’d just done it. We just do these things by sheer habit, without thinking.

What about how we respond to annoyances around us each day? Do we build up habits of action that we perform without even thinking? Habits of anger, retribution and revenge? What if my “small” habits shape how I would respond to a real crisis situation?

The good news is that I am not enslaved to my habits. Habits of action can be changed and even conquered, but not without doing some deliberate thinking about them and conscious planning of how we will respond to specific situations. The cycle of child abuse can be brought to a halt – we are not enslaved by the pattern of behavior we learned from our parents (though certainly it can be an incredibly strong influence). Mr. Lagouranis may have difficulty overcoming in his personal interactions the abuse he committed and witnessed in Iraq, but it is still possible.

What about my 9-year old’s fascination with weapons? We’ve explained to him that as Christians we believe killing is wrong, and so he is not to point his dart gun at any person for any reason. And he can’t shoot the dog, either. He is, however, allowed to shoot at Oprah when she’s on TV. Oh, and Precious Moments figurines are always "in season."

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Gettin' Gospelled

There have been a few times in my life when someone has tried to evangelize me. I dated a girl once who was raised in a church that thought they were the only true church and the only ones going to heaven. (No, she wasn't a Church of Christer.) After we dated a month or so, she told me we had to have a serious talk. I was nineteen, maybe twenty years old at the time, and the words "serious talk" scared the living crap out of me, just for starters. I was certain that, since things had been going rather well between us, this was going to be a "lets get serious" kind of talk, and in a way, it was. It was also a "come to Jesus" talk. Her pastor had heard that she was dating a heathen (me -- "heathen" because I wasn't a member of their church) and had demanded that she put an end to it if I wouldn't convert. So, she had a tract or two that she wanted to work through: the first explained, from her church's point of view, all the errors of MY church, and the second one explained "the truth" (i.e., her church's position on all important things to know in order to get into heaven).

Now, being a good "Church of Christer," I did know a thing or two about the Bible, and I really had it over her in terms of Bible knowledge. Her church's reconnaissance on the Church of Christ wasn't very good, and her tract out of which she read to me accused us of believing a number of things we generally don't believe. Suffice it to say that she was rather unsuccessful in converting me. When it became clear that I wasn't going to be converted, at least in one easy step, she played her trump card: she told me that her pastor had demanded she break up with me if I didn't convert because they were not allowed to date non-Christians. The last time I saw her she was shouting at me from her front porch as I got into my car, telling me it was my own fault I was going to hell. After reflection, I had to laugh at the veritable role-reversal: it was usually us C2ers who. . . . Well, you get the picture.

Last fall, at a conference for religion scholars, I took a break from the sessions, bought a Venti bold coffee from the Starbucks in the conference center, and sat down at a table to relax and read for a few minutes. The table, which I was sharing with other conference-goers, was approached by a man who was handing out leaflets of some sort. I was curious, so held my hand out for one. He informed me that it was for the American Communist Party; I told him I thought capitalism was from Satan. He was suddenly my best friend. It turns out he is an ex-pastor, now an atheist, but still trying to change the world. He pulled a chair up close to mine facing me, leaned forward and tried earnestly to convince me that there is no God and that the only hope of the world is communism. I tried to convince him that certain communist principles aligned pretty well with the gospel of Jesus. I think in the end we were both unconvinced, but I bought some CDs of lectures from him, and I think we both enjoyed the forty-five minute conversation about the ways capitalism corrupts the human soul. I sipped my Starbucks throughout, relishing the irony.

In both of these situations there were a variety of ideas flying around, shot by one party toward the other, almost always missing their target for one reason or another. Or, at least I can say that the ideas had little effect on their intended targets, compelling as they may have been to their adherents. They simply didn't penetrate the other party.

I do have to admit, though, that I'm a little jealous of the communist. In some ways he's living the gospel better than I am. He's committed to a cause for which he has given up everything, a cause which consumes him as well as animates his life and every conversation (I watched as he made the rounds in the sitting area, talking to as many people as he could).

I wonder if I'm committed to the gospel of Jesus as much as he's committed to the gospel of Marx. There are times when it does consume me -- usually when I'm teaching or preaching, or trying to find a way to help someone negotiate life-obstacles. But there are other times when . . . well, when I'm quite the opposite.

In other words, there are times or "places" in my life in which the gospel has no or little effect. But for Christians, all of our life is supposed to be conformed to the gospel -- to the pattern of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. This is what we re-enact in our baptism, and what we re-member each time we take the Lord's Supper. Jesus said that whoever wanted to be one of his followers had to "take up his cross daily and follow him" (Luke 9:23): a daily, hourly, even minute by minute death to self.

The word in the New Testament for "gospel" is the Greek word "euangellion." In the list of spiritual gifts in Ephesians 4, one of the gifts is to be an "evangelist," that is, one who evangelizes. What is it to "evangelize" but to "gospelize"? If I teach the gospel to someone who hasn't accepted Jesus, I am trying to bring that person's life more into conformity with the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus -- precisely what I need in my own life.

The reason the communist so impressed me was the way his life conformed to the gospel he had rejected. "When I am lifted up from the earth," Jesus said, "I will draw all people to myself" (John 12:32). The "lifting up," of course, is Jesus on the cross. In other words, according to Jesus there is something quite compelling about the cross -- about the life lived by "taking up the cross daily," always putting others before ourselves. That is a life conformed to the death and resurrection -- the gospel -- of Jesus.

Like it or not, the communist brought me a little closer to Jesus. Thanks, comrade.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Thoughts Over Hiroshima

Noverim te, noverim me – “May I know you, may I know myself” – said Thomas Merton, quoting Augustine. This is the proper summation of our prayers, but so often they are quite otherwise—I choose ignorance over knowing because deep down I know what it is about me that I do not want brought up to the surface where I will have to face God with it. I . . WE have a stupendous capacity to lie and then to believe our own lie. We tell ourselves that our lives are meaningful, and that we have attained fellowship with God rather than facing the reality that we are mere nothings, bloated full of pride, blown up like a blowfish – and it is all a facade. The only self we know is a false self, and therefore we do not really know God. Even the idea of “imitation of Christ,” Merton says, becomes for us mere “impersonation” [Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer (New York: Image Books, 1971), 67-69].

I read these thoughts of Merton’s while flying from Los Angeles to Hong Kong on July 3, 2006. In particular, it was during the part of the flight in which we were over Japan, flying from north to south. As I read, I kept one eye on the navigational map on the screen in front of me, and I noticed that we were approaching Hiroshima. Indeed, we flew directly over it. I wondered if one might still experience the affect of the radiation set off there sixty years ago while flying overhead. What is the half-life of a nuclear holocaust? I felt the eeriness of confluence – of two unrelated but corresponding things that come together coincidentally: there I was, reading about our deep capacity for self-deception and selfjustification, while coincidentally passing 36,000 feet above the site of an event that, like THE Holocaust, ought to cause us to shudder and to resolve: “Never Again.”

I didn’t weep. I actually moaned – moaned out an apology to God on behalf of the human race, myself included. Thinking in cliches: “Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of man?” God does, not The Shadow. And we do, if we’re willing to look inside ourselves.

How is it that we can hate other human beings to the extent that we are willing to incinerate them? I know the answer, because I know how I have hated – how I have contributed to the total conglomerate of hate and violence in the world. I’ve never physically killed, but: a butterfly flaps its wings in Australia. . . . What “domino affect” has my hate had on others? Have I despised another who, after being despised by others again, has escalated the level of hate to the point of killing? How many degrees of separation from my hate are necessary before I am no longer implicated?

Of course, I can justify my actions: those I have treated rudely have (well, for the most part) deserved it. They had to be taught a lesson. Did I teach it? Was it the right lesson? Or did I teach them that the right way to respond to others’ rudeness, mistakes, unthoughtfulness or even hate, is to hate or be rude in return? If I have returned an eye for an eye, what did I teach?

We dropped two atomic bombs on Japan because, so it has been argued, it had to be done to save American lives – as if saving American lives is worth killing Japanese lives. Of course, that argument has been questioned: were fewer people killed by incineration than would have been killed in battle on South Pacific islands? Maybe, maybe not. But a more fundamental question is, which lives are worth more, American or Japanese? Can I really argue that killing Japanese people is morally good if it saves Americans? Did it also save Japanese lives? Again, the utilitarian argument could go either way. What is clear is that in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki (especially the latter) the mass killing of noncombatants was thought worth the price. Nagasaki has been described as a “sleepy little fishing village.” Unsuspecting innocents, beginning their day, going about their daily, mundane tasks, preparing for work, school, the opening of the shop, perhaps taking their breakfast after feeding the livestock, and then . . . the unspeakable. For some, just a flash and an instant death; for others, a deafening concussion, the building falling in, pinned beneath rubble, perforated by flying debris, wonder of what had happened, wonder of where the children are, or the wife or husband or mother or father, and then perhaps a slower death – but yet more merciful than the deaths that followed from radiation poisoning – the agonizing pain of burns from the radiation, the passing of strength to weakness to death. I dare not attempt to imagine.

Of course, we want clean consciences, and so we have conjured up our best defenses to justify such torture of fellow human beings – and each defense reduces them to something less than human – something it is ok to kill, as we kill a bug that has wandered into our path. We do this to protect our human (and humane) status. But this reduction of humans to less-than-human has another affect: it reduces ME, the defender, as well. When we degrade, we are also degraded. It is not just the degrading of enemies, it is the degradation of the human, and so I am included.

The attempt to rescue my humanity from the specter of insane cruelty is void because I am still degraded. I am still brought down, still reduced to less-than-human, and as a result I will find it easier and easier to disregard the value of human life: as less-than-human, my life is not so valuable after all, and neither are the lives of those around me. And as less-than-human, I cannot be held responsible to the “lofty” standards of humanity. Those standards seem idealistic, unreal, outdated, antique and irrelevant. They just no longer matter. We are no longer human.

What happened on those two days in August of 1945 was not just the killing of a million or so Japanese, it was the killing of humanity. Certainly there had been previous calamitous cruelties – THE Holocaust, for instance – but was this event the final nail in the coffin? We used to think that humanity was rising out of the swamp, climbing higher and higher, becoming more and more dignified. At least that is what the nineteenth and early twentieth century philosophers and theologians believed. There were no heights we would not reach, no mysteries of the universe we would not fathom, no worlds we would not conquer. We were becoming, in Nietzsche’s terms, ubermenschen, “supermen” who could and should set our own ethical codes. World War II shattered that vision of humanity. It revealed that the “new man” we thought we had become, the result of centuries of progress, was still mired in the swamp of sin and evil. Our technological conquests had only made us capable of greater evil on greater numbers of our fellow human beings, all at once.

This weapon of mass destruction was decisive, perhaps, in human history, because we now knew that we possessed the power of absolute self-destruction. While abject cruelty had obviously existed before 1944, never before had such self-hate been set loose in the world. More than just tribal warfare, more than nation against nation, this was the power to do away with the entire human race. “Suicide” is not a big enough word; neither is “genocide." Would “humanicide” do? We didn’t completely destroy ourselves; we tried to cut a cancer out of humanity, but left ourselves crippled as a result of the radical self-surgery. More than simply blowing up a few hundred thousand human beings, we blew out our collective brains – the very soul of humanity as a whole. Humanity, true humanity, was destroyed. It was burned beyond recognition, transmuted at the sub-atomic level. Evolution was replaced by devolution. Was it the apex of sin? Dare we hope?

Can we ever recover? If so, how? How can we recover a lost humanity? The answer is one we all know, but do not want to hear or say. The answer is: we cannot. Humanity is more than chemicals in a test tube. We may, in time, be able to align the chromosomes and DNA correctly to produce a human body that lives. But doing so will not restore humanity. The body thus produced will still find itself part of a less-than-human humanity, a sub-humanity that continues to wallow in self-hate and take morbid pleasure in self-degradation and self-destruction. Recovery is beyond our power. How can we stop hating ourselves? Our self-hate leads to more and more self-degradation, leading to more and more self-hate, thus more self-degradation. . . . The vicious cycle to end all vicious cycles. Perhaps.

Though recovery is beyond our power, it is not impossible. Do we believe that Jesus rose from the dead? Do we believe that he conquered the powers of death and sin? Do we believe that God the Father “made him to be sin who knew no sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21)? What does this mean? Is it “just a metaphor”? Or did something on the level of creation (God “made” so we could “become”) occur on the cross? Perhaps even something “beneath” the subatomic llevel, at the place where humanity meets human bodies. And even deeper – at the place where God’s identity resides: Jesus, the Son of God and God himself, was made (though not forced) to “be” sin. He did not, it appears, simply “deal with” sin; nor did he merely “pay the price” or take sin “on” himself, though these things are also true. In the person of God the Son, God took sin into himself. This was no external transaction or business operation. This was God himself becoming me, becoming every human being who ever lived, every human being who deserved to be on that cross. The “deal” struck was not between God and some other being; it was internal to God. Sin was “dealt with” by God not as something impersonal to him, but as something which he felt, by which God himself was scarred and pained.

Did God become sinful? The text does not go so far. The only result it states of God’s action is that we can become God’s righteousness. There is no explanation of how that occurs. However, scripture does give us some hints, in other places, of how the “deal” went within God. If we follow for a moment the metaphor of light in scripture: Jesus, the light of the world, is the Son of God who is himself light (John 8:12; 1 John 1:5). Psalm 139:11-12 says: “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” What happens, then, if the darkness of sin meets up with the light of the world – with the God who is light? To paraphrase John 1:5, the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. Light dispels darkness. God’s presence dispels darkness and sin.

This is the only hope sub-humanity has. Only God can restore our lost humanity that we so willingly threw away. To know this about ourselves is to begin to know God.