Friday, October 24, 2008

More politics--I'm really gonna get in trouble

In another conversation I had yesterday with a friend talking about biblical values in politics I made this point: there is a philosophical difference between four points of view on abortion. I'm sure there's really more than 4, but these 4 stick out to me: pro-life, anti-choice, pro-choice, pro-abortion.

Now no one I know calls themselves anti-choice or pro-abortion. However that is exactly how those who see themselves as either pro-life or pro-choice define the opposite viewpoint. I do think that there are those in the world who are pro-abortion. They identify abortion directly with feminism, and therefore have the philosophy that the greater number of abortions there are, the greater freedom is being exercised by women. But I think these people are extremely rare (not to mention dead wrong).

There are also people who are anti-choice. These are people who I think are really bothered by other people's sins, so they want laws that keep sin out of our society (forget that those same people can't even keep sin out of their own lives). These are the fundamentalists that want to enforce whatever brand of outward holiness that they deem appropriate. Unfortunately, while not the majority, I do think that there are way too many Christians in this category.

But the vast majority of people are either pro-life or pro-choice. Those who are pro-choice are often uncomfortable with abortion, but ultimately come to see it as a woman's choice in consultation with her important relationship. Those who are pro-life are also uncomfortable with abortion, and see it as a part of their calling to represent these unborn children since they have no advocation of their own.

Is there a way that everyone who is uncomfortable with abortion can come together and figure out the best way to reduce the number of unborn children who are killed? I think there is. I certainly don't think it can be found in exclusively overturning Roe v Wade or any other laws. Anyone who thinks that there were not abortions when they were illegal needs to read more history. Or at least watch "The Cidar House Rules." But there has to be a way that we can stop arguing philosophical underpinnings long enough to agree that abortion is tragic, and come up with ways to lessen the societal impact it has?

Voting biblical values

I had a recent conversation with a friend about politics. And of course I can't help myself with the whole idea of "stimulating" different thoughts than the ones currently rolling around in someone's head. My close friends never know if I'm advocating a position I really believe or just in the stimulation mode...

But the conversation made me think about the phrase "voting biblical values."

I know what they mean when they say it--two values in particular--life and marriage.

Now I don't by any means intend to downplay those two things. They are biblical values, and very important ones.

But just not the only ones.

So I usually say something like "which biblical values are you suggesting I vote for? Forgiveness of enemies, turning the other cheek, justice for the oppressed, rescuing the impoverished, caring for orphans and widows, or what?"

There are more than 2 biblical values.

Eliminating suffering

I have often recommended Orthodox writer Frederica Mathewes-Green. Her book "The Illuminated Heart" remains one of my favorites on the topic of maturing in Christ. Here's an essay she recently wrote on suffering--it's so good I thought I would just copy it here but I hope you'll go to beliefnet and her site and sign up to get it yourself.


This essay just went live on I wrote it a couple of months ago, after reading an essay along the now-familiar lines of "The existence of suffering proves there is no god; if there is a god, he's stupid and incompetent; we could have done a better job than he did." Here's the link on Beliefnet: on my website: I'll paste in the text, below. BTW, Beliefnet won't allow any reprints for 120 days, which would be mid-January I think. In other news, I've been having my podcasts transcribed and am posting them on my website too, so there are a lot of "new" items there, not always grammatically correct, but at least present in readable form. I had been asked about some of my podcasts if there was a print version, but there hasn't been till now. I hope to get them all posted in the next few months. ***

Let's Create a Perfect World
A world without suffering is literally unimaginable. Try it. , October 21, 2008

So you think that the existence of suffering proves that there is no God. But can I ask a question? How would you eliminate suffering? What would a world without suffering look like? You have free rein-make it any way you like.

Why don't we start with something specific. People often cite the story told by the character Ivan in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov: parents punished their little daughter for bedwetting by locking her in a frozen outhouse. Ivan cannot accept a God who would let that happen.

OK, how would you prevent it? Can you imagine a world where there is no child abuse? Not just that one awful case-there's no point in stopping only one act of abuse. How would you stop child abuse entirely? Would you make it so that an angry parent could not think of any way to hurt a child?

Could a parent imagine striking a child, but be paralyzed and unable to raise an arm?

Could he strike at the child, but the blow would not land?

The blow would land, but the child would not feel it as painful?

Maybe you could make it so that parents could not get angry in the first place-how about that?
Would that mean that no one, anywhere, could get angry? Why stop with parents?

(We'll get to earthquakes and tsunamis later. One thing at a time.)

How about making it powerfully instinctive to protect children, but with some small room for evil people to do wrong? Child abuse would be so contrary to normal human nature that people would recoil in horror, as they do to Ivan's story.

Wait-that's the system we have now.

OK, let's try something simpler. What about a boy who loves his dog? The dog grows old and sick. The boy is worried. Would you make it so that no beloved pet dies?

Or does a bittersweet thought arise that, even though such a loss is painful, it will help the boy grow in maturity and compassion? But you can't allow that, really. We're trying to make a world without suffering, not one where suffering has hidden meaning. Besides, if the boy is going to live in a world without suffering, he won't ever need to feel compassion.

All right, the boy loves the dog, so you won't let it die. What if the next year he discovers girls? Would you let the dog die then?

In a perfect world, would staying alive be based on whether someone loves you? Can you foresee that causing any kind of suffering?

What about dislike, in general? Racism, for example: would you eliminate it by making everyone look the same? Or would you eliminate our ability to notice differences? Or could we notice differences, but be unable to have negative thoughts? Would you create humans who love everybody and hate nobody, and have no choice about it?

You have to change *something*. The way things are now, there's a lot of suffering.

Maybe you don't expect to eliminate suffering entirely-you just want to set some limits. But there already are limits. A bad guy can't kill you and dig you up and kill you again. He can't kill children you haven't had yet. Even if he holds you captive, your thoughts are still free. And scientists don't struggle to cure that terrible disease where your skin suddenly melts away in the shower; there are lots of diseases that don't exist.

There are limits, but you think they should be in different places. Let's keep trying to do that.

OK, earthquakes. Would you have constructed the world some other way, without plate tectonics? Great! That was an easy one.

But if "Earthquake" was the worst kind of natural disaster, whatever was number two now automatically becomes number one--tidal waves, maybe, or volcanoes. People won't be grateful for the non-existence of earthquakes, like they're not grateful for the non-existence of Skin Melt Disease. As long as there are any natural disasters, something's going to be worst.

And, yes, it's unfair that some victims of disaster are miraculously saved, while others die. How do you want to make it fair? Nobody gets miracles, or everybody does?

Let's just go ahead and eliminate all natural disasters, anything caused by changes in weather, earth, or sea. But even stuff that's just sitting there can kill you. You can fall into a pool of water and drown.

Would you make it so that couldn't happen? Would you do that by changing the nature of water, or changing the nature of lungs?

Maybe water would have a tough skin, so you'd hit the surface and bounce. But how would we drink it? Would you change the way our bodies take in water? Or maybe we wouldn't need water? Would we need something else instead?

Don't forget gravity. We've eliminated earthquakes, but what kills people in earthquakes is being crushed by things that fall on them. Stuff can fall, even without an earthquake. Would you make it so gravity doesn't pull things down on people? ...No, that whole train of thought is problematic.

When you say that if there was a truly omnipotent God, he could have prevented suffering, do you mean that God could have made things differently? Sure, that's what we're trying to visualize now. But if you mean that he could have made a world that was illogical, I'm going to have trouble following you.

I don't expect you to actually build this perfect world, but it does seem like you should at least be able to *imagine* it.

And here's a factor we haven't talked about yet: subjectivity. People can respond to the same thing in different ways, and interpret it as suffering or not, depending on the context. A hangnail can be unbearable when you're trying to sleep, but twelve hours of childbirth is worth it when you hold that new little baby. Losing a pint of blood in a Red Cross clinic is not like losing one in a car accident.

What's more, different people have different responses to suffering overall. Some make a big fuss over nothing, while others endure terrible things without blame or complaining. Though people can't control what happens to them, they seem to have some control over their response.
Would you make that part of the human mind stronger, and diminish suffering that way? Actually, a number of religions have made significant breakthroughs in that area.

I'm not mocking your desire to create a world without suffering. If we didn't grieve at suffering and urgently want to end it, we would be less than human. Your desire to do so springs from a strong, sincere love for humankind. But accomplishing it requires major changes in what humankind is like.

You can prevent interpersonal pain by making people who give and receive the same amount of love, without bias or personal preferences. You can standardize physical appearances, so no one would suffer from feeling inadequate or ugly, and no one could choose to love one person and reject someone else. Personalities would have to be standardized too, for the same reason. Old people would be as attractive as young people, and I guess they might as well continue to look young, since nobody is going to die anyway. You can reorganize the natural world, too, so that it is predictable and never dangerous.

This world you're creating certainly is beautiful; it's elegant and serene. It's also a lot simpler. Nothing there can change, because change would mean a fall from perfect bliss. The people living there are simpler too, untroubled and uniformly beautiful, like marble statues in a quiet garden.

In comparison, the world we've got now is just so *odd*, isn't it? It's far more complex than seems strictly necessary. Why make such wildly differing landscapes? Why bother with color? Fish are great, but 20,000 species? The more you think about it, the more eccentric, even comical, our world appears.

If you were designing humans for your perfect world, you probably wouldn't have them digest food the way we do. When you planned how they reproduce, you'd come up with something more dignified. Flatulence has been making humans laugh since the dawn of time, but it just wouldn't belong in a perfect world. (Besides, laughter can lead to teasing).

The world we've got is far from quiet and unchanging. It changes constantly, vigorously, and yet remains the same, like an ocean, like a forest. God doesn't sit afar off, watching us "from a distance," as the dumb song has it. There's no distance. His life permeates creation, filling every bug and every blade of grass, sustaining every molecule. "'Do I not fill heaven and earth?' says the Lord" (Jeremiah 23:24), and Isaiah heard the angels agree, "The world is full of the glory of God" (Isaiah 6:3).

Yet there is, undoubtedly, suffering. Behind every overt experience of suffering, there is a gray-noise static of isolation, even loneliness, and the edgy necessity of self-protection. It is easy to spend most of our lives in the dry attic of the mind, worrying and pondering. We retain a sense that we are cut off from something important, something beautiful, and that is surely the tragedy reigning behind all others.

No one knows why things are this way. (A factor we usually disregard, but one assumed by people in most times and places, is that it's not just us and God here in the universe. There are spiritual forces that are not benign. You laugh, but it might turn out they're right. They make up a mighty big vote.)

The God who made such a world, and who continued to love his lost children, would try to call them back into communion with him. He would want them to dwell in innermost security and peace, because then nothing they could face would be perceived as suffering. Even when they were hurt and hated, they would give love in return. But how would he go about reaching them?

This entire Planet Earth project is eccentric, so God's approach to this problem is likely to be unexpected too. What we would expect is for him to try to make contact by speaking in the hearts of some people in every generation, and giving those prophets a message designed to draw his beloved home. Most religions preserve such books.

But we Christians believe that he did something else, something extremely odd: he became a baby. Holy books are one thing, but what humans really need is love. So he started out as a baby and walked, day by day, through a specific, earthy human life. The things he did and said during that life are still compelling, two thousand years later. The force of his personality reverberates through the ages.

At the end he went through terrible suffering. It was as if he was saying, "Look, this is how you do it," and then he did it with courage, love, and, most amazing, forgiveness.

But that wasn't the end. On the third day he rose again from the dead, trampling down death by death, and smashing the forces that wound and tear us. He demonstrated that the final victory belongs to him.

If you believe this happened, it's the definition of "good news." If the fear of death is shattered, everything is changed. Our lives are not free of trouble, but we can look at trouble in a different way, because the conqueror is with us. "In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).

This story might sound crazy, but it's not any crazier than the world itself; in that context, it's strangely fitting. But what about your perfect world, so beautiful and unchanging? Can you honestly say that you love it? Would anyone die for your marble men?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Ortberg on the gospel

I first remember really liking John Ortberg when he wrote in the forward to "You Gotta Get Out of the Boat" that he was trying to write "Dallas for dummies" referencing Dallas Willard.

I resonated with that cuz it took me a year and a half to read "The Divine Conspiracy" the first time.

This morning I read another article, this one about what "the gospel" is. Ortberg is once again right on. The 3.5 regular readers of this blog know that I do not care for the question, "if you were to die tonight, do you know for certain where you'd spend eternity?" Here's what Ortberg says:

Maybe the "if you were to die tonight" version of the gospel falls victim to the happiness paradox. If "heaven" is understood as "ultimate happiness," then I can seek to obtain it while remaining trapped in my self-centeredness. If "heaven" is understood as the eternal pleasure factory, then obtaining it has no intrinsic relationship to transformation, therefore no intrinsic relationship to discipleship.
But if the gospel really is the announcement of the availability, through Jesus, of the "with-God life," then things begin to fall into place. Grace is not just the forgiveness of sin, it is the power to live the with-God life from one moment to the next. Heaven is not a pleasure factory that an angry God chooses to shut some people out of because they don't pass a theology test; it is a community of servanthood that can only be enjoyed by a certain kind of character.
Discipleship or obedience is not something we have to cajole people into by obligation or gratitude ("after all, Jesus died for you; the least you can do is deny yourself happiness for a while on earth"), it is simply the process of learning to enter into the good, with-God life. The gospel becomes social as well as personal—not because individuals don't matter, but because to be "saved" means (among other things) to be delivered from the chronic selfishness that contributes to the world's hurt and to my misery.


Saturday, October 11, 2008

Following the rules

I love the Spanish card game Truco. I learned it from my wife's Argentine family--it's a popular game there. Without going into too much detail, Truco is a combination of poker and spades, probably my two favorite card games previous to learning it. It involves the strategy of catching tricks (trucos) PLUS the skill of bluffing to win tricks. And cheating is built into the rules, because there is a standard set of signs you can flash your partner to let him know what cards you have. I guess it's not really cheating because if your opponents see your sign-flash, they know what you have too. It's a great game.

I may have written before about my wife's uncle David. Their family background is Jewish--they emigrated to Argentina from Turkey in the early 20th century--and David is the epitome of Tevye from "Fiddler on the Roof." He is the best Truco player in the family (at least in his own mind). But the first time we played together he said a phrase that has stuck with me for almost 20 years now. Since I was just learning, I slid the pad and paper for scorekeeping toward him. He took it, but declared, "You need to know my philosophy: if you can't win when you're keeping score, you don't deserve to play."

I kept score.

I've now used that phrase hundreds of times since then, mostly on the golf course when someone asks if I'm writing the scores on the card. And it came to mind again this morning as I read Proverbs 11.1:

"A false balance is an abomination to the LORD, but a just weight is his delight."

Two things come to mind here. First, God does not like those who cheat. How often do we bend the rules of whatever we're doing in our own favor? We think of ourselves as deserving of the best, so we take advantage of whatever situation to make it come out for our benefit. And honestly, we don't often see this as cheating, but just as "ambition" or "the way the cookie crumbles." I'm reminded of an old Chuck Swindoll story where he and his son were rafting in Colorado, and as the head guide was explaining all that would happen, Chuck was eyeing what looked to be the best raft and saltiest guide, and starting maneuvering he and his son that direction. Was he cheating? Of course he was, just in a socially acceptable way. All the others, who were following the rules by listening to instruction, were being cheated out of what might have been their raft and guide. Big deal? Probably not.

The one place I hate cheaters is on the highway. On my commute home there is one place that during rush hour traffic the lane for exiting the highway backs up probably a 1/2 mile. I dutifully wait it out in that lane for 10 or 15 minutes, because I think it's clear that is the right thing to do. [I know it's like the only rules I tend to follow. I'm full of hypocricy.] It ticks me off to no end those people who think they are better and smarter than the rest of us who pass us all in the left lane then force their way into the right lane closer to the exit, making those of us who are following the rules wait an extra 15 seconds. That's not the way it should work; those who follow the rules should be rewarded, not those who break the rules.

And I think this proverb says that eventually those who cheat will be seen and caught by God.

But here's the second thought I had from this wise saying. Who is it that gets cheated the most in areas of "false balance"? It's the poor and marginalized. It's those who have no voice of their own, no place to get justice. It is those who cannot speak up against unjust scales and rules and economic systems.

Last night we watched "Speed Racer" with the kids. It was a fun movie, and in the end the marginalized guys won. The business guy who had the clout to make the rules always work in his favor went to jail. It was a picture of a world that I think God delights in, where the kid slays the giant, where the slaves win over the powerful government, where the baby born in a barn is the greatest king of all time. God is the champion of those who have no champions, and any system--political, economic, organizational or otherwise--that cheats those who have no voice is an abomination to him.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Where does wisdom come from?

I'm not a biblical scholar, but I play one on TV.

Proverbs 8 is a great example of how many people misinterpret the Bible. The chapter is usually subtitled something like "The blessings of wisdom" or the like. In it, wisdom is personified, or given human characteristics, a common literary tool in the poetic passages of the Bible (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs; plus many specific passages within lots of other books).

Now any normal person knows that you say stuff in poems that you would never say in real life. Remember the first time you were in love, and you thought about writing that special someone a poem? You promised the moon, eternal love, and carrying books home from school forever. You exaggerated for effect (hyperbole). You gave your love a voice, and turned the nebulous, mysterious, unexplainable love from an "it" into something much more tangible.

The proverb writer here does that with wisdom. But there are some people that just don't get it.

For instance, there are those who point to this chapter as promoting the female deity, whether it be God's feminine side or a separate person (wife? sister?). All the personification here is feminine in nature. Now don't get me wrong, I don't think God is male or female. He's in touch with his divine side, and since we were made in his image, that divine side has feminine and masculine qualities in abundance.

Or there are those that say this somehow refers to Jesus as the preincarnate (before he was born) personification of wisdom. The help in creating the world, the design of the earth--it makes those who don't see Jesus as God justify their placing him as the chief of all created beings, based on misinterpretations of John 1.1 and Colossians 1.16. In this view Jesus was created first, then helped God the Father create the rest of the world.

Finally there is the Sophia-worship group. In Greek, wisdom is "sophia." And while these proverbs were orginally written in Hebrew, for much of history they have been read in Greek in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible popular from before Jesus was born throughout much of the Roman Empire times). Sophia worshipers--similar to the first mistake--see "Sophia" as a real person, equal to God. Some feminists have latched onto this belief and formed a religious structure around Sophia-worship.

But to me the truth seems very obvious. The writer of the proverb wants us to see that we should be in love with wisdom. We should be passionate about pleasing her, knowing her. We should want to spend our time with her.

At the core, wisdom comes from fear of the LORD and a passionate pursuit of wisdom.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

A paper from 1783

The Onion, one of my favorite parody rags, has this "archived" issue from 1783...I especially love the best-seller list on p. 2...

Economy focus

The Pope and I agree on the economy. Here's what he said yesterday.

"He who builds only on visible and tangible things like success, career and money builds the house of his life on sand."

Medical procedures...

Today I have to go for a sonogram.

Apparently I'm pregnant.

Okay, well not really. But my doc wants a closer look at my kidneys. So I drank my 32 oz of water and in a little while I'll head to the imaging place and get scanned. As long as no one tries to copy or fax me...

It has reminded me of the times I've had other medical procedures done. Everyone's favorite is probably the surgery around getting my toe cut off in a tragic lawnmower accident when I was 16. No one should ever have to get surgery done in Borger, Texas from a Filipino doctor.

My personal favorite is the scoping of my bladder a couple of years ago. There is a tool called a flexible cystoscopy, inveneted for use in the torturing of heretics in the 17th century but now a doctor's tool for looking in a bladder. Yes, there is only one passageway into my bladder. And even though WebMD says a flexible cystoscopy is "pencil thick" I swear it was at least a 1/2 inch.

But the truth is, I want to be healthy. I want to hang out with my kids for many more years to come. I want to make sure I do what I can to keep myself fit. I've typically been one of those kinds of people that sees the cynical side of health--work out, lose weight, eat wheat germ or whatever, then get hit by a bus leaving the gym. But really, I'm going to do something about it. I've already gone 5 days without a soda, and don't plan to ever have one again. I went to a burger place in the Houston airport last night and had a salad. I did indulge in a couple of things at the state fair on Sunday--corn dogs and chicken fried bacon--but those will now be the exception to the rule. I hope to start working out.

Anything to avoid the flexible cystoscopy...

Friday, October 03, 2008

Church and State

Let's be clear--churches and believers should speak prophetically to their communities and cultures. We should be speaking to our parishioners about a follower of Jesus' role in shaping political leadership, in influencing culture, etc.

But there is no way this is a good idea. As I think has been attributed to Tony Campolo, mixing manure and ice cream might be really good for the manure, but it doesn't do much for the ice cream. I am not sure it's a good idea for churches to be tax exempt even, although all nonprofits are tax exempt, not just religious ones. Churches should be speaking on behalf of God when it comes to biblical truth and kingdom issues, but I don't believe we should endorse candidates either way. And I definitely don't think we should be connected to any one group or party. Anything that compromises the prophetic edge should be wisely considered and probably avoided altogether.

Feet problems

I have a thing about feet.

I don't know what it is, but feet have always been the ickiest part of the body for me. Maybe it stems from sticking my foot under a lawnmower when I was 16 and losing a toe, or maybe it's something psychological hidden within me--who knows. But I don't like feet.

Like Adrian Monk there are days where I work to overcome this icky feeling. I have grown to the point of being able to give my wife a foot massage. Sometimes. Of course there's then the alcohol rub, bleach bath and disinfectant use afterwords, but I'm progressing...

A couple of weekends ago I needed to take San's van to the shop for a new tire. She had taken my truck and gone shopping, and I didn't really want to wait, so I walked the mile or so from the tire place back to our house. It was a nice Saturday morning stroll.

Until I got to our neighbors' house. The kids were playing on the sidwalk, I was watching them, and totally forgot about the little raised bump in the sidewalk. I kicked it straight on, and stubbed my toe. I nearly fell down. Don't you love that feeling of "How can I regain my balance and not look like an idiot?"

The only real problem is that I was wearing flip-flops (no mom, no one calls them "thongs" anymore, that means something else now). As I kept walking up the driveway, I felt a little liquid on my foot, looked down and...well, let's just say it suddenly hurt more. I came inside, cleaned it up, bandaged it, made sure it didn't need stitches (it was more of a filet than a gash), then limped around for a couple of days.

So today I read Proverbs 3. There's lots of stuff in there about wisdom, including this:

"My son, do not lose sight of these--keep sound wisdom and discretion, and they will be life for your soul and adornment for your neck. Then you will walk on your way securely, and your foot will not stumble." Pr 3.21-23

It is easy to get distracted from wisdom and slice open a toe. (Maybe wisdom is to stop wearing flip-flops...really mom, Google "thong" and see if any flip-flops come up.) We need to keep our focus on the wisdom of God, and not be distracted by the alternative voices begging for our attention. Jesus said to "seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness." Sometimes, he says, "what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God" (Lk 16.15b).

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Some new demotivators

In case the 3.5 of you have forgotten, I LOVE If I could, I would put the full repertoire of posters up in my office.

Some new ones are out, and hey, I thought this one fit.