The Faithful Skeptic
Friday, July 15, 2005
Wednesday, June 15, 2005
Of mice and men...
I discovered last Thursday evening that we had a mouse in our garage. I went out to grab a screwdriver and I saw the cutest little mouse sitting on top of a bag of birdseed. We've had cat food and birdseed in the garage for almost a year, but it took almost that long for the critters to find us. Being the humane person I am, I picked up a couple of live traps from Home Depot and so far I've nabbed two of the critters. But this reminds me of our house back in Salem.
Our house in Salem was built in 1916 and the neighborhood was full of wildlife - mice, rats, nutria, felons, etc. Anyway, one day I discovered a gigantic rat on our deck. The rat was living in our basement and traveling through a crack in the foundation. My quest to rid ourselves of the rat evolved into a very Homer Simpson-esque episode. I started by hiding and trying to hit the rat with rocks as it ate our birdseed. No luck. I got bigger rocks. Still no luck. I rigged a contraption that involved a 4" x 6" post, bait, and a rope. My plan was to lure the rat under the post, pull the rope, and splat. No luck. Then I tried an old-fashioned trap. I managed to get my fingers a bunch of times, but no rat. Then I tried poison - the rat just wasn't interested. We finally just moved...
What I've concluded from this is that most rodents are smarter than I am. Bummer for me.
Wednesday, June 08, 2005
I listened to a great program on NPR tonight - it was "Godless America" from This American Life. Julie Sweeney, who apparently was on SNL, does a bit from her one-woman play called "Letting Go of God." It was great. It felt exactly like where I've been over the last year. Anyway, I highly recommend it.
I found out last week that I've been accepted into a Ph.D. program in Public Administration and Policy. I'm pretty excited about going back to school in the fall, but nervous also. A professor in my master's program gave me some advice about how to approach a Ph.D. program. He said that you need to know exactly what you want to do before you start. That's a problem for me - I have about a million ideas bouncing around in my head. I might try to work through some of them here...
Tuesday, June 07, 2005
I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, but the most exciting thing that happened to me this week was that the world now knows who Deep Throat was! In case you missed it, it was Mark Felt, the number 2 man at the FBI during the Watergate years. I’ve been waiting for this for a long time – when I was a junior in high school we had to pick a book and write a report on it. Being one of the geekiest kids in the world, I picked “All the President’s Men” by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. In my paper, my guess was that L. Patrick Gray was Deep Throat. Gray was the number 1 man at the FBI at the time. Not a bad guess, if I do say so myself.
Where I’m going with this is that you can probably tell that I’m a pretty political person. So when I read the lectionary readings for today I immediately jumped to the political ramifications. Then the part of my brain that reminded me that I’d like to be invited to speak again said, “you can’t talk about that at church.” But then I decided to ignore that part of my brain and so here we are.
The second text that Sarah read this morning refers to God’s promise to Abraham. The beginning of that reading starts “For the promise that he would inherit the world…” Paul here is referring to Genesis 12 – I’m going to read verses 1 – 3.
“Now the Lord said to Abram (later called Abraham), ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Now if you really unpack the text both here and in Romans, there’s some great stuff. Paul is laying out his argument that our salvation is based on faith, not law. The basis of our relationship with God is grace. Great stuff, really. But when I read that passage from Genesis and I hear “I will make of you a great nation” and “make your name great, so that you will be a blessing,” all I can think is this must be in the Republican Party platform somewhere.
And you know, I could talk all about this stuff all day. I could tell you how Bush used Christian imagery in his speeches after 9/11 and how the much of the world sees the war in Iraq as a 21st century crusade. I could tell you about Republicans in West Virginia who sent out campaign flyers telling supporters that Democrats wanted to ban the Bible. I could tell you about evangelical Christian leaders who believe God’s man is in the White House.
But then I’d calm down a little and remember the sticker we have on our refrigerator that says, “God is not a Republican or a Democrat.”
But when I’m honest with myself, I know that most of us who proclaim the loudest that God isn’t a Republican or a Democrat, really secretly believe that God actually is a Democrat. Surely any true God of justice and mercy would align himself with the Democrats who serendipitously happen to be the party of justice and mercy. God couldn’t be on the side of people who care more about tax breaks for the rich than they do for poor, or so at least we tell ourselves.
And I think that’s really the crux of the issue – that we all want to believe on some level that God is on our side and that he will bless us and curse our enemies. When we think about building the kingdom of heaven on earth we spend a lot of time looking in the mirror – we want to see ourselves and what we want reflected in that heaven.
Those of us with strong political opinions want to see our leaders use our faith for justice and mercy – and unfortunately that means wildly different things to Democrats, Republicans, socialists, greens, and libertarians. We all want to think that our vision is what the world needs. Our personal Jesus (who happens to feel the same way about most issues as we do) will truly bring peace on earth. This all makes me think that most of us aren’t very good at knowing what we need.
Jesus is a great example. Jesus was certainly not what many Jews had in mind when they were looking for the savior promised to them. In their messiah they wanted a warrior who would drive the Romans from the Holy Land and make them the great nation as promised to Abraham. Instead they get this guy who bums around in sandals, lives by the grace of others, and tells them that revenge is a bad thing. And really, if anyone deserved the right to bring down some good, old-fashioned revenge, it was probably the Jews at that time.
But Jesus preached a message of peace, compassion and contrition. We see this message in the Hebrew Bible as well – this is from Psalm 51, versus 10-17.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
14 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
As much as we hope for a leader who looks like us to come and lead the world to righteousness, I think our homes, our churches, and our political system could benefit from some compassion and contrition. Our call and God’s promise is to follow a radical Jesus that shocks, challenges, and above all loves us as much he loved those Jews and Gentiles in ancient Israel.
But getting back to the scripture that we started with today, we can’t ignore the fact that God promised Abraham that he would make them a great nation. So what does that mean? I think we have to revisit the notion of what it means to be a great nation in light of the New Testament. Jesus was certainly a political figure, but he was counter-cultural or even revolutionary. He was a peacemaker and a prophet – someone who spoke the truth.
I think what this means is that being a great nation and being blessed doesn’t necessarily manifest itself as political power. Our greatness comes not from seeing in how places we can hang the 10 Commandments (which are actually 11, but that’s another story), but rather in how we answer God’s call through Jesus Christ. How are we bringing peace, loving our neighbors, caring for the least of those among us?
But again, I think God’s given us a pretty simple answer. This is from Micah, chapter 6, verse 8:
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"
It's been a long time. I've been reading blogs selectively, working a lot, and being a dad and a husband. This might not be a good thing, but I'm pretty good at compartmentalizing my life. I'm still in a spiritual funk, but my home life and professional life are very good. Though there may be some good signs on the spiritual front.
I preached in church on Sunday and got a lot of great complimens. I don't like to admit it, but I really like/need that kind of positive feedback (both personally and professionally). I'll post my sermon later. It probably would have been pretty risky for a full time pastor to say some of the things I did, but since I don't depend on preaching to keep food on the table I did it anyway.
As I was preparing my sermon I got out a book I read about six years ago. It is "Jesus: A New Vision" by Marcus Borg. It was kind of Borg's academic companion to "Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time." It was the first theological book I had ever read for my own edification and it had a huge impact on how I thought about Christianity and my own faith. It opened some doors for me in terms of reconciling what it means to have faith but also acknowledge that the Bible may not be literal/factual.
It was a joy to crack it open, and I may just have to read it again. I'm also going to try to post on a more regular basis.
Friday, March 25, 2005
Community & Outreach
David made some good points about my discussion of community. He pointed out that our connection to community goes beyond just church growth, but also includes social outreach. I totally agree, but I want to explore some other dynamics that go along with that.
One of the other characteristics of our particular "mobile/transient" congregration is that many people are involved in outreach efforts not connected with our church. Some people volunteer through work or other social organizations that they're involved with. Many of the opportunities are also tied to their faith. So I think one of the difficulties we have in getting people to commit is not that they don't recognize the place of social outreach in their christian faith, but that they're already reaching out in ways that fit their particular needs and interests.
So if that's the case, what is our congregational response? Do we just say, "Cool! Let us know if we can help you?" Or, "That's great, but you need to be involved with the particular missions of this church." Or?
What I'm getting at is that I think we need to answer the question of whether church is the primary outlet/mechanism for our social outreach, or is it a place that supports the outreach efforts of our members wherever/whatever they might be?
I'll readily admit that I don't know the answer. I think in the United Methodist tradition we do a decent job of letting people know the proper place of outreach in our faith. But I think as churches become a part of our social networks rather than the locus, things get more complicated. In small churches, particularly, it is difficult to offer a range of outreach opportunities that will meet the needs/desires of all of our members. This is an opportunity for building on our connecting missions with other churches, but it also leads people to pursue their interests with other organizations - and I'm not sure that's all bad.
I think the challenge is probably to find a balance and figure out a way that we can help people meet their needs and do outreach effectively.
Wednesday, March 23, 2005
I've had some ideas bouncing around in my head for a couple of days that are finally ready to put down in some semblance of order. At a church meeting a couple of weeks ago we were talking about community - more specifically, what is the role of our church in our local community. Our pastor expressed dismay/frustration (I apologize if I'm mischaracterizing her opinion, but I think this is the general idea) about our lack of engagement with our neighbors (physically proximate). We discussed some ways in which the church could try to reach out to our neighbors and be more connected with our community.
I didn't say anything at the time, but a couple of things struck me. First, I think we have a vision of what it means to be a church that is based on a mid-20th century idea of what church is. What I mean is, 50 years ago the church was the primary focus of people's lives and people tended to live around their church. But now, for most of the people in our congregation, the church is one part of their life. Their life usually includes other social outreach activities, and probably other religious activities. So to expect most parishoners to devote all or even most of their time to their church is probably unrealistic.
Second, most people don't live near their church. Or probably more importantly, we don't choose our churches based primarily on physical proximity. Sarah and I live closer to our church than most of the people we worship with - in fact our pastor lives probably 15 miles away. I don't mean this as criticism - rather, it is indicative of the fact that our community is based on something other than physical proximity.
What I'm wondering is if the future of our churches is based on building relationships with our physical neighbors? Not that we shouldn't try, but if most of our members have chosen to live elsewhere (for all sorts of reasons - work, school, family, etc.) should we instead focus on the things about our church community that have attracted our current members?
I think we need to reimagine a parish/ward/district based church system and instead think about a system based less on place-specific attributes. Why couldn't we have two United Methodist churches right next door to each other if one was a traditional, high-church congregation and the other was a contemporary, alternative-worship style group?
About four years ago I was doing some reading on social network theory. The idea is that people have networks that they maintain/develop to meet their social needs. Before communication (telephones) and travel (cars/airplanes) became cheap and easily available people's networks were limited to those that lived near them. Thus churches were based on parish/ward/district systems because people couldn't afford/couldn't manage to get to places further away. One way of looking at it was that those communities were "accidental." You couldn't choose who lived next door to you, and because of the limitations of travel and communication it was much more difficult to maintain relationships with those who lived farther away.
But now, we're not bound to be friends with our neighbors because we can maintain meaningful relationships with people who don't live in our neighborhood/town/state/country. The consequence is that we can build more intentional networks. Social network theory is much more complicated than this, but my point is that maybe we should think about building our churches as intentional communities, rather than being bound by outdated concepts of church growth based on accidental communities.
Am I nuts?
Sunday, March 06, 2005
So, I ended up taking most of the month of February off. I didn't mean to, it just happened. I've still been reading some blogs here and there, but my mind has been occupied elsewhere. There's a long list of reasons, but here are some of the main ones:
- I love being with my family - I'm constantly amazed by my wife's capacity to love and nurture us, and my daughter just turned one and I love her more every day, though that doesn't seem possible the day before;
- My job, while very fulfilling, is taking up an increasing amount of my time;
- I feel a spiritual void in my life and I'm unsure as to how to fill it;
- I'm finding difficulty finding space in my life for my hobbies - for instance, I haven't read a book in almost two months (virtually unheard of for me).
I also have a tendency to make life complicated for myself. I blogged a while ago about applying to law school. I heard last weekend that I was accepted. But I've come to realize that the schedule required by the law school would be impossible to maintain without devastating my life with my family. Thus I've decided to apply to a Ph.D. program in Public Administration and Policy. That schedule is much more amenable to family life and would probably be more fun, anyway. Rather than staying still, I'm always looking for the next thing. Part of me is inclined to think that's a problem, but the other part of me believes it is an essential part of my character. One of the characteristics that God gifted me is an endless curiosity and a desire to learn.
But I'm going to try to blog more often. I'm hoping that thinking about spirituality and religion in a more focused way might help to get me out of this funk.|