Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Heaven was the other way.

I waited five minutes before I finally decided I should abandon the left turn.
My motorcycle doesn't weigh enough to trip the sensor to make the light change at many intersections. And with no one driving up behind me in a heavier car, I'd been stuck glug-glug-glugging for long enough.
So, I turned right instead, figuring I'd u-turn after a couple hundred yards and be on my way home.

I didn't get all the way up to the speed limit due to my about-face I had planned. But the opportunity to u-turn didn't present itself as quickly as I'd hoped. At first I couldn't turn around because it was unsafe. After another hundred yards, it was illegal. After another fifty, it was impossible because of the big cement dividing hump that appeared like a stone whale out of an asphalt sea.

But I could see ahead another fifty or sixty yards where a u-turn would be more reasonable. So I continued on in the left lane, driving at probably 10 miles an hour under the speed limit, scouting out the precise spot for a pirouette. Seemingly at random, I looked in my mirror.
A truck was bearing down on me, his front bumper dropping as the driver was apparently standing on the brakes. I accelerated to stay well in front of him. I've played enough pinball to know as a matter of instinct what the big plunger does to the little shiny ball. As I sped up, the truck swung around to my right side, slowing to just a fraction faster than my speed. This allowed the driver to give me a full opportunity to see his raging, snarled face and his muted obscenities mouthed through his driver-side window.

And as he passed, the strangest reflex employed itself in my right hand.

I cranked the throttle to match his speed.

On impulse, something in me had decided that this man getting away with his misplaced anger and condescension toward me wasn't happening. The man was in his fifties or sixties, and should know better. I wasn't going to allow him to think it was ok to just drive by judging me.

Mess with the bull, you get the horns.
Want a piece of me? How 'bout the whole cake?
You just bit off more than you can chew.
Gary has a rash and he's out of aloe.

Ok that last one I just made up and I don't know what it means.
Suffice it to say that an outdated bravado was immediately there to take over. Something I thought was almost entirely gone came back in full, and suddenly Dr. Banner was wondering why his helmet was getting so tight and his pants were splitting. Now Hulk bike heavy enough for sensor.
And with the full-fledged rage, a self-righteous internal victim joined in:

The guy doesn't know the reason I was going marginally slower. He didn't even ask. He went straight to selfish, inconvenienced lividity.
What if I was running out of gas?
What if I was having seizures?
What if I had a flat?
He doesn't even know if I need help.
He's nearly twice my age, and he still get irritable over losing 4 seconds from his agenda?

At this point I could see that my acceleration was interpreted by him as aggression. His face scrunched more, and he yelled through the window in a way that, though I couldn't hear any of it, clearly communicated Gary indeed had a very bad rash and there was no aloe for miles.

Hm. Somehow that makes more sense there.

I passed the spot that I had previously determined a safe u-turn could be made. I was now otherwise engaged, abandoning turnaround for an irrational belief that I had other, more important things to attend to than going home.
Traffic was stopped ahead at a light, and we would be coming to a stop as well. My heart was pounding, even though this entire exchange was literally about ten seconds old. I'm still amazed at how quickly I went from casual driving to ready for battle. And this next intersection would be the battlefield it seemed. I could feel anger in my hands. An old, familiar tingling that, a hundred yards back, I would have believed were from an earlier time of immaturity.

My face shield and sun visor were still down, hiding my face, so the guy probably thought he was barking at some teenaged whippersnapper. The thought occurred to me to yank off my helmet and give him crazy face. Psy-Ops, you know. Because the face of a middle-age crisis might have surprised him into a terrified stupor, causing him to drive away through the grass median while apologizing in a high-pitched whimper. I'm not saying any of this was rational. Hulk just confess.

The driver had escalated to pointing as he yelled. This was perhaps to help me be sure, in case I wasn't, that I was the object of his loathing. (I wonder now if the reflection of himself doing this in his window told a truer story.) The light went green but we had both slowed to a crawl. This slower speed allowed more time for exchanging evil countenances. Neither of us knew why we were mad, and couldn't remember the beginning of this madness. We had always been enemies as far as we were concerned in that moment. Although we would both be able to give all kinds of reasons for our anger. Never underestimate the intellectual brain's ability to almost immediately justify the emotional brain's recklessness.
As the intersection neared and the traffic ahead of us began to pull well ahead, a tiny mote of a voice sounded from somewhere deep inside me. And if it were actual words, it went something like this,

"This is nothing you'll be proud of. This is nothing you're working toward and living for. Do you really intend to continue down this path?"

At this, I checked my mirrors, and seeing no one behind me, I let the bike slow. I put up both of my hands to say "what's your problem anyway?", while also fully aware that from his perspective, it also communicated, "What are you going to do, chicken? Bok bok bok." He extended one arm out his window, palm up, to communicate the latter right back to me.

He drove on.
I stopped, completed my u-turn, and entered into a dark, disappointed fog for the next couple of hours.

As is so often the case in my life, I should have just been patient and gone the other way.

I prayed on my way home. I asked God to forgive me for believing so fundamentally that I could successfully answer immaturity with immaturity. For justifying my wrath to myself. For embracing adrenaline and aggression and not humility and self-control. I told Kristi about all this later after she asked me if I was ok. She could tell I was a little sideways when I got home. I was humiliated to admit that within less than a third of a minute, I had gotten a most unfortunate, real life review of my spiritual maturity. As always, she was very compassionate and understanding. She knows that I've had an unwanted relationship with an ugly dog in me and that I have tried over and over to leave it in a bag in the river. She knows that this dog, if even in intervals of years, always seems to find his way back to me. She loves me anyway. She loves me even though this dog snapped at her more than once. I felt better walking through the details of the story with her. Dr. Banner was back and was ready to put on new pants.

The next day I talked to my very good friend, TJ. By then, all the emotion was gone and it was just a bewildering report of the facts. When I was done, I said, "once again, I let the base of me overpower everything else. I wonder if I'll ever mature." He had a remarkable response:

"Isn't that heaven?"

I didn't get it so I asked him what he meant.

"The conquering of all that base, physical stuff. Isn't that heaven on earth? When you no longer get angry or adrenalized and subvert your own spirit with all those ugly impulses?"

I felt a smile stretch across my crazy face. I immediately heard Jesus teaching his students to pray; "Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven." (In other words, "Your way be in effect here, the way you want things, here in our physical, tangible lives as they are in the unseen realm.") These words were important to include in a short prayer because there's something within us all that works against it. And when it resurfaces, it surprises us with intensity and its desire to re-inaugurate the animal kingdom in place of God's.
I thought of Jesus referring to the Kingdom as both being in our midst, and yet still not fully here. It whispers u-turns, typically long before we ever consent to do one.
I thought of Paul's words about the flesh and the spirit being antagonistic to each other, even within himself. Even while he was inspired to write what we call scripture.
I was reminded that faith in Christ is largely a war within the self, between two selves. Not with others. On my motorcycle I simply reverted back to the childish belief that I was at war with other people. At the store. In my family. With others of different beliefs and philosophies. But none of those are inspired wars. Those are just childish squabbles over the preferred speed of traffic and an entitled sense of being treated well. I forgot that the one true war is the long, drawn out, bravely aware and non-anxious process of replacing the impulse for hell in us (which results in hell between us all) for the way of heaven. With peace and love and all those other fruity words Paul suggests.

TJ reminded me that heaven isn't just a place, but is what happens when the things that make us unlike Christ, unlike even our own truest nature, finally replaces every counterfeit, base thing in us. And this isn't something you should expect to have resolved in your thirties. The only One who ever did have it together in His thirties was executed by people who maybe never did.

Later that day I prayed for a man I don't know. I prayed that whatever it is in his life that allows him to get angry so fast will be dealt with redemptively. I prayed for forgiveness for being an instigator of anger in his life to the extent I could control that. I prayed that I would have a better set of instincts next time, dialed to love and humility rather than, frankly, a dangerous escalation to win a cockfight that neither of us could legitimately justify. I prayed that I would, with my new found awareness of the work I have left to do in this particular department (and I have numerous departments), that I would have greater courage to turn around earlier and earlier. And it does take courage to risk looking weak rather than prove you are by fighting about nothing but ego.
So I will continue to pray for this courage and awareness to change directions earlier. Because heaven, I'm finding, is typically arrived at by way of well timed u-turns.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Prayer, Part 1: "Yes, No, Later."

Through the years I have seen and heard spiritual leaders talk about how God answers our prayers.
God's answer is either;

If you're human, prayer is confusing and difficult. Theology like yes-no-later often makes it even harder for me.

My issue isn't intent. I used to say this same thing when people asked about God's response to our prayers and believed I was understanding things accurately and was being helpful. So understand, I'm not saying people who offer the yes-no-later solution are trying to do any harm. I am simply saying I don't think they are thinking about it very deeply. I also think this is yet another way we try and make God do our will.

My hang up with this trifecta is that it uses the same rationale as the Magic 8 Ball. The answers are vague enough to demand interpretation and, in my estimate, depend almost entirely on the one shaking the ball or saying the prayer. You can apply this to anyone or anything.

Pray to your wrist watch and ask it for a much-needed raise at work. Should you get a raise, you can posit your watch has given you a yes. Praise Timex. If it doesn't happen, you can say the watch has answered no. But you could also surmise that it had said "not yet" and hold out hope for the next day. All no's can be not yets. Which means everything is a yes, no matter the request, given time and enough positive disposition. A year later, you get the raise, and the not yet has become a yes. Or the first day you didn't get the raise, but instead are fired. You could say that was a no in its concreteness. But the next job gives a penny more an hour. AHA! You can now retrospectively call what was a no a yes or a not yet. Clever watch.

Whether we're talking about owning something, our health, a relationship...the yes-no-later theology is quite often really a matter of imagination, and certainly isn't the exclusive rights of faithful Christ-followers.

I've come to see this as a misunderstanding.

Prayer is certainly inclusive of asking for things. Jesus says multiple times that asking for things is part of our relationship with him. As such, I ask for things all the time. I don't know why I get or don't get what I ask for, and the formulas don't hold up. So, as I ask, I've begun asking why I think I want what I'm requesting. So every ask is two requests for me now, I guess.
Over all, I am struck with the fact that in passages found in John 14, 15 and 16, Jesus says "whatever you ask in my name will be given you." Asking in Jesus' name means requesting in accordance with his reputation. "God, I want and ask like Jesus wants and asks..." is how I think of it as I pray. I try and keep in mind while asking for things the Name in which I am praying has a reputation for having no known address, for having no possessions listed anywhere, for having friends that were hard to trust when it most mattered, for having family that thought he was nuts, for being unattractive, for serving people while they plotted to ruin him, and for being judged guilty for things he wasn't involved with. Frankly, I'd rather pray in Brad Pitt's name most days. My default, uninspired prayer is that my family and I would remain in a bubble of unthreatened, undemanding luxury. That's not evil. It just isn't asking for things in accordance with Messiah.

The misunderstanding goes deeper than this. Requesting, or petitioning, is not just a part, but a minority part of prayer as I've come to think of it. And it's shrinking with time. This, I concede, probably has in part to do with living in material abundance and not feeling a survivor's desperation. But then again my friends and mentors in developing countries also seem to let petitioning drop off as they mature. Prayer has become mostly a setting of my mind on the things of God, rather than the things of my anxious list.

Paul writes to his brothers in sisters in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 to "pray ceaselessly". On one hand this may have been a colorful exaggeration to drive home prayer's importance. But understanding our faith through a mystical, meditative tradition that lauds seeing over blindness, Paul was probably talking about staying in a constant state of awareness to reality. In this, Paul is saying "stay tuned-in beyond your normal way of bumbling through life on mere instinct." Praying ceaselessly doesn't make much sense in a faith that teaches peace and contentment if it's mainly asking for things. Every ask is a complaint about current circumstances. This same Paul said he'd learned to be content in all circumstances, so telling others to be in a constant state of requesting different circumstances is not just paradoxical for me. It's schizophrenic.

This is why I think that prayer and meditation and awareness and renewed thinking are all different ways of saying the same thing. It's also why I seldom think of prayer as a list of things I am trying to get from God, where I must be careful to use proper wording, technique and demeanor so God will feel more apt to give a solid "yes". Oh, and I have to tag on the "In Jesus' Name" so as to compel God to do say yes even if he didn't want to. This is a huge shift for many people, I know. It was and is huge for me. What is prayer if we're not clicking off things we think we'd better off having than not having.
Interestingly, when Paul said pray ceaselessly, he said it this way:

"Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (ESV)

Be constantly aware, thanking God for things as they are. 
Feel free to express your wants and what you believe to be your needs. 
But God's will is that regardless of what does or doesn't happen, become a man or woman that isn't subject to things going any certain way. 
This is God's will, presented to you though the template of Christ's life!

I find myself asking God to help me become even one molecule more like Christ, regardless of the state of things and people around me. This is me asking God to keep me awake, and, frankly, less requesting. Less needy. More grateful for things as they are, and mindful of the role I play in bringing about that which I only passively prayed for in the past.
I ask that my kids would have their needs met, and that my wife and I would become ever clearer about what that means in this culture.
I ask that things outside my control would be covered divinely, and that God would remind me to be brave enough to handle everything else.
I ask to be reminded in real time that if I got everything I thought I wanted, I'd become far worse a wretch than I already am.

Consider praying the Lord's prayer  as a template today. As you do, note it doesn't open with our agenda, but our place in His. Then embrace that children do ask of their Parents. But to do so in accordance with the family Name means asking for ways to become more like the Parent and less like the kid. No matter the circumstances. It's a hard prayer. But finding out we're in control when we shake the 8 Ball and wind our watch is far harder.

"Unfortunately, in the West prayer became something functional; something you did to achieve a desired effect—which puts you back in charge. As soon as you make prayer a way to get something, you’re not moving into a new state of consciousness. It's the same old consciousness. “How can I get God to do what I want God to do?” It's the egocentric self still deciding what it needs, but now often trying to manipulate God too.... It pulls God inside of my agenda instead of letting God pull me inside of his. This is still the small old self at work." 
-Richard Rohr

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Reviews and Reflections on Revolution

Kristi and I tuned into the series premier of NBC's "Revolution" last night. 
I started to use the superlative "much anticipated series premier..." but I then remembered that a prolific advertising campaign is distinct from actual viewer anticipation. In other words, we tuned in because NBC spent millions of dollars telling us all summer that we couldn't wait to see this show.

I actually held some interest in the show because anything even casually associated with JJ Abrams has hooks in it for me. Though when I heard JJ talk a few years back about his love of the mystery box principle in a story, I lost confidence that he or his disciples ever really know, or care, about where a story is heading. Nonetheless, I love his mind and am hopeful his mind got on this show.

Revolution is set 15 years into a dystopic American future. Society has crumbled. The reason? In short, all man-made power was suddenly unavailable. Electricity. Battery power. Solar power. Combustion engines. Even hydro-electic and wind power are seemingly unavailable. The only available explanation in the premier came from Hurley Aaron; "Physics went insane, the world went insane over night, and nobody knows why..."

It's a bit early to tell, but the people seem to have only the power to boil water for their coffee, but not for locomotion. Hard, confusing times these folks find themselves in.

Kristi and I were enthralled within minutes. The story's conflict was laid out in a riveting way within the space of the opening credits. I will forever be in awe of a storyteller's ability to draw suspense and emotion out from viewers before they know they're invested. Brilliant opener. The rest, not so much. But well opened for sure.

As expected, the story depicts power becoming suddenly and ubiquitously unavailable. This results in all Amish breaking loose. Cities go dark. Cars die on the highway. Ice cream turns milkshake turns cheese and there's nothing anyone can do about it. And as planes fall from the sky part of me thought, Oh look, JJ Abrams is funding a story that opens with crashing airliners followed by the reduction of middle-class folks to tribal living. 

Earth goes prehistorically dark, and the next scene is titled "15 years later".

The story showcases a young girl named Charlotte (Charlie), who shows much prowess with a crossbow and at keeping her dystopian hair and wardrobe impeccably clean and fashionable. She has no sponsor that I could tell. The premier set up some of the show's conflicts with family member's dying, a militia that's bad for bad's sake at this point, suspicion in every relationship and a general sense of lost hope. Apparently, when the power went out just a decade and a half earlier, all pruning shears were lost too, because the world's concrete and asphalt jungles are already looking like the other kind of jungles. And the meanies of the militia must believe that ammunition presses are electronic because they were using muzzleloaders to forcibly advance their big mean agenda.

For now, I think I'll stay with this show. It has 6 episodes in its first season and I'm 6 episodes worth of intrigued to see how Katniss Charlie and her friends fare against the Others Capitol Galactic Empire Militia.

But there's an interesting assumption being made that I've been thinking about all morning. And it's simply this: the show seems to be ground in someone saying to us, 

"Hey, ya know how if we lost all of our power and the gadgets they fuel, how everything would go to hell in a handbag? Well that fact is the background in this story."

But what if that's exactly backward? What if that's not the fact? Why do we believe that society is on knife-edge and our inventions are what keep us balanced? Sure, for a few years after a global disruption where physics went "insane" rendering our watches bracelets and 747's immobile homes, things would be tense for sure. And perhaps there would be a long season of re-adaptiing to life with so little distraction. Business and convenience and communication and medicine...all of it would have to be rethought. Maybe for longer than 15 years humanity would have to grow up and learn to look itself directly in the eye. Like children with their video games torn from their hands so they'll address Grandma with an attached courtesy, perhaps there would be an awkward season of us figuring out how to to do relationships with no superficiality to hide behind or triangulate off of. But, generally speaking, why do we believe we're doomed if we're unplugged? Don't we actually, with all our complaints about texting and TV and "friends" on Facebook and CGI vs puppet Yoda, believe the opposite? Don't we kinda want to be unplugged?

As I think about it, maybe this is where Revolution is heading. Maybe it's a show that depicts people growing into better versions of themselves because "power" has been removed so they can discover what power actually is. If it's not, it should be. We could use a species-wide, decades long electricity-fast so we could regain ourselves. Maybe we need stories that remind us that an acoustic Dystopia has Utopia in it, and we all know it. If we'd dare live in the difficulty, connected to each other and truly together, many of us would prefer it.

The former Dean of Duke Chapel, Samuel Wells, said that technology, and its constant state of improvement, fools us into thinking that we, the possessors of this technology, are improving too. But it's a lie. We hide behind our producing, hoping people will think "new and improved!" apply to both gadget and owner. In this, we risk becoming worse versions of ourselves as the work of our hands is perfected. 

Electricity isn't evil, but anything that makes us think that without it there can be no peace might be. In that case, Dystopia probably has a well-functioning power grid. A loss of power might be the only way to real human revolution. 

Or it's by another tough girl with arrows. That's been effective too.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

God, give us Jesus' immune system.

After the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus goes on something of a spree.

In Matthew chapter 8 and 9, Jesus:

  • Heals a man with leprosy. 
  • Has a chat with and then helps a Gentile- a Roman Soldier no less. A trained killer for Caesar. 
  • Heals Peter's mother-in-law. Interesting, the first Pope had a mother-in-law...
  • Casts demons out of a bunch of people and healed all the sick in a town, irrespective of their disease.
  • Restores two violent, demon-possessed men.
  • Heals a crippled man with the words, "Be brave son; you are in the process of being forgiven and redeemed as we speak." (Some religious leaders said this forgiving was evil and blasphemy. Jesus responds by calling their accusation evil. No, you're the blasphemer. Puh- Your mom's a blasphemer. No, your mom's so blasphemous she owes Satan an apology. Yeah right, like my mom would apologize to your dad. Fun times with Jesus, as I imagine them.)
  • He invites a tax-collector, Matthew, into his inner circle. An apostle fashioned from of a public enemy. 
  • Hangs out at a Matthew-and-cronies party, listening I'm sure to Matthews entire 8-track collection of pagan rock. This, again, riled the religious leaders. "Farewell, @Jesus" one of them tweeted.
  • Travels to raise a dead girl to life by touching her corpse.
  • Touches and heals a woman stuck in what appeared to be a perpetual, 12-year state of menstruation from what any first-century doctors could deduce.
  • Heals two blind men with persuasive volume.
  • Heals a demon-possessed man that was mute. (Which was quite a trick since it was believed you could only cast out a demon if you knew its name. Mute demons don't easily give up their names. And, little known fact, demons refuse to use sign-language. Self-conscious about their hooves.)

This is an amazing couple of chapters. But there's something even more amazing in my estimate than the specific acts performed:
All of these infirmities, conditions or even ways of life come with formal exclusion. If you're one of these that Christ healed or talked to, you simply weren't invited into "us". You're "them". 

Sometimes it was something outside of the excluded person's control (sickness, blindness, demon-possession, bleeding, etc.) Sometimes it was a choice, (tax-collecting, being a soldier for the Empire, etc.). 

Sometimes it was a condition. 
Sometimes it was a choice. 

Regardless, these things put one safely on the outside. They were excluded from the faith community. They were rejected from the inclusive life of the center. They were not just sick- they were actually sickness itself. Outsiders. Provincials. Cast-aways. Them.

And those on the inside had the scriptures and traditions to support these exclusions. Perhaps more significantly, there were numerous biblical injunctions it seemed against even interacting with such unclean, objectionable people- let alone touching them as Jesus unflinchingly did. The reason for their ostracization was contagious, Jesus! Don't you know this?!

This is hard for us to really appreciate. Especially if we've read or thought about this before and fell familiar with the idea. But, fact is, Jesus just didn't seem to care about things he had to care about to have a place in the culture. The closest sense of shock we might understand would be like watching someone repeatedly inject themselves with used hypodermics. Everything in us would say "don't do that!"

Jesus just went and talked and touched and partied and loved people that other good boys and girls wouldn't even bring up in quiet conversation.

Overall, we seem to be doing a lot better as a society these days in understanding that people shouldn't be excluded for conditions they've been victimized by. I don't know anybody that would look at a physical infirmity and suggest the condition was grounds for rejection. I concede this is the case because I don't personally know the judges on America's Next Top Model. But over all, much progress seems to have been made in not only tolerating people our forefathers and mothers isolated and cast out, but in giving them extra energy to help ensure them the best opportunities possible. 

Where we still have much work, and perhaps have even gone backward rather than forward, is that second group. The tax-collectors and "sinners" group. People who live in a way and believe things that the rest of us don't understand, agree with or support. They're not sick. They're sickening. We're still sure this second group is contagious and deserves to be isolated and controlled and opposed until such a time as they come around to doing and believing like "us".

Jesus rounds out Matthew 9 and all his work this way:
"Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, 'The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.'" (Matthew 9:35-38)

It's easy to believe that others and their ideas are bad for us, our families, our nation or our way of life until they change. We know blindness isn't communicable anymore. But certain behaviors and ideas are more dangerous to us, the pure, than ever. At best we offer these disagreeable, objectionable people a peaceful stiff-arm until they convert their mind and ways. At worst, these people are the dreadful sinners in our us-and-them theology that keep hell's fires hot while "we" dance on streets of gold. It was by grace we got there. Grace and accuracy and not being sickening and not voting the wrong way not having God's least favorite sins in our lives.

Jesus sees those who have been rejected, shamed, judged and ostracized and has a different take. 

He says they're "harassed." They're being mistreated. Jesus refers to people on the "outside" as mistreated as he spoke to those in synagogues. He says this to his disciples. To the spiritual people. 

I like to think Christ is essentially saying, "Guys, there's so much harvest. So many good things ready to celebrate that you've nervously predetermined either isn't there or should die on the vine. There's so much to go and benefit from as you bring it from "out there", into your homes. The problem is there are too few people who want to do this work. Too few servants. Sure, plenty of people who level judgment and condemnation, and plenty of people who have gotten comfortable with their group of fellow insiders, understanding themselves by whom and what they're against. But few willing to traverse their sacred quarantine zones and learn that the field is God's harvest field. Few willing to entertain that the Spirit wants to unite people, not perpetuate a tired, old us & them. Pray, therefore, that rather than God changing "them", that he would change you. That he would change fearful, narrow, hand-sanitizer saints into people who understand "they" are your siblings out in that field. No more lacking in purity or accuracy than you are. Pray God would show you how upraised hands look better with the dirt of reality in the fingernails. Pray God would show you people aren't their right or wrong ideas but are, equally, God's children. Imago Dei. Worth the effort."

Perhaps our generations' call is to read Matthew 8 and 9 and recognize that the harassers have too often been those who know all the verses. Perhaps it's time to admit we've acted as aghast as self-righteous scribes and start admitting to ourselves that the church is the church of tax-collectors and sinners. "They", whether that's a set of political views, economic ideologies, the hot-button pushers, other religions, the nonreligious, those with different sexual identities, differing environmental takes and countless other things on yours or others' lists; all are the fruit of God's field- beloved and valuable to say the least. More so when they're harassed for their lives by those called by Christ's name. "We" on the supposed inside must remember we are Matthew; rejects suddenly invited into Jesus' arms and ministry for reasons so incomprehensible it seems irresponsible of Christ to have done it. Plenty of others can make a case against having Matthews in the church. "We" are always someone's "them".

If we'll accept this call I think we'll find ourselves suddenly celebrating the realization that behaviors and perspectives and lives we don't understand are no more dangerous to those housing God's Spirit than mute demons or mothers-in-law. If I'm wrong about this, then I confess I understand my faith less everyday. Because I just don't know how to go into a field and change the vegetables that are actually there into something they are not before I'll take them into my home. 

May we love and serve all others, and convert only ourselves.


Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Teaching former soldiers to dance.

While at a conference this past weekend, I eagerly attended what I thought was a seminar on meditation. Imagine my surprise when TJ and I learned it was actually on mediation. We noticed the missing T during the introductory thoughts and, realizing we were in the front row of a sparse crowd, decided to stay and see what we could learn about this slightly shorter word.

The man spoke about managing conflict and how to apply love and peace in seemingly love-and-peace-starved circumstances. At the end, a man asked a seemingly simple question. "What do you do when you seek to be peaceful and loving toward someone, but still have to stand up for the truth?"

There are all kinds of good things this question could be getting at, but it got me thinking about how we think of ourselves in a battle over ideas with each other, and yet somehow called to love those we're fighting. So much so, that the man's question (coming from a faith who says the Truth we stand for is the love of others, especially when they seem to deserve it least) seemed perfectly reasonable: What do you do when in loving someone who is causing problems, something True is at stake? Do you go on loving the guy, or do you abandon that tack and go on about defending the greater Truth?

My love of words drew me into reading an often quoted book called Metaphors We Live By. Anyone seriously interested in what we are all really doing when we speak or listen should add this book to their list. One particular section talks about how we use a very consistent, often problematic metaphor when we disagree. Lakoff and Johnson call this the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor. In this, we disagree within a framework that not only gives us a way of describing what is occurring in the disagreement, but actually informs how we think of it as it unfolds.

Some examples of how argument is thought of in a metaphoric framework of war:

Someone's claims are indefensible.
We attack or counterattack weak points in arguments.
Criticisms are on target.
We demolish/destroy arguments.
We use strategies in debates to wipe out the other's position.
We shoot down arguments.

At the end of the section explaining how indelible these ideas are in shaping how we see ourselves winning or losing these battles we have with each other every day, they write, "The language of argument is not poetic, fanciful or rhetorical; it is literal. We talk about arguments that way because we conceive of them that way- and we act according to the way we conceive of things."

The metaphor has become literal. We're actually fighting, and in many cases we believe, fighting for survival. If you and I disagree, we assume by the very nature of our core explanations of what's occurring, that a fight must ensue.

Within faith, this is often done with an assumption running in the background that we are defending "the truth". We're not just arguing- we're speaking on behalf of heaven, so it's like we're just being petty. It's not like we're just defending the slander that side of the bar has launched at this side about our favorite team....this is THE truth, man. So, we argue and do battle with the ultimate prize in mind- being aligned with Absolute rightness. We defend truth from attacks and take stands against seemingly dangerous ideas. We're Christian Soldiers after all. And his truth is marching on.

So we march on and on as though we're commissioned to do literal battle over a literal thing called The Truth. And our fighting and dividing in our disagreements reinforces arguments aren't just like wars, but especially within a faith context, ARE wars.

In fighting for truth, there are some unfortunate messages being conveyed:

1. We are admitting our truth's weakness. Anything that needs me to defend it is assumed to be weaker than I am. Who would defend something that would be better suited to defend me instead? 

2. We are saying there is no winning in learning someone else's perspective. Learning is losing. Getting others to agree is winning.

3. We are stating that we believe ideas can be willingly embraced through verbal force. In other words, we believe Jesus' way doesn't work, so we argue people into conformity with the truth.

4. We admit that we don't know there's a night/day distinction between truth and our perspective about truth.  No one has has exclusive rights to truth within a faith system. That's what makes it faith. No body gets the ego-soothing position of "knowing". 

5. We make the Gospel, the good news that the War is over and there is peace for all, yet another way that "might is right". We essentially write Jesus on our bullets before firing them.

Paul says something interesting to young churches, recorded in the end of Ephesians chapter 6:

"Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not struggle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places." (Ephesians 6:11-12)

If you're going to take a stand...if you just can't help but fight, Paul says you do it against the vacuum, not the people sucked into it. Armor up against the anti-Kingdom forces, not people. Against the influence of selfish, anxious evil pervading the air we breathe; The Satan. But we do not battle against flesh and blood. We don't wage wars against each other. We've been called out of the war and into the Kingdom of Peace. Any fighting we do is against that which Jesus was against, and done with the weapons of shalom. Of Love and patience. Of whole, attractive living. Of joy and peace and stability in the face of circumstances trying to get us at each others' throats. 

This is true for people of faith discussing the variances of their perspectives with other people of faith. And it's no less true for people of faith interacting with those who sincerely believe very different things. Even when the ideas of those outside the faith, or a particular expression of the faith, seem like the things we've been told are dangerous and need counterattacked or our side will lose ground. Even then, the battle is over, and we must exemplify this to get that whole Heaven-on-Earth vibe right.

Lakoff and Johnson wonder about a culture that doesn't use ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphors when an inevitable disagreement arises, but instead sees disagreements like a dance. In this, they write, "the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way....It would seem strange even to call what they are doing 'arguing'."

Some mediating meditations...

When I see or hear something with which I disagree, whether coming from an organization of people or out of the mouth of someone I'm meeting with (or even married to...), I'd do well to:

*Recognize my rapid heartbeat and sense of anxiety about getting the truth communicated in some form of a counter argument isn't probably the Holy Spirit springing me to battle. It's me defending myself because new ideas often threaten my understanding of the world, creating a perceived vulnerability in my possible lack of understanding of it.

*Acknowledge that if I'm defending myself because I wrongly believe I am my current ideas, I am not dealing in "Truth" in any absolute way, no matter how effectively I wage war to the contrary. I am simply trying to not lose.

*Ask questions of the person(s) I am disagreeing with (real questions, not judgey, condescending ones) about how the other arrived at his or her conclusion, rather than point out that arriving at that conclusion is flawed. 

*Remember to be eager to learn something, more than eagerly work to be perceived as a receptacle of answers.

*Understand humility requires that I learn truth from people outside my recognized framework. Not on chance; I have to go and look for it outside my recognized framework or I'll never know if my "truth" works beyond the borders my world.

*Ask if I might dance elegantly with another broken, beloved human being and potentially make something beautiful rather than bellicose.

I believe, in here somewhere, is the answer to the guy's question about standing up for truth and loving people you disagree with on some level. Putting down the weapons and the metaphors and the structures and the defensiveness of war will slowly but surely help us re-learn what to do when we disagree. Whether the disagreement is petty or foundational, love and peace are Dance Instructors before they're Commanders in Chief.

His truth is dancing on.

Chew on the these for some helpful mediat...meditat...med....further deep thinking on the subject.