Saturday, October 31, 2015

Farewell, Old Blog. You served me well.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, this blog has fulfilled its purpose, and has come to the end of its useful life.  The description is no longer apt, as I am now no longer "fifty-something", my struggles with the corporate world have eased considerably, and the need for anonymity is past.  In short, it's time to move on!

If you, dear reader, were a regular follower of this blog, you are invited to join me at my new blog address.  Thanks for reading, and Vive Le Renaissance, man!

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Who Am I?

One of the most profound questions a person can ask... and the topic of this morning's sermon.  The pastor is beginning a series on identity; today he asked what defines it.  Is your identity defined by what you do for work, by your various relationships and roles, by your temperament, your skills, your demographics (ethnicity, gender, wealth), your location in geography and history?  Is it none of those things?  All of them?  Is there a sequence of importance to them?

As I sat and listened, I thought about a framework for answering the question.  It struck me that a large portion of what a person might see as their identity is changeable, temporary, transitory.  I could be wealthy now, having been poor earlier, and middle-income before that.  I could be a teacher now, having been in finance before that, and a student before that.  I could be an empty-nester now, a parent of young children before that, and an elderly widower later on.  I could be a Midwesterner now, but before that a New Englander, and before that a Californian.  So, wouldn't it be better to start the process of answering the question of my identity with those things that are permanent, unchanging, eternal, and then move to those things that are subject to change (sometimes rapid change)?

In each of my classes that I teach as a college adjunct instructor, I have a lecture on presuppositions - those held beliefs about reality which are givens for us and through which we filter and interpret the world around us.  When you talk about the things that  are permanent and lasting, your presuppositions about reality come through clearly, mine being no different in that regard.  So, here is the outline I came up with, to which I can put more words as time permits:

Who am I?

     > Created by God
          - Valuable
          - Handiwork
               . Temperament
               . Abilities
               . Giftedness
          - Flawed
     > Child of God
          - Forgiven
          - Adopted
          - Righteous
          - In Process
     > Context
          - Earth
          - End of 2nd Millennium since Christ
          - Western Hemisphere, Northern, American
     > Career
          - Analytical
          - Problem Solving
          - Leadership
     > Current Roles/Relationships
          - Husband
          - Father of Adult Children
          - Mentor
          - Teacher
          - Learner
          - Creative (music, words)
          - Hobbyist
          - Friend/Relative


Monday, July 20, 2015

What makes a hero, anyway?

This whole Trump vs McCain flap has me mystified.  Now, I have to admit that I don't know Sen. McCain's complete and total military service record.  But our post-Vietnam culture seems to "honor" people who wear the uniform, seemingly simply because they... wear the uniform.  We don't ask whether or not they do anything particularly noble while they have it on.  Lots of people who wore the uniform did awful things while wearing it; do we "honor their service", too?  Which people, you ask?  Oh, how about:

     > Gen. Sherman and his men, who burned their way through the Confederate south to the sea
     > Gen. Custer and his men, who massacred American Indians
     > The National Guard troops who "kept the peace" in Little Rock by keeping the races apart
     > The U.S. soldiers responsible for the My Lai massacre in Vietnam (John McCain's contemporaries)
     > The initial massacre of American Indians at Wounded Knee followed some 75 years later by another siege and firefight there
     > The Torture and abuse at Abu Grahib prison in Iraq
     > The officers who winked at sexual assault reported by female military beneath them

Shouldn't our honor be reserved for those who are in fact honorable?  If someone is serving their country in the military, they are doing so for a salary and benefits, including a military pension.  If they are sent into combat, they get extra combat pay.  As Jesus himself said in Luke 17:6-10, "Does he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I think not. So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.’”

Putting on the uniform doesn't make one a hero.  Doing your duty doesn't make one a hero.  Surviving imprisonment doesn't make you a hero.  It makes you a survivor.  What makes one a hero?  Doing something heroic.

John McCain got medals, some for distinguished or meritorious service.  So did a lot of POWs.  The military uses words like valor or gallantry or heroism interchangeably with meritorious (incl. exceptionally meritorious) or distinguished service in the definition of their medals.  You really have to understand the specific acts for which the medal was awarded to determine if there was actual heroism involved, or if the veteran was merely highly effective in what they did (mostly killing the enemy).  At this point, I have no idea, nor likely does Donald Trump, whether or not McCain demonstrated true heroism or not.  What I do know about him is that he is quick-tempered and pugilistic in the area of foreign policy.  He is a leading "hawk" in Congress, and I hope he is defeated in his attempt at re-election.  I don't trust him with his finger on the red button, or anywhere near it.  Nor do I think (like the author of the linked article immediately above) that his time in a POW camp accords him anything more than sympathy for his injuries, simple acknowledgment for doing his duty while in the service, and respect for withstanding a hostile prison environment.  But hero?  I haven't seen that evidence yet.  For all I know, Trump has it right.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Equal Protection? Really?

Here is a quote from Chief Justice Roberts' dissent on the Supreme Court's recent ruling on same-sex marriage:

"The fundamental right to marry does not include a right to make a State change its definition of marriage. And a State’s decision to maintain the meaning of marriage that has persisted in every culture throughout human history can hardly be called irrational. In short, our Constitution does not enact any one theory of marriage. The people of a State are free to expand marriage to include same-sex couples, or to retain the historic definition.

"Today, however, the Court takes the extraordinary step of ordering every State to license and recognize same-sex marriage. Many people will rejoice at this decision, and I begrudge none their celebration. But for those who believe in a government of laws, not of men, the majority’s approach is deeply disheartening. Supporters of same-sex marriage have achieved considerable success persuading their fellow citizens—through the democratic process—to adopt their view. That ends today. Five lawyers have closed the debate and enacted their own vision of marriage as a matter of constitutional law. Stealing this issue from the people will for many cast a cloud over same-sex marriage, making a dramatic social change that much more difficult to accept.

"If you are among the many Americans—of whatever sexual orientation—who favor expanding same-sex marriage, by all means celebrate today’s decision. Celebrate the achievement of a desired goal. Celebrate the opportunity for a new expression of commitment to a partner. Celebrate the availability of new benefits. But do not celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it. 

"I respectfully dissent."

My perception (and mine only) is that the heart of this ruling is not really about equal protection under the law (as if one should be protected from the economic shortcomings of being single and cohabiting), but rather that differences over convictions about the morality of an act must not be allowed to interfere with how a modern secular civil society operates. 

The Libertarian approach has long been this: if interactions between citizens are freely undertaken, are without fraud, and do harm neither to persons or property, then the State should have no interest in regulating them. 

But, the State has inserted itself into the institution of marriage for hundreds of years. What I worry about now is that dissent will be repressed, and the simple voicing of disagreement will become a "hate crime" such that public debate on the subject, the free and peaceful exchange of views, becomes regulated, too.  This is because "The progressive winners in this culture war want to punish their opponents. They don’t want comity, they want revenge."

For those organizations which intend to exercise their moral convictions in opposition to the now settled civil view of this issue, I urge this: wean yourselves off favorable tax treatment by the government. You will have to choose between tax exempt status and your moral convictions. It's not a question of if, it's a question of when.

To me, this is yet another reason that The State should not define marriage at all; it no longer has any compelling interest to declare what marriage is or is not. This is not Puritan New England where church membership and citizenship were synonymous. 

We can set aside this public policy debate now, finally, because the Supreme Court has rendered public policy debate moot.  But it's still a debate that should never have gotten to this point. When government rules upon the legitimacy of our moral convictions (religious or otherwise), it is time to remove the goverment from that position of authority altogether. The State may have an interest in enforcing private legal contractual partnerships made between free citizens, but should not have an interest in enforcing any matters of conscience.

If we do not change The State to one less concerned with telling its citizens what moral convictions are allowed and which are not, then soon we will find ourselves back in the days before the Emperor Constantine, when those who disagreed with the State were not only vilified and marginalized, but were urged by St. Paul to "live quietly" and "give no excuse for offense", lest they be punished.  Maybe it's about time that The State treats The Church as an enemy, the way it used to.  Then what Jesus said may mean something today: "if you would save your life, you must lose it."

Monday, May 18, 2015

Raison d' blogging

The reason this blog exists at all is that it was a way for me to get my thoughts down in writing, as well as get my feelings out and processed, during a time when my career was in such flux that I despaired of continuing.  I could also inform certain people of the blog's existence, and allow them to keep current on the latest regarding my all-too-frequent job searches during that time.  In that sense, it served as an on-line journal (didn't they used to call these things Weblogs?) that I could selectively share with those who cared.  But also, it had sensitive information in it that may have compromised my precarious employments at the time, and so I made it anonymous when it came to internet search engines, via a pseudonym.

The header on each blog post gives a sort of purpose statement for the blog, namely:

"Follow along as a 50(ish) year old career professional deals with the recent loss of his job, the transition of moving to a new community, the stress on his family members (who are also experiencing life transitions of their own), and the struggle to find not only new employment, but a new focus to his life as well."

As a raison d'etre for the blog, it has become pretty dated.  For one, the loss of job is no longer recent, the transition to a new community is behind us, the family members in question are rather settled now, and the new focus in life now seems clear as well.  Oh, and... the age reference?  That's about to expire, too. 

So, I think, as a birthday present to myself this fall, I will close up shop here, shuttering the windows as it were, and go open up in a new location with far less anonymity.  I can safely say that the content will be mostly observations on life, plus some theological & philosophical musings.  Put another way, I have been observing (and absorbing) a lot, and would like to put those thoughts out there in a more accessible place than either in my own head, or within the acceptable constraints of Facebook. 

I've found that this blog has suffered due to my spending more time reacting to kitten videos, pundits, and on-line humor than on cultivating serious thought.  As I age and I develop more perspective, to the extent there is any wisdom in it, I would like to share that with whomever has an interest.  In recent blog posts, dear reader, no doubt you have seen some of this material.  If any of it appeals to you, please do stay on in the new regime.  Look for it in November.  In the meantime, I'll keep plugging away at this whenever I can tear myself away from Facebook.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Atonement as Identification

There are so many theories of the Atonement and what it means for our redemption.  All use analogies of one kind or another, from Christ being the Sacrificial Lamb satisfying the demands of the Torah, to the courtroom motif of Penal Substitution, to the wartime motif of Christ as the Victor who conquered sin & death.  All have some level of support from the Bible, but each one presents a different shade of meaning to explain what happened at the Cross.

There is another way of looking at the Atonement, which I think is more consistent with Relational Theology, and that is Identification. Biblical support is there for this one, too, most notably in God being in the flesh in Christ, identifying with us (humanity) in our weaknesses, and us then identifying with Him in His death, and somehow attaining to the same resurrection from the dead and fellowship with God as Christ attained. See Hebrews 4:14-16, Psalm 103:13-14, Philippians 3:10-11.

This being election season, presidential candidates are criss-crossing the state hoping to raise support and adherents, maybe even dedicated volunteers to be local activists for them in their campaign. Local activists are much prized by the candidates, even though they also would like people to simply wear a button, slap a bumper sticker on their car, or put a sign in their yard, to show that they are a supporter, an adherent.

But activists... those who give of their time, talent, treasure to help the candidate succeed... these are the ones who have aligned themselves with the candidate's positions, hang on his/her statements in the press, offer explanations to their friends for what the candidate may say that is hard to hear. These people are committed, in for the long haul, win or lose. They've cast their lot with the candidate no matter what. And, they are also the ones whom, when the candidate is successful, may be rewarded with some sort of political gift, whether it's as life-changing as a job in the new administration, or as simple as a thank-you reception for campaign workers, or an invitation to the Inaugural.

This kind of radical identification is also what marks a follower of Christ who is in for the long haul, who identifies with Jesus as the one with whom they align. They are throwing in their lot with Him, whether He is popular or not, no matter how hard the work they are asked to do. And, their fortunes will rise or fall with His. I recall the story of the thief on the Cross - the one who believed and who defended Jesus even in the face of death - and how he asked Jesus: "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom?"  Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:42-43) Jesus had previously made it clear that His Kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36), and so any rewards for identification with Him would have to wait until the next life when those who are His will join Him in that eternal Kingdom.

That, to me, is what the Atonement achieved: Jesus identified with us in his suffering and death, and gave us the opportunity to choose to identify with Him - to be "all in" no matter what it costs us, because we align with His priorities, we believe He is "the one" - and so receive in the next life (an eternal one) all the benefits that come with being "one of His".

I guess that means that I'm a local activist for the Kingdom of God.  :)  And, as a local activist, I'm very much looking forward to the "political patronage" that will come my way after I pass from this life into the next, where Jesus will be King, and I'll have a spot in His administration.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

A New Parable

The Kingdom of God is like this:

A certain King had vast holdings of land.  The land produced rich crops, even though it by nature was made of dry and rocky soil.  On his lands the King had a natural spring with put forth copious amounts of water, enough so that a huge reservoir was made to hold enough of the water to withstand many years of drought.  Although the soil was poor, the water contained an unusual amount of nutrients useful to amend the poor soil.  Through use of this water for irrigation, coupled with the husbandry of plants well suited to the amended soil, and superior farming techniques, the King had mastered the art of getting his lands to bring forth abundant fine produce without resorting to harsh and artificial treatments.  The King had one child, a son whom he loved dearly, and taught his son all that he knew.  The son ruled his father's estates as the King's regent, and, through many excellent workers, produced an abundance of food, plenty for all the workers' families, all of whom lived on and worked the King's lands, and shared in their bounty.  There was even enough left over to share with the King's neighbors when they faced hard times.

The King's neighbors, however, resented the King, and were filled with jealousy for the King's bounty, and envious of the good health and well-being of the King, his son, and all his subjects (whom he treated not as vassals but as extended family).  Despite this resentment, the King was generous to his neighbors, offering to provide his water in exchange for only a small portion of their crop yields, as acknowledgment of the source of the water; he also freely gave advice as to what crops would flourish under that water's unique nutrients, and offered as well to instruct them in his well-designed natural farming techniques.  They refused his kindness, insisting that they knew as well as the King how to get a yield out of their own lands; they would brook no instructions from him.  The King's kindness only inflamed their irritation and envy.

Over time, however, one or another of the King's neighbors would fall upon such hard times that they would be forced to abandon their lands.  In rare cases, one of the neighbors would come to the King humbly, saying "you have been right all along, and I have been too stubborn to admit it. I'm ruined now, and must beg for your mercy. Will you rescue my lands and my workers, so that they and their families may live?" The King would welcome such as chose this tack. He agreed that if the neighboring ruler would cede his lands to the King, becoming part of the Kingdom, and agree to farm in the way the King has developed, that the ruler and all his workers would be allowed to stay on those lands and work them, able to share in the bounty that would surely come as the King and his son brought their resources, wisdom and care to those lands.

Most, however, had no interest in being part of the Kingdom, and roughly demanded that if the King was so generous, he should buy their lands from them at an inflated price they claimed was a true market value.  Invariably, the King agreed, paid the price and acquired the lands, but did not allow the ruler and his family to stay on the lands, since it was clear they wanted no part of the King except his money.

To the workers the King offered a choice: "These lands are now mine, bought with a fair price.  Follow your former ruler and seek your fortune elsewhere if you wish, or you may stay on and work these lands, provided you are willing to follow our methods, obeying my son's instruction." Some, acknowledging their need, would accept the King's offer, but most would not, since it appeared to them as charity with a loss of autonomy (as if they had really had any before this.) And so, as one or another neighbor surrendered to the inevitable effects of their poor soil and mis-management, whether by cession or by purchase, the King's lands grew, and his Kingdom expanded.

Frequently the King would lament the stubbornness of his neighbors and their refusal of his generosity, friendship and cooperation.  The King's son shared his father's sadness over this.  One day he went to his father and said: "Father, I have many trusted brothers here who can care for your estate.  Let me go to our neighbors and persuade them of the wisdom of becoming part of your Kingdom; surely they will listen to me if I go in person, and offer to show them how we care for our lands."  The King was glad to hear this from his son, as it had also been in his mind.  Now that his son had made the offer to go spend time with the neighboring rulers, the King felt glad to send his son on this mission to be reconciled with their neighbors, regardless of the fact that any estrangement among them was not at all due to the King's actions.  He was blameless in the separation; rather it was the self-centeredness, pride and hard-heartedness of the neighbors that was to blame.

The King's son, then, left on his mission of reconciliation, and went from neighbor to neighbor to extend a hand of friendship and testify to them again of the King's benevolence and generosity, saying: "Judge for yourselves; what you see of me is what you can also know of my father the King.  We are of one mind."  But one after another refused his offer of reconciliation, and instead spoke harshly of the King's arrogance and condescension, as if the King saw himself as superior to them.  Some went so far as to lay hands on the King's son and expel him from their lands by force.

But always while he spoke to them, some of the neighbors' servants would listen and wish that their rulers would join the Kingdom so that they and their families would have lives worth living, glad for the chance to be working hard for a master who was kind.  The King's son knew this and made sure to tell the servants before he left that they only needed to come to the gates of his father's Kingdom and mention that they wanted to be his brothers, and he, the King's son and regent would vouch for them with the King.  If they came in his name, he knew that the King would say: "if my son says he knows you, then you are welcome here; we will care for you and find you good work to do. Come, take your place in our family!"

So, while the King's son was abused and rejected by their neighbors, he was glad of those few who decided to come and be part of life in the Kingdom, and thought "for that alone, all the rejection was worth it." Yes, there was an adjustment to be made for each one who came, but the King's son and his appointed leaders helped them make the adjustment to the ways of the Kingdom.  Some decided after not too long that they could do better for themselves, adapt what they'd learned here, and be just as well off on their own, without being ruled by anyone, and so left the Kingdom.  Stories of their downfall would drift back to the Kingdom, and there was grief over them.  But, for those willing to leave their former allegiances & identify with the King's son, and embrace the benevolence of the King, they found life in the Kingdom to be a life of joy and abundance, where the hard work they were assigned to restore dry lands to fruitfulness seemed to fit them well, and was not burdensome.  The King's son asked them for no service for which he did not also equip and train them, and so they hardly thought about their life for the joy that pervaded it.

And the Kingdom grew.  As it grew, the lands were transformed, as were the people who worked them.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

From Here to Obscurity: in 5 generations

The other day, I updated a retirement savings spreadsheet of mine with statements through first quarter of 2015.  There's a plan, and so far, we're on target.  Depending on how frugal or prodigious we are in retirement spending, there may or may not be anything left over after our passing as a financial legacy for our heirs.  A question then naturally surfaces: do I sacrifice some pleasure during retirement by spending less, in order to pass along wealth to my heirs, or... am I generous with them now, and so save less for retirement, but then spend every dime that's left, leaving nothing behind?  I think I'd rather be generous with them now, when they most need help.

Naturally, that got me to thinking about non-financial legacies, and Stephen Covey's writings on what he thought of as important, the basic desires all humans have. He said they are: to Live, to Love, and to Leave a Legacy. So I wondered just what kind of influence I have had to date on my children, to what extent am I responsible for who they are today? And what of that will cascade down to their children (if any), and even further down than that?

Then I started thinking about my grandparents, and what lessons I may have absorbed from them (like what lasting damage a mother can do by pitting one child against another for her own amusement, like my Mom's mom did), what physical characteristics (like my maternal grandfather's wispy hair, and my paternal grandfather's box-like build), or what values & character I may now carry that were also theirs (perhaps Grandpa Bill's tendency to hum or whistle constantly - which reflected his generally happy disposition).  :-)

Of my great-grandparents I remember almost nothing, and of the previous generation only a couple of family stories... if that's even whom they were about.  I'm honestly not sure.  I never met them, and am not convinced that I ever really heard anything about them, much less retained any of their characteristics.  They are total blank spaces on a family tree, and if I am honest about it, they are so obscure they mean absolutely nothing to me at all.

What are the odds, then, that one of those great-great-grandparents has in fact had a lasting influence on me of which I am unaware? Related to that, what are the odds that I will have any influence at all on my descendants in the fifth generation down from me? Will I essentially lapse into complete obscurity in the span of 5 generations? If so, then why am I thinking about a legacy at all? Was Covey wrong on that? Did his Mormon theology bias his viewpoint? Do I also carry a bias toward the drive to leave a legacy behind?

Well, maybe I should start by quantifying what the chances are that something may have passed down to me from some ancestor 5 generations past.  Just thinking about the math of it, the chances are... not great.  It's the power of 2 in operation, to wit:


2 Parents

4 Grandparents

8 Great-grandparents

16 Great-great-grandparents 

If each of these generations were 30 years apart (the Biblical age of mature adulthood), it's no wonder I never met any of my great-great-grandparents.  They would have been roughly 120 years old at my birth. In those rare photographs that very occasionally hit the newspaper showing "Five Generations of Smiths", the 5th generation is always a newborn, and may never remember meeting the oldest of the bunch.  And besides, the oldest of the bunch is only one of 16 people who could have been in the picture... had they survived.

Could any one of those 16 people from the 5th generation back have been so influential that his/her genetics, or character, or memorable response to unusual circumstances could still be reverberating down to me, today?  I highly doubt it.  One person from that 5th generation would be competing with 15 others for influence; the math alone would say that one person from that set of forebears would have only 6.25% of that generation's effect on me.  

And that generation's effect surely would not account for all of the behaviors of the next generation.  What would the decay factor be of influence from one generation to the next?  Would it even rise as high as explaining half of who the following generation was as human beings?  Even that seems a stretch, what with the influence of teachers, peers, co-workers, romances, partners, communities and large societal events all leaving an impact.  Honestly, it's probably more like you could chalk up perhaps a third of who you are today to your parents' influence, at best.  Maybe, though, by the time you are old enough to have children of your own (let's say... age 30), and you are busily forming their little psyches, it could be that half of who you are in forming your children can still be accounted for by your parents' influence.  So let's go with that.  

Then the math looks like this:  one ancestor accounts for 6.25% of the total influence from the generation 5 back from you.  But only half of that carries down to the generation 4 back, another half to generation 3, and another half to generation 2 (your parents), and half of that to you.  6.25% x 50% x 50% x 50% x 50% = 0.004 = 0.4% or four tenths of one percent.  It doesn't even round up to one percent's worth of influence; and even that is probably optimistic.

So unless you are a larger than life individual, known far and wide for something (like John D. Rockefeller, or John F. Kennedy, or Robert E. Lee, or Henry Ford), by the time the 5th generation from you reaches adulthood (~30 years)...

you are statistically irrelevant!  As far as lasting influence is concerned, you might as well not have existed at all.  

Isn't that an encouraging thought?  

So what do I do, then?  Forget about leaving any kind of lasting legacy on those who come after me?  Concentrate on getting down in print (or digital form, like here) what wisdom I might have to share with those yet unborn?  Or raise my eyes beyond this world to the next, so that when I have shuffled off this mortal coil, my soul will be glad that I have paid it forward with whatever self-less generosity and kindness I can show to others here?

In St. Matthew's Gospel, Chapter 6, Jesus lays the groundwork for that very concept: this life gives us an opportunity to pay it forward into the next life.  ("Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth; give to the poor and you will have treasures in Heaven")  The implication, then, is that I shouldn't view my legacy as being on this earth at all, where it's effects are fleeting at best, and will eventually dwindle to nothing.  Instead, I should view my legacy as in my future - in the next life, where it will be of great and permanent good.

Kinda like saving for retirement, isn't it? You direct your resources away from your immediate benefit, while you're working, in order to be able to use them to enjoy the next phase of life, when you're not. That idea I think I get.  My monthly cash flow and my retirement account balances seem to prove it.

When it comes to leaving a lasting legacy, though... the hard part is connecting giving of yourself to others in this life (showing kindness and generosity today), with giving to yourself in the next.  It's a complex calculus that requires this perspective: that the economics of Heaven are as different from earthly economics, as Quantum Physics is from arithmetic.  The proofs of it are not obvious to me; I have to trust the Expert who knows.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

So much for an original idea...

But honest, I did come up with it independently.  Just not first. Apparently not by a long stretch.

I'm reading a small book of essays on Relational Theology, written mostly by pastors and theologians from the Wesleyan tradition (incl. Nazarenes, open Theists, etc.), and so far am really enjoying it.  While it's disheartening to know my views aren't original, it's also nice to know I'm not the only theologian with some out-of-the-mainstream notion that nobody else agrees with.

So, I go out to to log my progress in the book, half-expecting that Goodreads will know nothing of this book, that it's far too obscure to be in their catalogue.  Not so!  It popped right to the top of the search list, along with over 20 others!  Holy relationships, Batman.  There's a treasure trove of titles out there to explore.

Still, not to worry that the whole field has been tilled and planted already.  I'm still seeing essays I could write that would "contribute to the literature", as they say.  There'll still be something to do in retirement after all...

Sunday, April 05, 2015

The Problem of Evil (Revisited via The Walking Dead and the Chicken Pox)

And now for a short break from our discussions of Relational Theology and an Ethic of Relationship.

So it's Easter Sunday morning, and I'm listening to the pastor preach while scenes from The Walking Dead flash through my head; in so doing, quite by accident I stumbled onto a Christian analogical response to the ancient Theodicy problem.  Wanna hear it?

Of course you do.

The pastor was making the point that the Resurrection is not simply a historical fact to be believed, but also a present reality to be experienced, much as the original thunderstruck disciples did, with awe and wonder.

Intellectual assent to the historical Resurrection is a necessary but not sufficient condition for salvation, and the same can be said for the experience of it - it must somehow be appropriated by us, becoming our own internal witness to the Resurrection in our hearts - but neither is that experience enough without intellectual assent to the historical reality of it.

The pastor then quoted from Saint Paul in Philippians 3, the part where the apostle wrote about sharing in Christ's sufferings, becoming like him in his death, so as to somehow attain to his eternal life as well.

Okay, so... what's the connection to The Walking Dead?  Well, in the same passage, Paul talks about our old self dying so that we may live a new life; all must die, yes, but not all will be raised to new life.  Faith in Christ is required for that last bit.  And that's when the zombies came stumbling into my mental picture.  After all, aren't we all just walking dead?  Dead in our present condition, awaiting some kind of cure.  For the zombies on TV, it doesn't come.  But for those TV characters not yet infected with the virus, death will still come, whether by eventually succumbing or by natural causes.  Every analogy has it limits, and I realized I was quickly running up against the limits of that one.  Surely, though, there were other analogies that could do a better job, and my mind went searching for some.

When you were little, did you catch the Chicken Pox?  And weren't your parents relieved, even happy about it, although it caused you discomfort?  Did your Mom or your Dad even go so far as to drive you to some kid's house who they heard was sick with the Chicken Pox to purposely get you infected with it?  My parents did so, and I did the same with my own kids.  The reason?  It's so pervasive a virus, with no known vaccination, that everyone is sure to get it someday.  But, when you're a child, the symptoms aren't nearly as severe.  The earlier you are exposed to, and so deal with, the virus, the easier a time you have of it.  If you wait until later in life, it becomes a very difficult and painful disease to go through - and some don't make it, the effects of Chicken Pox defeat them.

Okay, so again... what's this got to do with the Problem of Evil, the Theodicy?

There is a virus running making its way through the human race, like the Chicken Pox, or the walking dead.  Except it's not physical, it's spiritual.  The virus... is sin.  I did not create the Chicken Pox virus, but I saw to it that my kids were exposed to it as early as possible, because it was better for them to suffer a little - early - than to suffer a lot - later.  So with sin.  God did not create the "sin virus".  We did, Adam & Eve did, back in the Garden of Eden.  The tempter offered the infection, cleverly disguised as something beneficial, and they bit.  And now, that Original Sin virus is working through the species - in fact, it's genetic, it's hereditary, and not a regressive trait but a dominant one, so it is sure to pass down.

In some people it stays latent for a long time, in others it presents early in life; the symptoms are worse in some, milder in others. All are exposed to it, all must go through some degree of suffering because of it.  But God did not bring it, our forebears chose it voluntarily (using the free will given them by God) which made them free moral agents and culpable.  And who's to say we wouldn't have done the same, in their same place?

So, what to do?  The longer you wait to deal with what's malicious and latently resident in your spiritual "system", the harder it is on you when the virus catches up to you, and it will.  Oh, it will.

For some, the effects of sin undetected and untreated become like a terminal cancer discovered too late to be treated.  The virus will have eaten away too much of the spirit to permit treatment (redemption through conviction, confession, repentance, turning to God).  Their spirits are already dead to God, and they only wait for their body to follow.  The problem is that once that happens, the next life holds nothing for them but more of the same: separation from God and all that is good.

But what if there was a Cure?  A spiritual vaccine that would limit the symptoms to only those that you could handle (I Cor. 10:13), and would hold the promise of your spirit being whole, healthy, alive to God now, and in union with God in the next life, even while your body suffers, decays and dies here.  Either way, our physical, mental, emotional suffering in this life - which is what is at the core of the arguments about the Problem of Evil, all the suffering in this earthly existence - is only temporary!  One way or another, whether experienced while following God or ignoring God, the suffering of this life will pass.  It is in the next life where how we deal with this life really matters.  If there is a Cure, it does not eliminate suffering in this life, but it does provide the strength to bear it, and assures us of complete and total remission in the next life.

Is there a Cure?  And if so, what is it?

Well, my posting this on Easter Sunday should give you a clue.

Scenes from two different movies provide further analogies that we can mine for understanding.  One is I Am Legend in which Will Smith plays a bioscientist who is combatting a virus that is responsible for turning the human race into violent, flesh-eating, light-hating subterranean (and sub-human) creatures.  He happens to be resistant to it (unaffected), and decides to stay at his lab and do experiments on infected rats with synthesized versions of his genetic material, in order to create a vaccine that will provide a cure for the infected.  He dies in the process, but his last version of the vaccine proved successful, and he got it to another survivor who could reproduce it and spread it.  Smith is a Messianic figure, who gave his life to create the cure - from his own blood.

Another movie is "Atlas Shrugged: Who Is John Galt?" which portrays a deteriorating society and an increasingly oppressive government (remember this is the novel by Ayn Rand, a hard-core Libertarian, so the virus infecting and tormenting people is the seductive and oppressive world government).  Select individuals, recruited by word of mouth, flee and survive in a secret mountain refuge, under the tutelage of a man named John Galt, another Messianic figure, but one who saves people from the Libertarian version of the Problem of Evil - massive central governments which first make citizens dependent on government benefits, and then use increasing coercion and force to dominate them.  John Galt founds the secretive communities which withdraw from the world.  Through the suffering which comes from denying themselves the resources of government, they also can avoid the viral nature of it.  Oh, but don't get me started on politics!  ;)

Back to the Problem of Evil, then.  Christianity's answer to the "problem" is that this virus of sin and its resulting effects of suffering is not from God... it was brought in from the outside by the tempter, and voluntarily chosen by humanity.  Now that it's loose, it's inevitable that we will succumb to it, and will suffer.  And what has God done about it?

God has created a cure, through the suffering and death of Jesus.   God created the antidote by experiencing the sufferings which we do, as well as experiencing full remission.  God now makes that antidote available to all.  Anyone who, in this life, accepts the antidote, can be confident that:

1) our suffering is temporary, it will stop when the body dies
2) the symptoms we suffer through on this earth will be bearable, and
3) there is life after death, and in that life we will live in complete, permanent remission from the sin virus - forever.

Problem of Evil?  Not for Christianity (at least not for the theological tradition of the faith in which I live).  God not only was not the originator of suffering (we were), but suffered himself (on the cross) to create the cure (faith in Jesus), and makes it freely available to all who choose to receive it.

Happy Easter!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Relational Theology and Prayer

Earlier this month as part of a meeting of my church's Elder Board, my pastor gave us all an assignment - to read the first section of a book by Tim Keller on prayer.  This will likely form part of a sermon series coming up, so it's good for the Elders to be aware of the thrust the pastor will take in future sermons.

Keller is a pastor of a contemporary church in NYC, plus a favorite author, and so I was expecting a fresh take on this venerable topic. Unfortunately, it sounded much like everything else I've ever read on prayer:  1) it's important to do, 2) it's hard to do, 3) the greatest saints in history have struggled with prayer because often God seems absent, 4) it takes a dutiful, disciplined approach to it to successfully work through those silent periods, and 5) eventually, you will break through from duty to delight.

[Sigh]  Same old, same old.

There is something wrong with this picture.

And here's what I think it is.  In Evangelical Christianity, we often say that "Christianity isn't a religion, it's a relationship."  And yet, we approach prayer without treating it like one treats communication within an intimate relationship.  We rarely experience that item 5 part in the prior paragraph, that "delight" part, even though it's pretty typical of an intimate relationship.

If our faith is indeed a relationship, with the God of the Universe no less, who knows us more intimately than anyone else, and who despite knowing us perfectly, sins and all, still invites us to see Him as our Heavenly Father and ourselves as His children, through our faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour, then ...

why is that relationship characterized by hard work, duty, discipline and absence when it comes to communication between God and us? Why isn't it like other intimate relationships we have?  

If God is "personal" and "immanent" (as the New Testament teaches), then why isn't our relationship with Him characterized by the kind of lively and easy back and forth that we have with those we've known a long time and who are dear to us?  Yes, God is sovereign, King of the Universe, and deserves awe & respect; but if we are invited to "come boldly before the Throne of Grace" (Heb. 4:16), as if we naturally belong there as children of that King, then why such an emphasis on ritual, form, structure, habit, instead of the freewheeling nature of kids with their parents, who come bouncing into Daddy's office eager to ask Him for something they need?

This morning at church I was captivated by a word picture contained in the Call to Worship.  The associate pastor said this: "the Lord stoops to receive the love of our hearts. He calls us to remember the depth of his love for us in Christ." Immediately I saw in my mind's eye a picture of my children when they were each 4, 5 years old, calling out "Daddy!" when I would come home, running toward me for an embrace. I would literally "stoop to receive" their love, scoop them up in my arms and whisper "do you know how much I love you?" in their ears, literally "calling them to remember" the depth of my love for them. So I can understand the perspective of the Father doing this for us, as dearly loved children. How beautiful a picture! And what a blessing it was to me to share those moments.

The next thought, though, was this: do I have that same anticipation in MY heart, show that same childlike joy on MY face, at the thought of seeing and communing with my Heavenly Father? Am I like that little child running to his Daddy to hug and be hugged? Do I bless Him in that way, like my children blessed me?  (well ... at least, the way they did before they hit Middle School!  Now, as grown adults, they bless me in other ways.)

Gentle reader, think of your most intimate and lengthy relationships. Isn't communication there the most natural thing in the world?  You talk about anything and everything, there's no "system" for it, no "ritual" to it, no prescribed time and place and posture which must be kept rigidly for it to "work".  It's both purposeful and spontaneous, regular and sporadic, expected and unexpected.  It's a whisper in your ear at a movie theatre, or a knowing look that says volumes, a pair of stifled chortles at something you find funny, a nudge of the elbow or a squeeze of the hand.  You share your dreams, you wonder out loud, you point and say "look at that!", you email, you text, you clip a news article to show later, you read aloud a passage from a book you're buried in.  Communication just "happens", naturally.

So why all the fuss about prayer, that it's so hard, and you need techniques and tips and scheduling to help you with it?  Shouldn't it instead be essentially the same dynamic communication found in any other intimate and loving relationship you have?

And if it isn't...

why isn't it?

Monday, March 09, 2015

Features of Relational Ethics

No man is an island,
Entire of itself;
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee. 

----- Meditation XVII, 1624, John Donne

Last time, I used the full work from which the above excerpt comes to argue for humanity being essentially relational, and that Relationality is developed prior to both Reason and Faith.  Here, I lay out some key features of an Ethic of Relationship, as well as show the similarity of those features to other ethical systems and perspectives:

1) Homo Sapiens is a strongly social species (an argument similar to those used in both Natural Law and Virtue Ethics, namely: that which is "hard-wired" into us is part of our essential nature and should inform what is morally good)

2) Our well-being is enhanced through healthy (read: mutual, balanced) relationships  (an argument from consequences, similar to Descriptive Egoism and Utility Theory, plus a definition of "healthy" drawn from the Golden Mean of Virtue Ethics)

3) Relationships often result in a collective benefit as well as an individual benefit  (an argument often used in Relational Altruism - one gains personally from caring for others, due to the quid pro quo received in return)

4) The closer (more secure & intimate) the relationship, the greater the mutual benefit  (Ethical Egoism argues for positive impact on self and our loved ones being the primary goal of ethics)

5) Therefore, the best moral choice in a given situation is that which most improves (least damages) my relationships, especially the closest ones.

In a future post, I'll expand on these, but for now, that's the concept: a blend of the major ethical systems, taking cues from each, but with a central focus on our relationships.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

I hear the bells

My favorite poet in the world, living or dead, is John Donne (1572-1631).  One of his most famous works is this:

No man is an island, entire of itself; 
every man is a piece of the continent, 
a part of the main. 
If a clod be washed away by the sea, 
Europe is the less, 
as well as if a promontory were, 
as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: 
any man's death diminishes me, 
because I am involved in mankind, 
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
it tolls for thee. 

Well known phrases here -  but what's not as well known is that this is a very small section in a larger meditation (Meditation 17) in which Donne explores how trouble can serve to draw us closer to God, whether the trouble is ours directly or that of someone else we know: it can make us meditate on the brevity of life and the increasing nearness of eternity.  Here is the rest of the meditation, for your contemplation and meditation.  :)


PERCHANCE he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that. The church is Catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that body which is my head too, and ingrafted into that body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another. As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come, so this bell calls us all; but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness. There was a contention as far as a suit (in which both piety and dignity, religion and estimation, were mingled), which of the religious orders should ring to prayers first in the morning; and it was determined, that they should ring first that rose earliest. If we understand aright the dignity of this bell that tolls for our evening prayer, we would be glad to make it ours by rising early, in that application, that it might be ours as well as his, whose indeed it is. The bell doth toll for him that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet from that minute that that occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God. Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? but who takes off his eye from a comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? but who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world?

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbours. Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did, for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath affliction enough that is not matured and ripened by and made fit for God by that affliction. If a man carry treasure in bullion, or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current money, his treasure will not defray him as he travels. Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it. Another man may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell, that tells me of his affliction, digs out and applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another's danger I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Relational Ethics (and theology, too)

Currently I'm teaching as an adjunct instructor at a local university campus.  It's not for the money, nor because I'm bored, but rather trying to keep in practice and add to my teaching resume', so that in retirement I can point back to classes I've taught and hopefully get some adjunct work to bring in a little extra cash when my full-time job days are behind me.

I only teach one class per academic year, which in the last couple of years had been a World Religions course.  This year its an Ethics course, so there's a good measure of philosophy built into it.  We're studying anything from Aristotle to modern day feminists, from Virtue Ethics, to Deontology (Duty Ethics) to Utilitarianism (the greatest good) to Natural Law Ethics.  As I've been working my way through these systems with the students I noticed that in one way or another all of these major systems are dependent in one way or another on reason for their basis.  Even those ethical systems which may have a religious foundation rely on reason.  Both Thomas Aquinas and Immanuel Kant were religious scholars, believing in a Creator God, but both argued that ethics can be derived absent a particular Theology, simply by reasoning from what distinguishes humanity as a species from the rest of the "created order".

And yet, as human beings, relationality precedes both reason and faith; we learn to feel before we learn to think, before we learn to pray.  We have a warm and meaningful relationship with our parents and siblings before we can distinguish between right and wrong, and well before the age of accountability.  Should not, then, an ethical system first consider relationships prior to reason and religion?

It seems to me that there is an element missing in ethical discussions thus far and that is the emotion involved in moral decisions, which grows in importance the closer you are to the moral quandary (family member, loved one, self).  Because we are relational beings, close relationships affect us more than do distant ones.  An ethical system like Utilitarianism, which is used so much in public policy debates, is relatively distant and cold in the way it "calculates", in an economic sense, what is the greatest good that can be achieved in an ethical dilemma.  What is needed as a counterbalance is an ethical system that recognizes the emotional component to decision making.  The "rational man" argument used so much in economics and law is flawed because it assumes detachment.  But in real life we are not detached; rather, we are emotionally invested in moral choices, and no less so than when those choices involve us and those we love.  We need an "emotional man" argument in addition to a "rational man" one in order to fully account for how people choose a course of action or react to another person's choice.

What I am calling for here is a system of ethics I'll refer to as Relational Ethics.  In a subsequent post I'll point out some of the features of this system (which I may in fact be inventing, because I can't find anything like it out there in the literature.  Maybe there's a book, or at least a thesis, in this for me!)   I think there is also a system of Theology that parallels this, Relational Theology, which I'll also try to articulate in posts to come.

Friday, December 12, 2014

A year in the life of a tree

Nearly every day, I park underneath the same tree in the parking lot at my office.  I love this tree.  She is the prettiest one in the whole parking lot, and when she's looking especially gorgeous, I always tell her so.  :)  You are just the cutest thing, I say, just stunning.  And I particularly like it when she begins frosting her leaves in early Fall... she knows I do, of course, and so she does that for me every year.  She's sweet that way.

So I thought I would try to take a picture of her from the same spot once or twice a month for an entire year (maybe more often in Autumn when her appearance changes daily).  My labor of love is now complete, and here is the result (now that I've figured out how to create a .gif from stills).

Presenting....  my beautiful parking lot companion, in all her lush and stark glory.

Isn't she lovely?

I knew you'd think so.  :)

Saturday, November 29, 2014

November Is Also Travel Month

Last year I had some significant travel in October and November, but this year it seemed quite a bit more.  What follows are photos of trips to 1) Bermuda, 2) NYC, 3) Soldier Field, and 4) TCF Bank Stadium.  And yes... all were business trips.  Sort of.  Vendors at times are ... generous.  :)

1) Bermuda

 2) New York City

3) Soldier Field (Packers vs Bears)

4) TCF Bank Stadium (Packers vs Vikings)

Monday, October 27, 2014

Out of the woods it comes

Just back home from another year's personal retreat to a wooded, rural place where there's not much to do except read, sing, pray, think & evaluate where I am in life.

Such a dull subject, that last...  ;)

This year for the first time in I don't know how long, I repeated a location.  Normally I find someplace new, but a combination of lack of new places within a decent driving distance, and good memories of one I visited 4 years ago made the decision easy.

As to the accommodations, they were Spartan.  I rented a "hermitage", which was a straw-bale hut with propane powered stove & water heater, and solar power only for everything else (no normal AC outlets for radios, cell-phone chargers, etc.).  There was running water, at least, and a real bathroom.  It was essentially a teeny little studio apartment, which would have cost $1350/mo. in Berkeley, CA (based on my daughter's actual experience there), but parking was free, and linens provided.

A couple of views of things next.  First, looking from the main lodge toward the "hermitage".

Next, a zoom on the hermitage building I was in.

A view from my hermitage doorway.

The kitchen.  Such as it was.

Turn around, and ... there's the bed.  Not much to the place, but it did the job.

So as to the "read, sing, pray, think" part... that all went off without a hitch.

And the evaluation:  the trend is up!  :)

Friday, October 17, 2014

October is Travel Month - Again

This is that stretch of the year where I spend 6 weeks straight either going, or preparing to go, to London, Germany, Bermuda, and NYC on business, as well as off into the woods for a few days on retreat.  I enjoy the travel, even though at my age I am not as resilient as I used to be, and take a while to recover.  Right now I'm home, with the first two destinations behind me (see below), and the into-the-woods part coming up.

You've heard the expression:  "Getting there is half the fun"?  Not this time.  Just got back from 10 days in Europe pitching my company's story to reinsurance markets.  The meetings went great, but the traveling... was brutal.  Explaining to people that you are doing some foreign travel for business is often greeted by "oh, how marvelous for you!", as if it's a paid vacation to exotic lands or something.  Ha!  Yes, there are sightseeing opportunities, which are great, but when the planes, trains, and automobiles part fail you... it is far from glamorous.

Suffice to say that spending the night sleeping on the floor of O'Hare airport trying to get to London, and having your train to Augsburg from Munich cancelled altogether due to a suicide on the tracks, makes you really glad for a few hours sitting at an open-air table enjoying a beer on the square.  Simple pleasures grow larger when they follow after personal disruption.  :)

But the third time was the charm, and heading home was comparatively easy.  All you have to do is click your heels together three times, and say:   (oh, you know the rest, right?)

On to the travel photos.  I don't think I got more than a mile from my hotel on any leg of the trip, so all of these scenes are close by.  First of the City of London:

Well, that was 6 days in London (meeting rooms and business dinners excluded).  Someday, when we meet face-to-face, dear reader, I'll narrate them for you.  Most, though, are self-explanatory as you've no doubt already found.

On to Germany, then, my second stop.  I begin with the hotel, and what non-business sights there were to see over the course of 4 days.  I found that my German came back respectably, so that I was able to converse with waitstaff and shopkeepers fairly well, not to mention reading menus and street signs decently.  :)   Augsburg is over 2,000 years old (1,000 years older than Munich), and was founded by its namesake, the Emperor Augustus, a statue of whom is prominent atop a fountain in the Rathausplatz.  Technically speaking, it's in Swabia, considered by most to be part of Bavaria, although the alt-schule locals respectfully dispute that.

So there you have it, mate.  Cheers!  Und Auf Wiedersehen,!

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