Gospel and Church

I had an interesting online interaction this week about the connection between salvation and gospel. Well, I won’t to into the details because it was a private conversation. But it was one of those times when hearing something stated in a certain way helps you to clarify your own thinking.

The point that became clear to me in this interaction was the integral connection in Scripture, and in particular in the Pauline epistles,  between the Gospel and the church. Take Ephesians for example. In the first half of the book Paul works the theme of salvation with special emphasis on how all have access to God and salvation through God’s grace in Jesus. This means that the walls dividing Jews and Gentiles are removed. There is no more cause for hostility between them because in Christ both Jews and non-Jews are part of the same body. Then, notice the transition from that first part of the book to the second part. Paul, after explaining the mystery of the Gospel, which for him is the inclusion of the Gentiles in the people of God as gentiles, he says:

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:1-4)

A couple important things here. First, I think that the calling in verse 1 is what Paul has just described: the grace of God which saves and breaks down barriers. So this is another one of those moments like Romans 12, where Paul says, “In light of everything I just said…”. Second, verses 2 and 3 confirm that unity is the focus here. He tells us to be humble, etc to keep the unity of the Spirit. So the unity that the gospel makes possible by breaking down the walls of sin an alienation is also at the foundation of the life of the church.

The thought that I’m aiming at countering here is the idea or assumption that telling people about Jesus (“the gospel”) is one thing. If they respond, they are saved and come into relationship with God. Participation in the body of Christ (the church) is something else. I think we have tended to gospel and salvation as one thing, the main thing. Everything after that is treated as of secondary importance. Going to church is not necessary for salvation, we say, so we put less emphasis on it. We don’t deny it, we just don’t treat it as crucial. It’s basically optional. But there’s a very interesting response to this kind of thinking in Ephesians. You can’t treat the gospel and the church as if they were separate things. The message of the gospel is also the foundation for the ongoing life of the church.

Now, you might want to say something like, “Yes, but Paul is really talking about the spiritual unity of all saved people (‘the church’) here in Ephesians, not practical social matters. We are all united by the fact that one savior saves us.” However I would respond that this is a little too air-fairy for Paul. Right here in Ephesians 4 the reminder of our calling is followed up by very concrete life in the here and now, life facing each other, examples: Be kind, be gentle, be humble, bear with one another. Then as Ephesians continues into all six chapters, it’s just one practical thing after another and it’s all tied back into the message of the first three chapters. The gospel brings everything together in Christ, so of course the church, the one place where this message of renewal hits the ground running, should be a place that shows off that unity and harmony.

Here’s another way we can look at the gospel – church continuum: forgiveness. We Christians talk a lot about receiving God’s forgiveness. That’s “the gospel” . Wouldn’t it be hypocritical for us to be unforgiving people? Of course! But take it further. That forgiveness that we receive from God, if we follow its lead, produces a renewed kind of society, one which is founded on the gospel. I don’t just mean that it is founded on the gospel in the sense that everyone who is here, as it were, got in through the gospel. I mean that the church, to be consistent, should be a group of people who live according to the principles of the gospel. Forgiveness, renewal, unity, humility.

I really like the metaphor of DNA, which I picked up at a Vineyard church some years ago: the gospel is like DNA. It isn’t just the entrance point of the Christian life, it is an entrance point that, again like DNA, also contains the principles for growth in the new life.

So back to the original issue about the gospel and the church. I think that God’s intention was that these two always go together, and I think that attending to this will strengthen both. A church that lives the gospel will be a continual multi-faceted witness that transcends evangelism by words. A gospel that is conscious of itself as DNA will produce a much fuller and compelling and perhaps more biblically faithful invitation to Jesus.

Quantum Jumping, Dopplegangers and the New You

Burt Goldman has mixed up a very creative stew of quack science and pop psychology called  Quantum Jumping (not to be confused with “Quantum Leap” which was an 80’s television show I used to watch). I keep running into the ads on the Internet: “Make the quantum jump to a new life!” And since I am a huge science fiction fan, I can’t help but to click!

Goldman’s basic notion

Here’s the scientific background to the theory as Goldman explains it: In quantum theory scientists have discovered that particle behavior can appear to be random. Goldman claims he know the reason: there are multiple universes into which and from which these particles disappear. Take it to the next step: if there are multiple universes, then that means that there are multiple versions of you out there in the “multiverse.” In fact, there are infinite numbers of you because every time you make a decision a whole new set of universes comes in to being from the decisions you didn’t make.

Granting these “amazing scientific discoveries,” Burt Goldman has found a way to tap into your alternate selves living in those alternate realities. Are you shy? Somewhere out there is your bold, confident you, living happily in another universe. What if you could become that other self for while, learn greater confidence and then bring that learning back to this universe?

Apparently some people have:

  • Mary Madeline Day of Florida self healed her headaches by Quantum jumping into her other healthier self for a while. It’s not clear how her other self might have felt about this.  Did she leave her headache behind?
  • Stan Walters of Australia quantum jumped into his famous published author double and liked it so much, he also went looking for his famous public speaker self. Now he has a growing list of selves to visit.
  • Burt Goldman himself “has used Quantum Jumping to accomplish a variety of inexplicable feats. He has used it to turn himself into a painter and a photographer (with his work hanging in multiple galleries across the world to prove it), a published author, a singer and an online entrepreneur.”
The truth, from science fiction

But I have some nagging doubts about this innovative therapy, even if judged only by the conventions of science fiction,

  1. First I would like someone to explain to me where all the energy for all these multiple universes is coming from.  If this is true we are creating millions of universes every instant! This theme is handled much better in Donnie Darko, where alternate universes, when they do occasionally spring up as the result of a wormhole, last only for a brief time and then dissipate. If you are stuck in one of those, life is pretty depressing, as Donnie found out.
  2. I really question the notion that your other selves are friendly to you.  Your double or dopplegaenger is your worst enemy. Your double wants everything you have and is ideally equipped to take it all.  And anyway, Hasn’t Burt Goldman ever watched Fringe?
  3. As everyone knows, universe hopping takes an enormous amount of energy and some sort of device. You can’t just think yourself into your double’s head. You have to actually go there. If you doubt it, read Paul Melko’s The Walls of the Universe, which recently kept me up very late at night. It follows the adventures of a farm boy who is given a wearable universe hopping gizmo that is powered by anti-matter. Probably made by aliens. Hey, if you lose the device, you are out of luck; stranded in some other universe. Kind of like losing a time machine. You are up the creek.
  4. The greatest problem, though, is that once you jump out of your universe, chances are you will never find it again. Why is this? Well, you changed it by jumping out of it. Then you changed it again by jumping back in again. So it’s not really the one you started from, right? I question whether you can ever get back to it. If you doubt, read The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter and you will see just how much of a bummer it is to get unstuck from your timeline. Ok, but god-like super intelligent robots with interchangeable parts might be able to get you back.
So I think that for quantum jumping to work, you at least need a machine. And there should be fair advertising about the fact that you may not actually be able to get back to your original universe. I suspect that some people have found this out too late. Some might even have sued, but of course that would by definition have happened in another universe. Burt’s doubles are not happy about it! But wait are all those Burts in other universes sending selves into our universe too? Is that why I feel so crowded inside myself sometimes?
But maybe there is another me in another universe that believes all this stuff and maybe he is “spending time time with his other self” (me) right now.  He is learning from me to write random and pointless posts. Actually, no! It’s his fault that I am writing random and pointless posts!

Rethinking the Worship Band

I love playing guitar, bass or piano in a band that leads a church congregation in worship. I’ve been playing in church worship bands for many years and I used to lead one myself back in the day too. And I’m still doing it about once a month. I have no qualms whatsoever about the kind of music that churches use, be it old style or new. I’m an old school rocker myself. If it’s too loud, your too old. But that’s just me.

A couple weeks ago at our church we didn’t have a worship band. It was just our worship leader on the piano. I also happened to sit up front that day, which is not my usual place (Cathy and I got into the habit of sitting in the back when our kids were younger and interventions were often necessary, and that habit sort of stuck even though we have not have to do any interventions for years now).

Worship with the single instrument backing us up was very different. The main thing was that I could hear myself and the people around me, and it felt like we were all singing together. It’s something you don’t realize is missing until you experience it. Most days the band is kind of loud, and as much as like loud, there is still the issue of actually hearing yourself and the people around you sing. The two experiences are very different. When led by a full worship band, it’s more like you are singing along to your favorite MP3, or maybe just sort of singing but more listening than singing. And that’s cool and valid. But when you are singing with other people, adding your voice to other voices: oh boy, that is something else, and it is very powerful.

Back in my Bible School daze some friends and I would get together from time to time to pray and worship. We would go into this very small room, more like a large storage closet, and 4-5 of us would hang out in there. Someone had some old hymnals and so we would break those out too and sing from the old hymns. I was a very moving experience. No accompaniment, just half a dozen friends in a small space belting out these old songs. We fed off each other and the total was more than the parts. I still remember those times. But there have been others as well, when worship was more about raising our voices together to God than about the accompaniment. And I have to say that as much as I love playing my instruments as loudly and enthusiastically as possible, for me the most moving worship experience is found in communal singing. There is just something about the voice that transcends other sounds. Singing together is a precious and powerful activity.

I can’t help but wonder if we have gotten off track. We have highly sophisticated sound equipment and invest lots money and time into managing worship bands. But is all of this in a sense dehumanizing? I don’t mean that as an insult, but more literally in the sense that it is so naturally human to sing together, and maybe the band is alienating us from this natural human activity. By attempting to improve on worship have we cheapened it? Have we turned the tables so that without realizing it, the congregation is now accompanying the instrumentation? Are we watching worship happen rather than engaging in it ourselves?

On the other hand, I know from my own personal experience and from the experiences of others that a worship band can indeed be a powerful tool for leading worship. This is especially the case when you have a very enthusiastic audience. So this is not about tossing out the band. The question that interests me is whether with all our gear and know-how we have neglected the most important instrument, the one that everyone has and everyone can contribute: voice. Are we drowning it out?

I have a great memory of attending a large services led by a very animated hymn leader. Something about the way he led helped people engage and before you know it this huge gathering was belting out that old hymn that goes,

Wonderful the matchless grace of Jesus,
greater far than all my sin an shame.
Higher than the mountains,
bursting like a fountain,
all sufficient grace for you and me

Everyone was singing it out to each other, affirming it to each other, like everyone was saying “yes, this is true!” Next time I attended that gathering (it was a conference if I remember right), I was like “Hurry up! I don’t want to miss singing any of the hymns!” This from the guy who’s idea of beautiful music is a screaming lead guitar solo.

Point being: there is power in communal singing and I think we’re missing out on it. Beyond that I’m not sure I have any answers, but I’m open.

The Question of Authority in Evangelical Protestantism

First Conversation

My daughter, who is in high school, is working on a paper about how the Reformation was a major force for change in Western history. I found myself waxing eloquently to her on the contrast between the Catholic Medieval pattern of authority and the Protestant become Modern approach. In Medieval Catholicism truth was external, connected to ecclesiastical authority, and only accessible to individual Christians through the the official channels of dissemination, typically the local priest. The ideal was that secular authority should coordinate with religious authority into a single monolithic society. God’s Church led by God’s appointed bishops, cardinals and popes oversaw Christendom,  a place where everyone was a Christian and which was ruled directly by God’s chosen kings and princes. Of course, it was a very stratified society in which everyone knew their God appointed place.

Everything changes when a single, unknown, priest stands up to both Roman Church authority and  the state and dares to claim that  his own understanding of Scripture and his own conscience must take priority over what popes and kings say. Now the door is open for questioning everything: the piety of the pope, the doctrines of the church, the right of monarchs to rule, the passive position of the laity, and even the notion of a unified “Christian” society. Not that Luther did all these things. But all of these things definitely followed closely on the heels of the door he opened (apologies for the mixed metaphor).

Without crediting Luther with everything the modern world has become, and while there were other parallel streams of thought and precursors, you can see how the Reformation should be seen as a major contributor in the development  of democratic individualism and the type of life to which we Westerners are accustomed. Not external, but internal; reason over authority; individuals versus the powerful; democracy over royalty; authority is not inherent, but only valid in so far as it is consistent with root principles, etc. Luther gave us all these things, and I think it could be important for secular people who think that this battle for freedom is still being fought between church and society to realize that Protestantism, that is Christians, have been fighting the same battle for some 500 years.

A second conversation

I was discussing with a Protestant Evangelical friend the fact that in recent years a not insignificant number of Evangelicals have become Catholics. From the Catholic perspective, they have returned to the fold. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a huge problem with this. I have good friends who are Catholics and there is much about Catholicism that I respect and admire. Still, I will not be riding in the Popemobile any time soon.

The issue my friend and I speculated on was the this very question of authority. And was the move these evangelicals had made significantly based on a desire to return to a more explicit and external type of ecclesiastical authority, to get away from the chaos of evangelical Protestantism’s diffused authority and subjectivity  stemming from the importance it places on individual conviction?  The problem with Protestantism was clear from the very start. The idea of letting everyone decided on religious truth themselves is terribly impractical. There would obviously be nothing like Catholic unity on questions of  doctrine and practice. And there hasn’t been. Protestantism is a long history of disagreement, separation, reinvention, even kookiness , cruelty and some violence (but honestly not very much and not recently). There is one Catholic church; there are thousands of Protestant denominations.  Enough said.

But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that there really is a solid, rock bottom authority in Protestantism. At least in theory: Scripture. On the one hand, that might not be saying much. Every Christian thinks the Bible supports their faith and practice. But on the other hand Scripture is what it is. The actual content of the Bible does not change through the years. Interpretations and applications may vary a great deal and they may come and go, but the mere text endures. This means that each generation of Christians can go back and rediscover God’s word for themselves, correcting past abuses and misunderstandings and developing new implications and applications for their own situation.

So in Evangelical Protestantism we do have a source of authority amid the morass of subjective personal interpretation. But there is a sense in which the effectiveness of that authority is compromised by our emphasis on personal conviction. We can’t tell people what to believe. They have to decide. It may be contradictory and inefficient, but I’m with Luther on this one. Unless something makes sense to me and has a solid basis, I can’t go along with it. And I don’t think God asks me to.

Discussion Principles for Church Group

Here are some discussion principles we came up with at my church a while ago. This was for a series of discussions on “Hot Potatoes” such as politics, gender roles, entertainment and such.  These principles were produced by the group as a whole and we used them to guide our subsequent discussions:

  1. Its’ not personal. Meaning, disagreement about opinions should not be delivered as though they involved a personal attack. Neither should they be received as such. The premise is that we are together trying to arrive at the truth of the matter.
  2. Keep sight of the goal. It is very easy to get sidetracked in theses sorts of discussions. You start talking about the Bible and next thing you know, you are having a heated exchange about conservative politics or some such thing. Problem here is that lack of discipline leads to only handling topics superficially.
  3. Seek to understand first, then speak. That one’s pretty clear. No one likes it when dialogue partners are clearly not listening and only nodding “yeah, yeah” so that you will finish and they can jump back in.  Plus not listening is just plain old inefficient.
  4. Be succinct; pass the ball. We’ve all experienced it: there is a lively discussion happening. People are resonating, feeding off each other. Then there’s this one person who every few minutes takes the stage and rambles on and on about something that is only barely related. Don’t be that person. Don’t hog the discussion.
  5. Be polite. There’s nothing wrong with that. Have manners. Show grace. We all believe in those things but when push comes to shove we allow ourselves to set them aside.

 

Sperma Gets You Pregnant

I do occasionally pause my dial on the radio preacher’s station while roaming towards rock or news. I don’t usually last too long in those regions of the bandwidth. Sometimes the claims are good, sometimes ignorant, and sometimes funny. I do, however, have a special place for Dr. J Vernon McGee in my heart, who keeps preaching through the Bible in spite of the fact that has been with our Lord for over 20 years. Seriously, though, J Vernon is OK by me.

So the other day I stumbled on this guy who was preaching about the parable of the sower, you know, this farmer goes out planting seeds using the methods of that day and age involving tossing seeds out on the ground. Jesus talks about how different seeds fall in different places and don’t do so well, but then some seeds fall in the fertile ground and reproduces.

The speaker made much of the meaning of the Greek word behind “seed” which is sperma. He correctly noted that this is where we get our “sperm”.  He went on to extrapolate that, the seed in the passage being the Word of God, just like when men and women get close things happen, when we get close to the word of God, we get pregnant and reproduce. Although in the case of a man and a woman, the offspring is a 50/50 production; whereas in the case of word of God impregnation, the offspring is almost entirely from God.

Sometimes you just have to laugh and leave it at that (or write a blog post about it). To be fair the preacher later illustrated this principle that the offspring of Word of God impregnation is God’s by revealing that at 6AM that Morning he did not have a sermon. However, the Spirit gave it to him. So chalk it up to dumb things one says (self included here) when lacking sleep and being unprepared. And let’s not blame God for it, OK?

The fallacy here is that sperma is clearly not being used as “sperm” in this passage. In fact the Greek range of meanings does include sperm, or something like it depending on how you account for the differences between how we and ancient people understood how reproduction works. The term just means seed and that’s. The fact that it sounds like a contemporary word has zero implications for the meaning of the word in the Bible. I do think you can pull things like this off, though, by just qualifying that at this point you are just ad libbing or illustrating, but not teaching “what the Bible says”.  Still, I wonder if this sort of illustration doesn’t bring so much attention to itself as to get in the way of your point.

Just as a side note, it is worth mentioning that in the parable the seed is not “the Word  of God” as “the Bible”, but the message about the Kingdom of God that Jesus was preaching. There is a difference which I suspect is work pondering.

Thank you, Thank you

I heard  a preacher on the radio talk about a near fatal airplane accident he was involved in. It was a small personal craft and he did not go into details, but it ended with them landing in a corn field.

The preacher continued, explaining that people ask him what he was thinking in those potentially final moments: Was he praying to God for help? Was he freaking out? Was he mad? I thought his answer was very interesting. This man, when confronted with death, said he found himself thanking God for his family and his life.

Not, perhaps, the normal reaction to deadly peril. But maybe our fear of the physical sensation of death and our complete aversion to the experience keep us from having a more objective perspective. If we could get past that, perhaps a sense of appreciation for all that has been given us would be more forthcoming in our final or possibly final moments.

The pastor’s experience reminded me of a scene in a book by Annie Dillard (Pligrim at Tinker Creek), where she envisions people in an airplane accident falling to their deaths on the ground. On the way down they are not creaming in horror, but “crying thank you, thank you, all down the air…as a guest thanks his host at the door.”

What a crazy perspective. We see our life as a right and when it is threatened we grasp it with all our might. But it is a gift and we are guests here in this world.

Thank you, Thank you!

Ebola Is only Contagious when the Carrier is Symptomatic

I’ve been ranting to Cathy about this for the last few weeks.

I heard on the radio a while back a round table of self-congratulatory scientists explaining why Chris Christie’s decision to quarantine medical workers who had been exposed to Ebola was politics and not science. Why? Because “Ebola is not contagious until the patient is symptomatic. That’s science. Quarantine is unscientific.” And it’s probably mean too. One of them said he would gladly go bowling with someone who is “Ebola positive” because until he’s symptomatic, he is not contagious.

And then there was the article comparing people’s reaction to Ebola to their reaction to AIDS. That one had me scratching my head. AIDS can only be transmitted in highly specialized contexts in which there is blood to blood interaction between to individuals, something that is pretty difficult to achieve in normal social contact. Ebola on the other hand is hugely infectious, so much so that even nurses and doctors who go out of their way to protect themselves can still get it! So what is the point of comparing it to AIDS? All you are accomplishing is to overshadow the already difficult set of issues with the insinuation that there is bigotry at work in the decision making process. Next it will be that people are ebolaphobic. Well you can count me in. I’m eboloaphobic.

And then there was Obama saying that he was not going close down travel from infected countries because if people want to get here they will find a way, and this will just make dealing with the problem more difficult. Really? Stopping travel from countries on the other side of the Atlantic would have no effect on potentially infected people coming here? That is just a non- argument. How would people get here anyway? In boats? It’s just a matter of refusing visas like other countries have done. If you don’t have a visa, you don’t get in. Pretty straightforward.

And then there was the argument that forcing a 21 day quarantine for health workers who are returning from infected regions of the world and have been in recent and prolonged contact with infected individuals is a bad. Less people, it is argued, will go to help fight Ebola in infected regions and the disease will continue to spread, and the whole world will be at risk. I don’t get why we always have to argue in extremes. I was relieved to hear one caller, a doctor, on a talk show who had a brain on her shoulders point out that you don’t have to quarantine health workers in tents or impose other oppressive measures. You can provide a fun and healthy environment, making the 21 day delay more of a treat than a punishment.

Then more recently NPR reported on data that is supposed to support this connection between post-assignment quarantine and Ebola fight volunteerism. It turns out that since NY and New Jersey implemented their quarantine rules, volunteer applications have gone down 17%. Left out was whether this data represented only the states in question or the entire country. Kind of an important detail because we would not expect a decision in two states to impact national figures that much. There was the brief, obligatory, mention in the report that the downturn might just be because of the holidays. Ya think?

The point is someone has a bee in their bonnet about quarantine, about it being unscientific, or about it leading to or being associated with mass hysteria, about it being based on ignorance, and maybe even rooted in that same old american bigotry that is responsible all other sorts of repression.

Here’s the thing that bug me: it’s that this is a weird kind of obfuscation of the real issue. And it really bugs me when people take the intellectual high ground while leaving huge issues addressed. Here are the reasons we are right to be very careful indeed with Ebola and should not take quarantine in one form or another off the table.

  1. Ebola is highly contagious. Do you really want to be the person who said “It’s no big deal” and then people died?
  2. You have to find a balance between fixing Ebola in Africa and keeping people safe at home. You can’t compromise on this. If that means making it harder for people to volunteer, then so be it. Health workers of all people, it seems to me, would be understanding about this. Indeed I have heard interviews of health workers that showed this.
  3. People’s perceptions, whether they are scientific or not, are important. That has to be considered. It can’t just be dismissed as “politics”. People do crazy things when they feel unsafe. Like the group of Ebola deniers in Sierra Leon who early on stormed one of the clinics, claiming it was all a Western lie, and carrying off sick people on their shoulders. And no, we are not so sophisticated to be above this sort of thing. We should not assume that people will behave rationally or think scientifically when it comes to the possibility of exposure to a highly contagious and fatal disease. We should not be exasperated with them about this, but realistic.
  4. Here’s the one that really bugs me, coming from the supposed “scientific” approach. The claim is made that a person can be Ebola positive but not contagious as long as they are not symptomatic. So no worries! Let’s go bowling with Ebola positive people. Parents, you can be Ebola positive and still hang out with your family and sleep the marital bed. But here’s the crucial question: when does a person become symptomatic? And do you want to be around when that happens? And will the individual in question even know? They wake up in the morning with a fever. When did it kick in? And when it kicks in, what guarantees that the infected individual will do the right thing? These are extremely important questions that need answering before all merrily agree with “science” and skip happily down the road hand in hand with our Ebola positive friends and neighbors.

I’m not arguing for the most extreme or most stupid approaches to quarantine. But can we think more clearly about this please and not insert all sorts of red herrings into the situation? The most important thing about an Ebola infected person is that they are a potentially deadly presence. This is science. Of course, they are human beings and should be treated with dignity and intelligence. But it’s not paranoid or ignorant to insist that this be taken with the utmost seriousness or to insist that people at a higher risk of infection be treated with the greatest possible degree of caution. And it is in no sense science to argue otherwise.  Well I can only hope that if we do have a wave of actual Ebola infections in our country thinking will very quickly become un-fuzzy and focused on biological realities.

Obama’s Executive Action on Immigration: We Were Strangers

I’ve been unsure about Obama’s plan to provide relief to undocumented folks with kids who are US citizens. However, after hearing his own explanation and caveats, I’m on board with it. I think it’s being blown out of proportion by republicans.

Important points of Obama’s position for me:

He recognizes that the people he is providing relief from did break our laws and that is not OK.

He is not giving them citizenship or a “ticket to the front of the line”. He is only saying that they won’t be deported while other decisions and policies are hammered out.

He is sure to point out that his decision is limited and provisional awaiting fuller policy from congress, and that it is fully within the bounds of his legal authority with plenty precedent.

He emphasized his commitment to securing our southern border, and provided compelling evidence for that commitment.

He makes a good case for this being a valid exception. This is not about just letting anyone in, letting anyone become a citizen, or encouraging more people to cross the border illegal. This is about people who have already been here for 5 years (typically working hard) and can pass a background check AND have children who are US citizens. I agree that it’s an exceptional circumstance. I resonate with the question: Are we going to be the kind of nation that separates young children from their parents like this? Look at it this way (this is just me, not Obama): this is about the right of an american child to have their parent with them, about them not living in fear that their parent might at any moment disappear from their life. How would you feel if your child was in that situation? Isn’t it a circumstance that requires exceptional treatment?

The Biblical quote

I think Obama also quoted the Bible very effectively, something no doubt aimed at republicans, for many of whom Scripture is important. Honestly, it worked on me too, even though I’m not a republican. It’s rare to hear the Bible used both effectively and appropriately in politics. This was right on:

Scripture tells us, we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger. We were strangers once, too. My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too. And whether our forbearers were strangers who crossed the Atlantic, or the Pacific or the Rio Grande, we are here only because this country welcomed them in and taught them that to be an American is about something more than what we look like or what our last names are, or how we worship.

One concern this might raise is that Obama is mixing up legal immigrants form our past with illegal immigrants from our present (those crossing the Rio Grand).  If you take the quote by itself it could seem like he is ridding roughshod over that question. However, I don’t thing this is the case. Ad he has pointed out, under his administration the southern border has become much less porous, illegal immigration is down, and his current executive action will even add more muscle to that task.

At some point we do need to balance the cry for adherence to the law with compassion and I think that Obama’s executive decision does just that. The Biblical basis is solid. In the Old Testament the Jews are reminded repeatedly of the fact that they were once slaves and once mistreated in another country. They are therefore never to forget this and treat strangers the come across as though they were themselves citizens:

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:34 )

Yea, the Bible is actually more radical on this than our president. Of course in ancient times they did not have the same strictly defined laws that we have today, detailing who may enter legally and who might have entered illegally. Still, I suggest that the essence of those kinds of laws that we have today was in play back then in the form of peoples’ attitudes towards strangers. There might be continuity here with the parable of the good Samaritan. Jesus is asked “Who is my neighbor?” with the intention of discerning between the people I am obligated to help and the ones I can ethically ignore. Jesus tells the story of a traveler who gets beat up and left for dead on the side of the road and is helped by a foreigner. That’s your neighbor, he says. Whoever you come across that needs your help is your neighbor.

Feeling Welcome at Church?

Today I took a test for a boating course. I am happy to say that I pretty much aced it. No false humility here. I was kind of nervous about it because I had been sick and too busy because I was sick (no rest for the self employed) and I had to miss a couple classes, including the final one in which the test was given. I gave up and figured I could always take the course again and no harm done. Then earlier today one of the organizers emailed me asking if I wanted to meet somewhere and get another chance to take the test. I was like, oh, OK. That’s pretty cool. It turned out he was doing testing for a different more advanced boating course tonight so I went to that venue and took my own test.

[Get on with it Rob, what’s your point!]

OK. OK.

After the test (which I aced if 92% is acing) I thanked the person for pursuing me and told him that I probably wouldn’t have finished the course if he had not done that. His response was to say, “Oh, you are worth pursing!” That made me feel pretty good.

Then I had to fill out some paperwork and came back to hand it off. He proceeded to introduce me to all the people standing around from the other more advanced class, told them I had just passed my test. They all shook my hand and congratulated me. I was part of the club! I was invited to go out to beer with them.  Everyone was so friendly and encouraging.

Afterwards I was thinking, “That was so neat. I wonder why church isn’t like that?” You know, people coming around you, saying how happy they are that you came, inviting you to do something after church, the pastor functioning as a social connector moving people from the outside to the inside, etc. in most if not all the churches I have attended it’s been hard to really get to know people. Everyone talks to the people they know. New people get a handshake followed by an awkward attempt at conversation. I sometimes wonder if we evangelicals are emotionally stilted people who don’t know how to socialize. We can talk beliefs and practice, right and wrong, teach and be taught, participate in programs, follow leaders, etc. But there is there a basic level of personal openness and just essential social positivity that is lacking? Is it because deep down we think that this whole God thing is more about the inner life than about each other?

I’m willing to consider that this might all be my problem. Maybe I’m the antisocial one, maybe I’m the sullen guy who sits on the sidelines. I should be the change I want in others. Fair enough. But even if that is the case, then I’m disappointed that there don’t seem to be very many people around in my church circles who can help bring me out of that.

Shouldn’t church be a socially open and engaging place?

I have a friend who is an introvert and will at times defend his introversion. Being a Christian doesn’t mean you have to be outgoing, if that’s not who you are. And I wouldn’t want to force people into a personality mold.  Very unhealthy. Still, there is something that needs unpacking here, or at least a kind of question that is being begged. Being a Christian significantly about reaching out to others, inviting them in, taking the initiative to tell others the good news about Jesus. Can our personality get in the way of that? And if it does, what then? We just don’t challenge ourselves? We just saying “that’s not who I am?” Another track would be to say that if you are shy or introverted or morose or whatever, there are probably still ways you can be open and welcoming to others with in the boundaries of “who your are.” I am not saying every Christian should be the loud, engaging, life of the party, always turned on type. But I am saying that I intuitively expect a gathering of Christians to be more welcoming, encouraging and open to outsiders and each other than any other gathering of people. And I think that this is an appropriate expectation given our faith heritage.

Along these lines I sometimes wonder if here in the Northwest we are more given to inwardness and “don’t-bother-me-ness”, a kind of reserve that could easily be confused with or masked over as “being an introvert.” But really it’s just a desire to keep others at arms length so that we don’t get tied down or tangled up in other people’s lives. We do love our boundaries. We are very sophisticated and together people. That self image is easier to pull off when you keep your distance. You know, like that proverb about how a even  fools seems wise if he keeps his mouth shut. Something I’m obviously not practicing at the moment.

I’m not saying all this because I’m mad at the church. I think the church is awesome. But it also needs to be stirred up from time to time and be reminded of it’s point.

All this because I wanted to boating.