Archive for December, 2007

Potter’s Clay

Saturday, December 29th, 2007

Surely your turning of things upside down shall be esteemed as the potter’s clay: for shall the work say of him that made it, He made me not? or shall the thing framed say of him that framed it, He had no understanding?” Isa. 29:16

There has been an ongoing spat in the editorial pages of the paper that sponsors this blog over the subject of evolution.

I understand that this is just another skirmish in the culture wars, but I just couldn’t resist a comment or two about it.

The whole idea that science somehow undermines God is in my estimation silly.

If you believe in God, almost by definition you also have to believe that there can be no power greater than God. Given that, then you also have to agree that God doesn’t need your help to defend Himself. He really does have it all under control.

Science isn’t about disproving the existence of God. Science is all about developing a deeper understanding of God’s creation and the truths that order that it. Science works because it continues to question the status quo without the limits of belief. If science discovers something that challenges current understanding, the old understanding is eventually abandoned and a new understanding takes it’s place.

Isn’t this what we Christians are supposed to be doing here too? We are supposed to be replacing the old earth-bound Adam with a new spiritual man. We work out our own salvation by increasing our understanding of who we are and how God is directing our lives. Every time that we become complacent because we think that we have it all figured out, God lovingly turns everything upside down. We regain our humility, agree that we don’t know as much as we thought we did, and resume our study and prayer.

Where religions and some Christians tend to jump the track is in feeling that they somehow have to spring to God’s defense when it is actually just their own beliefs, and not God that are being called into question.

Today’s creationists are the same folks who feared 400 years ago that God would somehow be undone if science disproved the Bible claim that the earth was the center of the universe. Just like the creationists, “devout” scientists in that age struggled to contain a growing body of scientific evidence within the belief system of a literal Bible. They failed then because they confused belief with science, and they are failing today for the same reasons.

A sun-centered universe eventually gave way to the big bang, but it did prove that the Bible is not nor was it ever intended to be a literal description of creation. God and the Bible, however, survived. That’s because God and His universe are in harmony and the Bible remains a sufficient guide to working out our place in that universe. The Bible remains relevant through the ages because it is NOT a scientific book. It is a spiritual book, a metaphor useful for instruction in whatever circumstance we find ourselves.

That’s why you can look at the current conflict between creationism and evolution as just another loving example of God patiently overturning a too narrow and literal reading of the Bible so that those who are reading it can make better use of it for their growth and understanding.

A Fearless Man

Friday, December 28th, 2007

“Verily, verily, I say unto you, If a man keep my saying, he shall never see death.” John 8:51

I had the opportunity to use this passage earlier this week at a church service following the passing of someone I felt very close to. We were at different ends of the political spectrum, but it didn’t matter because we were very much in the same place when it came to our understanding of God, man, and a life well lived.

This particular bible passage bothered me when I first read it because many people I knew did keep Jesus sayings and yet still passed on.

What I understand this to mean now after some prayer and additional reading on the subject is that I was taking “see” way too literally.

Earlier in this chapter in John, Jesus was debating with scribes and Pharisees about Moses and the law. The Jews took issue with Jesus saying that he was sent from God. Jesus tried to share his message with them, but they were too limited in their thinking to be able to grasp the new truths he had to share. He was trying to tell them that man is not material, he is spiritual. The salvation in that truth is that there is a life after what the Jews then saw as a final death. Jesus proved that truth through His death and resurrection.

So those who “keep” this understanding of who they are, lose their fear of death. They no longer see death in the same way that they may have seen it in the past. Death is no longer an ending of anything. It is instead the passage from a material phase of existence to a spiritual one.

The person I admired shared this understanding of life and death. As a result, he lived a full and fearless life. He made a difference in his family, friends, associates, employees, church, community, and industry. He was also a wonderfully curious and inquisitive person, fascinated by technology and new ideas.

So though I’ve struggled with some sadness, it’s hard to mourn this person’s passing. That’s because I can only guess at the wonder he must be feeling now. He has finally satisfied his curiosity about what life after death is really about.


Unto Us a Child is Born

Friday, December 21st, 2007

The news continues to generate interesting juxtapositions of stories.

The latest one is the announced pregnancy of Jamie Lynn Spears, the publisher delaying the release of her mother’s book on Christian parenting, the release of a study showing that sex education does have a positive effect in delaying sexual activity, and a another report showing that teen pregnancies are up for the first time in 14 years.

You’ve probably seen the stories on the 16 year old Disney star’s pregnancy.

There probably isn’t much more to say about her mother’s book.

Here are the facts from the CDC studies.

The first indicates that sex education actually does work in reducing sexual activity of those 15 and younger, particularly among boys. What they also learned is that those boys who did receive sex education and did decide to become sexually active were three times more likely to use contraception. The study also made clear that the earlier that sex education is provided to kids, the more effective it is. The study did not distinguish between programs that emphasized abstinence versus contraception.

According to experts, the report regarding the first increase in teen pregnancy in 14 years indicates that current education and prevention programs have produced all of the reductions that they are going to produce. Bill Albert, deputy director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy said, “The early wins may have been won. Future efforts may well have to be more intense, focused, and creative if the nation is to make continued progress in reducing teen pregnancy and childbearing. Put another way, yesterday’s way of doing business will no longer suffice.”

I could head off at this point on a discussion speculating how we could be more effective in reducing teen pregnancy, but that would only throw a few more logs onto a culture war fire that doesn’t need my help.

I think it is more interesting to think about a young girl who found herself pregnant through no fault of her own a couple thousand years ago. How frightened she must have been, and at the same time what great courage she must have shown in the choice she made. I’m also always impressed with the faith and trust that her fiancé demonstrated when she told him what had happened to her. Can you even begin imagine the anticipation, terror, pride, and heartbreak they experienced in their lives?

I suspect that every teenager who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant also confronts a set of overwhelming choices. For those of us who are parents, you know that even the planned pregnancies have an element of terror because helping bring another life into the world is such a serious responsibility. Imagine how overwhelming it must feel for those who are still in many ways children, when forced to contemplate the life-changing implications of every option.

Fortunately, then as now, God remains the real parent and creator of everyone. He was there to guide Mary and Joseph. He guided our parents. He is there right now for Jamie Lynn Spears. It’s up to her whether or not she listens.

I know that there are some Christians who feel very strongly that they should be able to judge this process and in some ways limit the choices that women have. I don’t share that view, but not because I don’t consider life sacred. What I do consider sacred is the relationship between God and His creation. It is not my place to try to take His place or the place of the women who have to make these choices every day. The comfort I take in this is that no pregnant woman makes these choices lightly, so I’m sure that most every one in their own way reaches out to God as they decide what to do.

It IS my place to make sure that everyone has good information with which to make wise choices, and access to the resources they need to prevent pregnancy if they choose to sexually active. Reducing unwanted pregnancies is the most effective way to reduce the need for abortion.

It is also my place to listen for God’s voice in my life and celebrate the fact that two thousand years ago He selected a teenage girl to bring His message of love and salvation to a hungry world. What is sometimes missed in this story though, and something I’m even more grateful for, is that God didn’t command this teenage girl to obey His will. He respected her right to choose. So though we use Christmas to celebrate Jesus birth, this holiday is also just as much about Mary’s choice.

Merry Christmas.

Something Happening Here

Wednesday, December 19th, 2007

Something interesting happened in the Senate yesterday. 

The bill to extend retroactive immunity to the phone companies for participating in the government’s domestic spy program had to be pulled by Senate Majority Leader Reid.  This occurred after the Republican leadership in the Senate said that they had the votes to pass it. 

Here’s basically what is at issue. 

When the majority of long distance phone connections were made using satellites, the NSA spy agency could simply put up their own dishes to listen in on those transmissions and do all of the spying that it wanted without anyone’s permission.  Whether or not they followed the laws regarding domestic surveillance is hard to tell.  But since local and domestic long distance communications went over land lines rather than through satellites, no one was too concerned. 

The demand for high speed cheap Internet connectivity caused a rapid worldwide deployment of land-based fiber optic connections.  Those connections are faster and cheaper than satellites, so fiber is now the primary distribution mechanism for most phone communications too.  That caused a problem for the NSA, however, who now had no easy way to listen in.  So the NSA went to the phone companies and asked for permission to install equipment which would allow wiretapping the fiber.  The difference is that now there was no doubt that they were getting not only international conversations but most domestic phone traffic and most of the traffic over the Internet too. 

Most of the phone companies agreed and a few didn’t.  As phone company employees for those companies who cooperated discovered what was going on, they tried to blow the whistle.  The phone companies eventually got sued and ran to Congress seeking protection. 

The main argument for protecting the phone companies is that if they aren’t offered immunity from prosecution, they will be unwilling to cooperate with government the next time the government asks them to break the law.  Excuse me if I’m a bit naïve, but why is this a bad thing?  Just because the government is asking doesn’t automatically make something legal or ethical.   

In this time of deep divisions and culture war, there are those who feel that the government is justified in whatever it does in the name of protecting the country against terrorist attacks.  Unfortunately, the old saying regarding the corrupting influence of power has proved accurate again.  After six years of one party rule, political agenda trumps respect for the law, and you end up with abuse being confused with good intention. 

The whole argument of protecting the phone companies is disingenuous anyway.  The phone companies ARE already protected from civil suites when they cooperate with the government as long as there is either a court order, or the Attorney General certifies that a court order isn’t necessary.  When they knowingly comply with questionable government requests that don’t include these legal protections, they leave themselves liable.  In this case, that’s what some of them did.

Clearly the other motivation is that the phone companies spend a LOT of money helping elect our representatives.  Senator Reid is only one example.  So the phone companies have expectations that those representatives will vote their pocketbook rather than their conscience.  

Finally, I also have a hard time with the “at war” argument.  You can literally justify any “means” for the “end” of saving lives.  The most ridiculous example of that “logic” is our current involvement in Iraq.  We have laws to guide us in these times of uncertainty, and no one, including the executive branch, can hold themselves above those laws regardless of their justification. 

So I’m happy to report that at least for now, the people have prevailed thanks in part to a charge led by Presidential hopeful Chris Dodd.  The law suits against the phone companies will go forward, and we will likely have an opportunity to learn more about how extensive the domestic spy program was. 

This is the wonderful thing about truth.  As a quality of God, there can be no greater power than truth.  It will always prevail.  There may be those who feel that they can manipulate the truth to serve their own purposes, or those that feel that they can justify their actions based on some other set of principles, or those that feel that they can delay the truth past the point that it will have any affect.  At the end of the day, however, you can’t fool God.  Those who have chosen to walk in their own path, will be guided lovingly back to the path of truth, whether now or later, and suffer whatever consequences are necessary for their instruction.  We don’t always get to see this in action, but when we do, it is a beauty to behold. 

“Therefore seeing we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we faint not; but have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully; but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.” II Corinthians 4:1-2

Wired for Good

Friday, December 14th, 2007

“And they brought unto him also infants, that he would touch them: but when his disciples saw it, they rebuked them.  But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.  Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein.”  Luke 18: 15-17

Jesus told us 2000 years ago that infants reflected the purity and innocence of their Creator in ways that adults can only aspire to. 
 Now we find that infants are also born to value the acts of selfless kindness that are a key part of Jesus theology. 

Some Yale University researchers developed some clever experiments which demonstrated that 100% of six month olds and 87.5% of 10 months olds not only can recognize acts of charity, but also prefer those who have demonstrated that capability.  The 10 month old babies could also tell the difference between those who were kind and those who were cruel, and would get upset if the victim later associated with the cruel character rather than the kind one.

I think it is wonderful to know that loving our neighbor as ourselves is a quality and sensitivity that every child is born with.

One can’t help but wonder what forces cause us to lose that natural and beautiful characteristic.  What is it that causes us to distrust the good intentions of others and question their motivations?  What is it that tempts us to categorize those that we don’t agree with or understand as threats to our way of life?  How are we able to justify hurting others when we were born to love them?

If we take these experiments at face value, children can tell the difference between kindness and cruelty both in acts and people at a very early age.  Perhaps every experience of cruelty erodes our childlike trust in the goodness of everyone.  

Whatever the cause, it is also true that this experiment supports the Bible claim that God made man in His image and likeness.  He make us wired to do good and appreciate every act of kindness that we witness. 
Clearly if we want to follow Jesus Christ the way shower, we have to rediscover that good in ourselves and our neighbor. 

It all starts with what we now know is one of the most natural things we can do, a simple act of kindness.

Protecting Marriage

Tuesday, December 11th, 2007

The paper hosting this blog recently published a letter objecting to Toledo offering some modest legal protections for gays, seniors, and others living together but not married.  The stated concern of the author was that this threatened the institution of marriage.  Rather than reject this as thinly veiled self-righteous bigotry, I thought I would do a little research and share it with you. 

As of 2004, the state with the lowest divorce rate was, that’s right, Massachusetts!  Massachusetts also is the only state where gay marriage is legal. 

The Southern Bible belt states with the largest populations of fundamentalist Christians also have the highest divorce rates – 50% higher than the national average of 4.2 per thousand people.    

The northeast has the lowest divorce rate.  That region includes Massachusetts and five other states that have domestic partnership laws (New Jersey, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine).   

In the years since Michigan and Ohio adopted constitutional amendments to “protect” marriage the divorce rate in the country has gone down by about 3%.  The divorce rate in Ohio is 1.3 times the national average and is trending up.  In Michigan, it has held steady at 1.6 times the national average. 

So contrary to the writer’s claim, the facts suggest marriage doesn’t benefit from prejudicial statutes or judgementalism.  Marriage (and by implication families) seems to do best in states embracing diversity and practicing tolerance and inclusion.  That shouldn’t be all that surprising since this was Jesus’ advice too, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

The Crisis

Saturday, December 8th, 2007

“Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” II Corinthians 5:17

Paul understood that before you could embrace any new idea the old idea had to die. In order to fully embrace your spirituality, for example, you have to let go of your materiality through the death process.

Similarly, the generational historians who wrote The Four Turnings suggest that the cyclical ways that generations interact produce a birth to death process for our country that repeats itself every hundred years or so.

The first of those turnings is a high, or rebirth of vision and optimism based on a shared sense of purpose. That new vision and common purpose is forged in crisis that marked the death of the previous social order.

The second of those turnings is an awakening when individualism starts to assert itself by questioning the values of the new social order.

The third turning is an unraveling where social order has been eroded to such a degree by the growth of individualism that it begins to break down. The current culture wars are a perfect example of that unraveling.

If these generational scholars are correct, the next turning will be a crisis of sufficient scale to overwhelm our individual differences and force us to create a new social order to survive.

The interesting thing, if you look back at history, is that few could have predicted the past three crisis (revolutionary war, civil war, depression and WWII) in the years just before those crisis gripped our country. Though it isn’t widely taught, a significant percentage of the colonial population was sympathetic to the British cause and at least in their minds revolution was unthinkable. Lincoln did all that he could to prevent a civil war and Grant may have been the only person who realized the savagery that was going to be required for a union victory. Hitler invading Poland was a surprise to everyone at the time and Neville Chamberlain carried the hopes of the old social order when he wrongly assumed that he has negotiated “peace in our time”.

In thinking about what the next crisis may be, I don’t think that it will be military. We’ve already seen in Iraq that overwhelming military force is no longer an effective tool for peace or stability. There is a possibility that a deep recession in the US will destabilize China by reducing our consumption of Chinese goods and putting a lot of people in Chinese cities out of work. That could force the Chinese military to take over and invade either Taiwan or eastern Russia in order to keep their economy going. If the rest of the world chose to oppose China, we’d have another very large war between countries that have nuclear weapons. Seems unlikely at the moment.

What is also possible in the China scenario is that they react to the economic downturn by becoming much more isolationist and threaten to bring down the world economic system by calling in their us and forcing us to default.

What I think is a more likely crisis could be the rapidly accelerating effects of global warming.  Rising sea levels and dramatic changes in weather patterns could force this country and the rest of the world to dismantle our fossil fuel-based economy and come up with a new way to produce, distribute, and consume things. We would also have to figure out massive infrastructure changes to deal with major population centers all around the world threatened by rising sea levels, droughts, and floods.  The new order flowing out of this crisis could be lead by science and technology and focused globally rather than regionally  or nationally..

It is also possible that a massive natural disaster, Yellowstone blowing up again, a large meteor striking the earth, or perhaps enough volcanoes going off at the same time to cause a mini-ice age – an event of sufficient magnitude that it would dramatically alter the fabric of the now highly interdependent global economy.

If the generational theorists are correct, the bad news is that the crisis in unavoidable. The good news is that our children will be the heroes who will save us and we will be the architects of the new social order which they will implement. We may not live to see the next golden age, but our children will prosper in it. And the cycle will start again.

The Unraveling

Thursday, December 6th, 2007

This phrase refers to a cycle in the Four Turnings post which I posted yesterday. 

Building on that post, the culture wars of today appear to be a classic demonstration of the third turning – an unraveling. 

Here’s what has happened to get us here. 

Prior to WWII we had a the great depression which was an economic result of the unregulated economic expansion at the turn of the century.  That economic expansion was the result of railroads, electricity, and the growth of manufacturing which radically transformed the United States from an agricultural country to an urban industrialized one.  This was also a period of immigration from Europe driven by wars, failing harvests, and economic opportunity.  The spiritual idealism of the late 1800’s had turned to the hedonism of the roaring twenties which become the economic bust of the thirties.  The old farmer/pioneer social order had run out of gas.  The dustbowl disaster of the depression just put an exclamation point on the end of that era.  FDR brought a new vision of a strong central government working closely with private industry as the new social order that could solve the nation’s problems.  The crisis of WWII cemented that order as the driving force for the twentieth century. 

Those who won the war came back heroes and the new social order of a strong central government combined with the robust manufacturing engine built to supply war goods, created unprecedented prosperity and stability for these heroes.  They created a consumer-driven economy that continues to be the engine for the world today.   

Their kids, the boomer generation, grew up being told what a great society our parents had built and the unlimited opportunity we faced.  We discovered that the benefits of that society were not shared equally with everyone.  So we (speaking for the boomers) do what prophets do, which is to hold our parents accountable for the gaps between their values and their actions. 

The artist kids born during the crisis of WWII had already staked out some individualist territory as the beat generation.  The boomers grabbed onto those philosophical threads and set out to change the world.  This began the slow destruction of the feeling of common purpose and individual sacrifice which our parent-heroes used to win WWII.   

Little did we know that the idealism of the fifties and sixties would turn into the selfishness of the seventies and eighties, and the self-righteous fundamentalism of the nineties.  If we had paid any attention to history, however, that pattern repeats regularly.  At the end of the last cycle, prohibition was the conservative fundamentalist imposition on the country.  In this cycle it is anti-abortion and homophobic legislation. 

Now we are faced with a time of intense passionate individualism, rapidly eroding confidence in the ability of government to do anything, rampant corruption in public and private institutions, and deep distrust of those who don’t think, act, look, or talk like us. We are all teed up for the next crisis. 

So whose fault is it – the beatniks of the fifties, the hippies of the sixties and seventies, the yuppies of the eighties, or the evangelicals of the nineties? If you believe those who study generational history, it makes no more sense to blame conservative fundamentalism that it does to blame November for being cold and damp.  If we want another spring, we have to have a fall and winter. 

It is our job right now to be deeply divisive, distrustful, and self-righteous.  That is what is required to bring down the military-industrial-consumer driven social order that has been the foundation of our society.  It has to die before we can all agree that it no longer works.  

In the next post, we’ll speculate on what’s next.

Four Turnings

Wednesday, December 5th, 2007

I’ve been reading a book written in the late nineties called the Four Turnings.  I highly recommend it to those who find this whole concept interesting.  I know at least one historian who thinks the whole thing is hooey, but it does provide some context in which to discuss culture wars.  So I’ll spend a little time sharing the basic concepts with you and then apply it to our current circumstances. 

The authors present an interesting generational model of birth, growth, maturity, and decline over approximately hundred year cycles that they claim influences our reactions to historical events.  Their fundamental paradigm is that there are four generational archetypes (hero, nomad, prophet, and artist).  Heroes as parents raise prophets and vice versa.  Nomads as parents raise artists and vice versa.

The four turnings are four distinct phases that occur during a hundred year cycle of four generations.  In each phase, each of the generational achetypes are in one of four phases of their life, childhoood, young adulthood, parents, and elderly.  

The hundred year cycle starts with a high where a new order is being born out of a previous crisis.  This new civic order replaces the failed values regime from the previous crisis.  This is a time a great optimism and shared purpose born of the challenges of the previous crisis.  In this phase, the young adults who sacrificed during the crisis (think WWII) are the heroes who come home, receive public recognition for their sacrifice, start careers, begin families.  They raise the next generation of prophets as the old generation of prophets (the parents to the current heros) passes on.  Artists born during the crisis enter young adulthood and their parents, the Nomads who helped manage the country through the crisis, turn over operational control of the country to the next generation (Heroes), become senior citizens. 

The next turning is an awakening.  This is when the prophets become young adults and start to question the contradictions between the philosophy of the new civic order and the soulless lives they see their parents (aging Heroes) living (think the 60’s – 80’s).  This marks the arrival of a new values regime which starts to attack the now status quo civic order.  The highly self-centered artists are more interested in the prophets cause than raising the next generation of nomad kids.  So they end up being influenced as much by the aging hero generation as they do by their own parents.

The third turning is an unraveling.   This is when the prophets settle down and begin raising the next generation of heroes.  Artists are elderly.  Nomads have become pragmatic young adults having already learned to fend for themselves and distance themselves from the fray.  The strengthening individualism and new values of the prophets and artists have so weakened the civic order that institutions start to fail.  There are deep divisions, polarization, and pessimism in the citizenry.   

The fourth turning is a new crisis.  The crisis demands the sacrifice of individualism to the higher calling of  the new civic order necessary for survival.  The Heroes embody that sacrifice of self for the greater good.  The elderly Prophets help transition from failed values to new order.  The pragmatic Nomads manage the process and also start raising the new generation of individualistic artists and the cycle repeats. 

According to the authors, we are currently in an unraveling phase heading into a crisis. In the next post, I’ll dig into this unraveling phase that has been called the culture wars.

The Might of Meekness

Monday, December 3rd, 2007

“Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.” Matt 5:5

The Sermon on the Mount and the resurrection are the two bookends of Jesus theology. He asks us to look at the world in a different way. Instead of equating material might with righteousness, He says that humility and meekness will overcome pride and strength. It may seem counterintuitive, but we have just witnessed another example of this truth.

The recently concluded Mideast peace summit at Annapolis was a gathering of politically weak leaders. It couldn’t have happened even as little as a year ago because each of these leaders had a different agenda when they felt they were in control of their own destiny.

Israel’s Olmert has been accused of numerous corruption scandals and is also battling prostate cancer. His approval rating in Israel is in single digits.

Palestinian Prime Minister Abbas is even worse. In the last election his government lost to Hamas. The only reason he has a position at all is that the United States and Israel refused to acknowledge the democratically elected Hamas government as legitimate.

Then we’ve got President Bush. He is in the last year of his administration with very little to show for his time in office. His approval rating remains in the low 30’s. The surge seems to have produced some stability, but there is little evidence that the Iraqi government is going to be able to govern. At the same time the Taliban and bin Laden both appear to be regaining strength. Pakistan is a powder keg. Iran is talking about a nuclear bomb. North Korea has been sharing its nuclear secrets with Syria. The sub-prime mortgage crisis continues to wreak havoc with the economy. The dollar is weak. The debt is staggering. His own party appears to be running away from him, and Al Gore just got a Nobel for rejecting the Bush environmental policy.

Yet in this weakness, there is strength. For this country, that strength is the recognition that we can’t bend the rest of the world to our will. It is a tacit admission that our “go it alone” policy is a failure. It is also the recognition that we are not going to defeat bin Ladinist Islam until there is some resolution of the issues surrounding the creation of Israel.

It isn’t clear if the talks begun in Annapolis will yield anything of substance. What is clear is that meekness was the needed element to get this process started. That’s because when pride and ego are replaced by meekness and humility, people stop telling and start listening. When they start listening, God speaks to them. What they hear is how they can advance God’s ever-present plan that all his children live in peace.