Tuesday, October 20, 2009


I was thinking about something I said yesterday, about "damning Father Time."

I went to an excellent lecture last night by Hugh Ross, Christian Astrophysicist. I've read his books and knew he was bright. But he also handles himself well with a large (and it was over 500 people) group. I'm glad that we have such a person who takes science seriously and yet believes. There was a bit of commercialism. However, I guess these days, if you want to be a good author (good meaning making lost of $$$) you have to do a lot of self-promotion. He did book give aways, plugs for books, books on the video etc.

But with that said, I was very pleased in his work.

But the after meeting discussion brought us back to this issue of time. If you know anything about string theory, you know that it is complicated and seems necessary to explain the universe in mathematical terms. But String Theory also opens the door to many crazy notions, such as up to 9 dimensions of reality.

Hugh Ross made it clear last night, both as a scientist and a believer, that within those 9 dimensions there can only be one time dimension . . . only going in one direction . . . a geometric "ray" in other words.

But I was thinking about time as I tried to doze off to sleep last night (and trying to keep my mind of this Nepal trip). Of all the things in the world that can give me grief . . . time is one of the worse. Right now I continue to go through the separation grief from my kids. It didn't help matters that three moved away the same year. But time also took my father away from me, made my mother frail and causes my own body to ache more and more. Probably, time will take Denise away from me someday or me from her.

But of course, time is the great mender and healer. There has been times in my life that I was curled up in a ball (either figuratively . . . or literally) and wishing that I could give away a year of my life just to put chronological distance between something horrible and myself. If time did not heal, and the pains that each of us experience in life were allowed to accumulate in their full, fresh form . . . life would be unbearable. So time is a gift . . . as well as a curse.

But after this deep metaphysical conversation last night about time, I have to wonder if the dark side of time must not also be part of the Fall of Adam . . . and thus must be redeemable. But does this redemption look like? I mean, I can see how my dad would come back to me . . . in Heaven or in the New Earth. I can see how my own body will be created new and fresh and strong again.

But I don't see how my kids can be made small again. I can't imagine how they could sit on my knee and let me read them books or just spend an hour doing "silly talk." It tightens my throat to even think about those things. I know, you can "look on the bright side" and think of grand children doing the same . . . it will be nice, but not the same.

Speaking of sitting on my lap and reading books, I had a surreal experience this past Friday night. I had the opportunity to go to the movie Where the Wild Things Are with three of my sons (ages 17, 21 and 23). I can remember reading that book to them many times while they sat on my lap in their yellow, green and blue feetie flannel pjs. Hmmm. I wish I could go back.

But time will take me to Nepal, and quickly bring me home to my family. Right now, I wish I could give away three weeks of my life so I could be thinking of reuniting with my family tonight . . . rather than saying goodbye.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Nepal . . . my Bags Are Packed

There are so many things I wish I could write about, but the time is elusive. I leave in less than 40 hours. My bags are packed. My work schedule is really tough in anticipation for my leaving.

Last night we hosted a dinner party with about 20 guests. It is a send off party for my son, Tyler. He and three of his friends are taking off on a bike trip towards the tip of South America. I don't how far they will go.

I felt sad. I have so many things going through my head right now, thinking about the last minute items of my own trip. Then being on call for the office and being over booked. I wish I had the time to devote to talking to Tyler about his trip. One of the parents last night was talking about how much she loved being an empty-nester. I don't. I miss having my little tribe around my ankles . . . and it continues grieving me. Damn you father time!

Tyler was in for only four days, then he left last night to go back to his apartment near Seattle. I miss him dearly.

But after the party, when four of the 20-21 year olds were left behind, we started this long talk about faith. All four, including Tyler, seemed to be at the same place . . . where they are seriously questioning their Evangelical up-bringing. I think the conversation was constructive. It is a shame, however, that the very thing that drives them away from the Church is the "dogmatic" approach to truth. "You must believe this because we say it is true and asking questions is a sign of unbelief." The questions last night were logical, good and very sincere. I just wish there was a place within the Church where the youth could talk about meaning without being told they should just believe. It is a lazy copout when we tell them that (rather than engaging them in respectful conversation).

It is not just ironic that I also had a talk that was leading towards an argument with man, the father of one of the four disillusioned 20 year olds. It was the old old earth vs young earth. It came up when I mentioned that I'm going to a Hugh Ross (Christian astrophysicist and old earth believer) tonight with my son Ramsey. This man raised concerns about Ross' views.

Again, my view is I simply don't give a rat's ass if you believe in an old or young earth. It simple doesn't matter. The argument began to shape up as this man was aggressively telling me that anyone (including myself) who believes in an old universe can not also believe in the Bible. That's what irritates me.

As I've mentioned, I'm also reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by Joyce. This books is also taking me through the creative mind of a man coming of age and starting to doubt and reject his Catholic upbringing. It seems like this is an issue that keeps coming up to me and that is this falling away from the faith of our youth. The statistics most often quoted the Barna Group's survey that suggest that 80-85% of Evangelical youth leave the Church by age 30. I'll write more when I get back.

There is so much I wish I could say . . . only if I had the time. I've had one more night of anxiety . . .where I woke up in the middle of the night in paralyzing fear about this trip. Since then my anxiety level has been held in check, thank God . . . literally. I did share with the church Bible study group that I have a chronic anxiety disorder. Some looked perplexed, so I don't know what they were thinking.

I was asked to speak at church yesterday about my trip. I didn't want to because I'm afraid the trip will get more glory than it deserves (it is a glorified vacation not some great mission work). The pastor remarked that I've seemed very calm about this potentially dangerous trip. I guess I'm a very good actor at time.

In case I don't have a chance again to write before tomorrow night, I will see you in mid November.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Is There Power in Positive Thinking . . . or Just Disenchantment ?

Saturday afternoon I took my son Ramsey (17) with me for what we call a "two-er." That means two visits to Starbucks on the same day. I know, we're pathetic. But we had our usual book reading and discussion on Saturday morning at Starbucks. Then the two of us worked hard for the rest of the day blowing in additional insulation into our attic (my part of trying to be green). I had to return the insulation blower at the end of the day . . . to the island just south of us. They also have a new Starbucks with a large, comfortable (and quiet) reading area.

After delivering the machine to Home Depot we stopped and enjoyed some more brew (which I've been trying to exchange for home-brewed tea in preparation for Nepal) and reading. I have just started another book by James Joyce, A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man. I hope to talk about that book latter. I'm mainly reading it because it is on the top 100 English Novels list that I'm working through but also because it has a voice in this issue of people loosing their faith in God from experiences (bad ones at that) in their youth.

But while I was at Starbucks, and when my eyes and mind were growing weary of Joyce, I picked up the book review section of the New York Times.

I read this article about Barbara Ehrenreich's new book, Bright-sided. Basically, in this book she starts by describing her ordeal when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and started treatment. She discovered that in the "culture" of breast cancer sufferers there is this belief system that people should think positively, smile all the time, look at the bright side because these things help you get better. While there is a little evidence that severe depression can be counter-productive to any disease state, she found out that there is no evidence to support the notion that positive thinking makes a real difference in the outcome. On the other hand, she believes that the cult of positive thinking has had a negative influence on society, by limiting our ability to look at things (including cancer in her case) honestly and correctly.

She also examines the development of the positive thinking movement and she believes that it started within the Church. She points to the start of as a counter-reaction against Calvinism or possibly Stoicism within the Church. One of the first proponents was of course Norman Vincent Peale and his best selling book, The Power of Positive Thinking. From there the movement created a whole new industry (such as the Guide Post magazine and other programs) journeyed into the TV evangelist circuit and to best selling authors (and mega church pastors) such as Joel Osteen.

On the secular side, there was the human potential movement and the age of motivational speakers that continue to win the hearts of minds of the masses.

In conclusion, she says that the positive thinking people want to paint her as a pessimist or an Eeyore for even questioning them.

This started me thinking again. Maybe she speaks truth, however, I do have a special place in my heart and life for Peale. When I was an adolescent, I was really struggling with some issues, which I know now were anxiety and depression. My mother did the best she could do . . . so she bought me Peale's book. I read it from cover to cover looking for anything that could help me. He had the reader do exercises such as writing out positive sayings and positive Bible verses on 3 X 5 cards and post them all around your living spaces. I posted them on the inside of my sun-visor of my green Mustang. I was really embarrassed when I had a car-load of cheerleaders with me. One of them reached up and pulled down the visor and there was the cards. They all burst into laughing. I think it was the same trip that one of them found the Andy Williams tape under my back seat . . . another social disaster (so I thought).

Later I even went to Johnson City, Tennessee to listen, in person, the late Dr. Peale.

I do think his directing me towards the Bible (although you can certainly question his feel-good theology) was the very early first step to me becoming a Christian.

But I wonder that maybe Ms Ehrenreich just might be right. You don't have to be an Eeyore to feel uncomfortable in a Christian bookstore (with the wall of plaques of positive sayings, figurines of angels and sweet little churches . . . part of the Thomas Kincaid collection). Can you imagine walking into one of those stores when you were truly distressed (and I did once)? You feel like you are standing at the crossroads. Do I live in reality or do I walk the pretend hunky-dory path of the positive thinking?

I would like to do a study where 100 people walk up to Christian bookstore clerks and say, in tears, "I just found out that I have breast caner" or "I just caught my pastor husband in bed with the church secretary" or . . . you get the point. I think the clerk would be speechless. Some of them, if they have any sense, would give the person a hug, sit and listen or cry with them. However, many might point them to a rack of "Smile for Jesus" books/tapes, figurines or bumper stickers.

I'm looking forward to reading her book for myself.

Friday, October 9, 2009

When Did "I Did it" Become a Four-Letter Word?

The photo is from a scene in the original Poseidon Adventure (1972). I haven't seen the movie (or the remake) since 1972 so my quote may not be exact. However, a great controversy erupted in my little corner of the Bible belt when the priest, played by Gene Hackman, seemed to accomplish the work of getting the people to safety on his own. I think the most blasphemous thing that he said in the movie was something like, "God I can understand it if you won't help us . . . but now You are just getting in the way!" (Okay maybe he said something very differ but with the same message).

This movie scene was an extreme example of the issue that I want to raise. I do not condone the attitude of the priest. I do think it was a form of blasphemy in the way that he spoke down to God. I can understand the expression of human emotion, especially in just stressful conditions. I mean I can remember shaking my fist at the stars and screaming, out loud, "God . . . where the hell are you?" But of course God is there, and when I come back to my emotional senses I ask Him for His forgiveness in doubting Him.

But I use this photo and story only as an introduction to a far less offensive area and this is us taking credit for things we have done. Why is that blasphemous? It feels nasty, but I suspect that nasty feeling isn't of God (or intended by Him).

I shared a couple of postings ago about my nightmare saga with my passport being lost by the Nepalese embassy and then the US Department of State-Passport Office put my "expedited" passport replacement on indefinite hold. The problem is, I suppose to leave for Nepal in about 10 days. When I did that posting, it looked really grim.

I am happy to say that I do have my new passport and everything is back on course.

But once again an important theological-sociological issue is brought to the forefront.

In my desperation I e-mailed the person who does our church's prayer chain. I told them the story and asked for prayer. I was sincere about it because I wanted prayer and I do believe that God can and still does change the rules of nature to do things.

However, I just didn't pray. I spent, literally, a few hours on the phone working my way up the Department of State chain . . . pleading, begging and showing some anger. Finally . . . on Tuesday morning I was speaking to the supervisor in Charleston, S.C. who was sitting at her desk holding my actual application in her hand. I was able to use a credit card and start the application all over over the phone (btw it is true . . . it got rejected because the postage that we included for the return package was 35 cents short. Ironically, it was the postmaster at our post office who told me the amount of money to send). I was also able to buy the fastest Fed Exp package (delivered by noon the next day) to make sure I got it quickly.

So here is where things get interesting. Did God do a supernatural work? I honestly don't know. I mean, if I had not sent the prayer request along, maybe I could have never gotten anyone on the phone. However, now that I've informed people that I have the passport . . . it is an immediate assumption that a supernatural event did occur.

There is nothing wrong with giving God credit for doing a supernatural work when He chooses to do such. I am concerned though, if we believe in supernatural works . . . when they were natural works . . . we perpetuate a culture of dishonesty. Once again, our Evangelical kids are brought up to believe that God steps in and does supernatual works all the time. Then, later on, and their wife is diagnoses with breast cancer, or they loose a job or fill in the blank, and God does not do a supernatural work . . . will they become disillusioned?

When I heard one person giving credit to God for a supernatual work in my passport case, and I added . . . but I too worked very hard to get this done . . . they seemed appalled and offended. I am not bragging. I did nothing that a monkey with a cell phone couldn't have done. But my point is . . . us keep the situation honest. If we delude ourselves here why is that different from lying and saying I caught a 36 inch salmon when it was a 12 carp?

No, I would never try and compete with God about anything. I do honor Him highly. He created me, he gave me my brain, my fingers my thoughts and all that is. That is how I see monism as different. I truly believe, in my heart of hearts that every thing this side of the creative moment is indeed "supernatural." But in that case the word "natural" means without God's influence, because I do believe that nature is also "supernatural" because it is not without God's influence and cause.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

How Do You Live Magically . . . but . . . Without Superstition?

This is the cover of a fantastic book, so I've heard, and I would love to read it some day. It is a moving memoir of Joan Didion and her year of picking up the pieces after her husband, and friend, of forty years suddenly dies. I did hear a review of it a year or so ago on NPR. But I use this title as a platform to explore a slightly different concept.

The thing that brought this to my mind this week is my passport ordeal. I shared it on our church's prayer chain (a chain I rarely make use of). It was most interesting last Thursday night when I also shared my saga with our Bible study group. The immediate responses (as could easily been anticipated) were either a) "Maybe God is trying to tell you not to go," to b) "It sounds like Satan is attacking you."

I've made comments before how, as part of my post-Evangelical persona, that I really don't want to live with superstitions anymore. I think it is very limiting. I mean, if the old Evangelical Mike was in my present situation I would have pulled the plug due to "lack of peace." I now see that "lack of peace" in more rational terms of anxiety related to the problems that I face. So now, I have the motivation to keep fighting for something that I want and need to do even if it scares the hell out of me.

I do prefer to live rationally rather than with the perspective that there is a demon or angel behind each bush.

With that said, how do we live rationally and not give up the magic of life?

I can remember about 6 years ago I was praying hard about a second house that we could not sell. I had built a house in Houghton, Michigan and then I took a job at Mayo and put the house on the market . . . expecting it to sell in a few months. We ended up owning the two homes for ten years and it was about to bankrupt us. I had to work two jobs for three years to keep us afloat. We only had "showings" of that house about once every 4-6 months.

One day we had such a showing and we were waiting to hear from our Realtor. She had told us it was a very positive showing. I remember walking on a nearby trail at the top of cliffs over-looking Puget Sound. I was praying, more like begging, God to sell that house. I knew the weather was right for a rainbow as it was sprinkling a little rain and the sun had just come out. I prayed, "God if this is going to be the sell, please show me a rainbow."

I got to the top of this bluff and looked in the direction of the sun. Looking down our chain of islands towards Mount Rainer there where patches of rain were softly moving across the hills. I looked behind me and saw a huge double rainbow. I felt some peace.

Our home did finally sell and I can't honestly remember if it resulted from that showing or not. Do I now believe that God had sent those rainbows? No . . . not really. I mean I knew that the weather was perfect for such an event. It was a rational thing. But I do believe that God created this beautiful work in which we live. He also created the optics and physics that allow rainbows to form. God also created something within each of us . . . that part which a rainbow can stir. But do I believe that God created that rainbow for me on that particular day to communicate something about a house in Hougton, Michigan? Nah. I don't think so.

So I was thinking, how do we avoid the superstition that can imprison us . . . but still have that magical spirit that gives us the spice of life? I need to think about this a lot more.

Monday, October 5, 2009

How Do We Handle Disappointment?

I set my nose to the grindstone about a year ago . . . my mission? To create a medical clinic opportunity overseas. It would take a book to describe the long, tedious process. I honestly estimate that these endeavors have generated about 600 E-mails and dozens of phone calls.

By the beginning of July, the pieces were all falling in place. We had a team of 10 people, a place to go, porters, physicals, shots and I could go on and on.

Then, to stay ahead of the game, I sent my passport by Fed Exp in mid August to get a Visa at the Nepalese Embassy. I did everything correctly . . . sent early, traceable package etc. Then the embassy lost it.

As soon as Fed Exp was able to prove that it was lost I looked at the most reliable way to get a replacement passport. So I canceled some patient appointments and went to the passport office myself. We did an expedited passport process with the most reliable trackable.

Soon, once again, things were looking odd. The so-called Passport office tracking service would only say that my passport had been listed as "routine" rather than expedited. I started calling the passport daily and no one knew anything. I emailed them, left them messages and no one knew where my application was.

Tonight I come home from work and find a disturbing letter . . . my application, with my real birth certificate was in Charleston, S.C. and my check, which I had used to pay for my passport service was being returned. It said my passport application was put on standby and would be held for 90 days.

I started calling the office again. When I got the pawns (the people working the phones) I yelled at them (sorry God) and demanded to get to the bottom of this. Finally, after 90 minutes on the phone, I got to talk to a supervisor. She did some computer research and came up as confused as myself. She had never seen anything like that before. The application was put on hold and no reason was given. She had one theory . . . that was the fact that my check was written for $149.50 when the price had just gone up to $149.85 (35 cents difference). This may have triggered a rejection and putting the application on indefinite hold. But the check was written for the exact amount that the passport person had told me to write it for.

I want to pull my hair out. I was so carefully with every step. I have invested so much energy into this trip. I've bought supplies. I have non-refundable airline tickets. The list could go on and on. But barring some . . . almost miracle . . . I will not be with the group in two weeks.

I haven't had time to even start to make sense out all of this. And as major as this set back feels right now, I know that it is minor in the scope of the hardships and disappointments that others face . . . sometimes everyday. But I feel really depressed right now.

A hot tub soak in the crisp autumn air, beneath the harvest moon and an ice cold Alaskan Amber didn't even blunt the frustrated-depression I feel.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Religious Manipulation . . . What Can We Learn From the Extreme

Elizabeth Smart testified for the first time in public yesterday, at least in the graphic details of her captivity. She, rightly so, described her abductor (Brian David Mitchell) as an evil, dirty, slimy hypocrite, who used religion to get alcohol, drugs and sex. She described how her day after day brutal rapes had the prelude of a “Christian lecture” of how God wanted this for her. Her abductor had to be dismissed from the court room during her testimony today because he would not stop singing hymns so loudly.

Of course he is a nut case and is an evil man. But he is the extreme example of us all. In the wonder of Jesus we can see the dim reflection of ourselves—man/woman—as we were intended to be (in perfection). Likewise, in the most evil people, I think that we can see a dim reflection of ourselves. So are we like Mitchell? How do we manipulate others, often using our Christian faith, to get our own, deeply selfish ways? I bet it is far more common than we realize. All of us want respect (elevation of our sense of worth), physical pleasure (sex, chocolate etc) and power (money) and we are willing to use people for that end—at least to some degree. I won't even talk about my eternal whipping boys, the TV evangelists because they are so obvious. But how do we do it on a more mundane level?

I could name many specific times during my Evangelical days where I did it, but I often use that past life as examples. I was thinking today, what is it that I do now? I know that I am capable of pushing my wife down, in order to push myself up. I have complex psychological techniques for that—some which I’ve mastered. They are subtle but effective for my end. I think most of my manipulative techniques fall outside of my Christian endeavors because it is hard to use spiritual scheming, when most Evangelicals don't see me as possessing a lot of spiritual clout anymore.

But it should not surprise us when common (verses the wackos like Mr. Mitchell) use things like this in Church. Usually it goes like this, “Would you please bake two dozen cupcakes for the Church coffee . . . this would really be God-honoring.” To deconstruct that a bit is that person A was assigned to have the coffee for the church and her reputation is resting on having good food and lots of it. So how do you get your friends to bring things to keep your reputation looking good? You manipulate them by telling this is “for God.”

But I was thinking of another true example that a (uniquely candid) missionary friend, Ken, was telling me about. I will describe that story the best I can remember it.

Setting: It was a hotel or retreat center where about ten missionary leaders were meeting to plan their strategy for the coming year. One man in attendance, I will call Jake, was a very confident leader type . . . a real type A. He came up with a plan for the whole team. But another missionary, Dave, was raising some legitimate questions about that plan. Dave’s concerns seemed to irritate Jake. That night they adjourned and planned to start again around the breakfast table the next morning.

As they were eating and before they started any serious talking, Jake smiles and says, “I wanted to share from you how God bless me this morning in my quiet time. He put on his reading glasses and pulled out his well-worn leather covered Bible. He flipped through several verses and read each one. Taken out of context, but stringed together, the verses spoke of the sin of contempt or disagreements being sowed among the brothers . . . how terrible of a thing it was, and how God will punish people for doing that. Jake put down his Bile and with almost a tear in his eye started to talk about how God was grieved about the discord that He had seen in this group of leaders and how it was God’s desire that they obey him and their leaders (Jake was a self-appointed leader not a true leader of the group).

It wasn’t long before Dave spoke up. He had been sitting in silence with his head down. “I’m so sorry. I feel like I’m the brother here who is being proud (btw Dave was a very humble, introspecting guy) here and I’m the one sowing discord. I ask all of you for your forgiveness.”

Jake had a pleasant smile on his face and gently shook his head in the affirmative.

My friend Ken finally couldn’t contain himself.

Ken: “Do you guys see what is going on here? Jake did not get his way last night, he did not like anyone questioning him, like Dave, so he is using guilt-manipulation to put Dave in his place and to keep him quiet. Dave has raised some good questions that we can not just throw away now.”

I thought Ken did an excellent job in exposing the truth.