Sunday, January 31, 2010

While I Was Away

I was typing away about a week ago . . . the computer sputtered . . . then died. I am computer-less right now. I found a used one on Ebay and have purchased it, and it should be on it's way. But it will not arrive before I leave town on Tuesday.

It is funny, but when I have nothing to type on, no where to write, I suddenly get writer's diarrhea (vs block). So many ideas that have puzzled me that I must knock around in the air around my head as with a fly swatter.

I never got to the heart of my thoughts on Christians and self denial. Then JD died, and I couldn't help but to start to think about Caulfield. My whole reading the top 100 novels began when I was saying to son number 4 that I couldn't figure out son number 3. Son number 3's band was named "Caulfied" (for a while). So son number 4 said that the best way to understand son number 3 was to read The Catcher in the Rye. I did and it started this very interesting journey in literature.

But as I thought about Holden and JD this week, I thought a lot of how some of us are Caulfied Christians, just not fitting in very well because we can't play the game. Caulfied didn't get it right. I mean, what purpose lies in walking the streets at night, our hands in our pockets calling everyone an SOB. But there is something in the brotherhood of those who want to live more honestly, and how the majority prefer to play the game. I was thinking about how many people find me irritating. I'm very soft-spoken, but when I speak, I do speak very honestly. That pisses a lot of people off.

Well, so much for that. I'm on a borrowed computer and must move on.

I was thinking once again about the concept of "motives" when I was abruptly called from Haiti and was asked to come asap. I wrestled with that one for days. It is too complicated to explain here why I will probably not go, but as I evaluated my motives, I knew that most of them were in the realm of being a hero, or looking like a hero to my friends and family. Of course I do have sleepless nights thinking about the suffering of the Haitians. I'm not going just because many of my motives were poor. Many things I do are from poor motives. Great good can come from people doing the right thing but with the wrong motives. And once again, I claim that we Christians often say that we are doing things out of "pure motives" but except for Christ, no one has had a pure motive about anything. I have great admiration for Mother Theresa but I remember her writings that were found after her death had her questioning her motives, and even God's presence. That is the human condition.

Let me see, there were about 10 other things I wanted to write about. I will have to try and remember them until I can get back on line in about 10 days.

Sorry about the typos but I don't have time to go back and check them.

Friday, January 22, 2010

More on Self Denial

As I thought about this more, I was looking for that line of demarcation between Biblical self-denial and that which takes a life of its own, and can be used to make our lives more miserable.

I really thought (like in most of these things) that the answer would not be black or white. What I mean is that I did not anticipate that the resolution would be either self-denial is not a Christian concept at all or it is a proper concept just the way it is taught and lived out with Evangelicalism. But the true answer would be that there would be a line between Biblical self-denial and the abuse there of.

Sometime your mind finds the handle long before the language area of your brain can find the words to express it. That seemed to be what was happening this week. Then this morning I had an epiphany of sorts. I was crossing our high bridge that goes from our little island to the mainland. In the East the sun was rising brilliantly over the jagged and snow-capped Cascade Mountains. It has always been one of the favorite parts of my commute and a common place where answers come to me.

It isn’t a magic place. I think a big part of it is that I work on problems during my sleep (and often periods of insomnia). Every night for a week I have been waking up at 2:30 AM and am meditating on how to dig people out of earthquake rubble. I usually have to get up and check the Internet to see if I’ve heard from my friends working in Haiti. Then in the mornings, after a cup of coffee, and about the time I am getting to the bridge, my mind becomes clear enough to think clearly.

The line of demarcation between self-denial, as expressed by Christ and further in the New Testament, and the abuse of it comes down squarely between ourselves and God’s will. What I mean is, if our self-interest goes against God’s will (including the love of our fellow humans) then we must deny it. I know that is a no-brainer . . . but it may not be that simple.

The example of the Biblical self-denial is from giving up our seat on the bus, to allowing someone else to take the glory for things we have done or even dying for someone else (jumping in front of a bus to save them). It is putting the desires and needs of others on at least the same footing as ourselves if not above ourselves.

Of course, our self interest should not stand between us and God’s will. This is the rawest from of Biblical self-denial. But this is where it gets very tricky. The reason is the concept of “God’s will,” in m humble opinion, is grossly abused and is often used to manipulate and control people and excuse ourselves.

God’s true will must be explicit. It is the commandments and the clear instructions of Christ. I is not that subjective feeling I get in the morning, and it is never “God’s will for my life” imposed on me by someone else . . . including a pastor or Christian leader.

For example, a beautiful woman makes advances on me (only in my dreams). It is explicit that to follow her lead for me is sin. I am a happily married man. So this is the simplest example of self-denial. I say no to the biological and possible psychological self in the face of God’s will (not to mention putting my wife ahead of my self). But this is obvious.

But I want to move this discussion to the less obvious and into that gray area.

I will end with a story that illustrates the abuse or misunderstanding of Christian self-denial.

In Frank Schaeffer’s book, Crazy for God, he tells very candid stories about life at LAbri Fellowship. I’m in this strange opinion that I have a lot of respect for Frank and I believe that what he writes is true about LAbri, yet I still have a great respect for his parents, Francis and Edith. If anything, seeing their human side makes them even more of heroes to me.

But during his early years at LAbri (as a young man) he tells of a big bosomed lady who was a successful opera singer. But when she met the Lord, she gave up that career because it was for “her glory.” She wanted to sing only for “God’s glory,” (can’t remember the exact language used). This lady understood that it was part of the Christian concept of self-denial to give up the career that made her so happy. The thinking was, if it makes me very happy, then it is selfish and I must give it up. This is where Evangelicals get so screwed up.

The narcissistic (not truly narcissistic as a mental diagnoses but who are behaving in narcissistic ways) Christians, always do what they want, but they are very cleaver in wrapping God’s will (as an illusion produced by them) around that behavior. The simplest example I can think of was a . . . can’t think of a better term . . . horny friend who became a Christian. Soon after giving up women, he felt that “God had called him to minister to sorority girls.” Hmm. But he was convinced of that and told many people that God had spoken to him on this level. In Evangelicalism all you have to do is say, “God told me” or “God led me” and no one questions you motives.

I’ll be back with some final thoughts.


Thursday, January 21, 2010

More on Denying the Self in Evangelical Thinking, and Happiness

In the picture at the left is one of thousands of dwelling caves found in the Mustang region of Nepal. In these caves were found many very old manuscripts as well as murals and homes. One of the things that struck me the most, and I couldn't find a photo of it, is a tiny cave (about the size of a large bathtub) that was sealed off except for a small passage. The passage turned at 90 degree angles that would block all light from the outside world.

Since this ritual is still practiced by devoted Buddhist in the region, we know how those caves were/are used. The devoted pilgrim will come there, crawl back into the cave and stay . . . for weeks or months in total dark isolation. A family member would bring them bland food, such enough to keep them alive, and water. That family member was not allowed to make any verbal or visual contact with the pilgrim.

The point in all of this is an deeper spiritual experience by a complete denial of the self. But Buddhism is very dualistic religion, in which this physical world is seen as a hindrance, at best, to the spiritual world and thus human desire is in opposition to spiritual enlightenment.

I have a sense that some forms of Christianity has taken this non-Biblical approach to denying the self. For example, many sects throughout the medieval period saw the universe in this light. Church history tells us of many monks who sought total isolation from the world and from all human desires.

In the verse that I included in the previous post about this topic, scripture seems to suggest some type of denial of self.

This blog is of course not meant to be a source of great Biblical teaching. At best it is the musings of a not so bright, lay person who is trying to figure things out for himself. In other words, even if I were teaching a Sunday school class on this topic, I would have spent hours in Biblical research. But at best, I have had that passage and my thoughts about that passage on the back burner of my mind in the last few days.

I think that passage makes sense if you put it into its historical context. Jesus was about to be crucified. The entire Christian empire rested on the shoulders of those eleven men (plus faithful bystanders). Soon the whole army would bear down on those individuals, most of whole would be martyred. So the issue was do they, in the face of danger, give up, go home and deny the faith.

I could see the same issue coming up today (if we lived in a fictitious futuristic world) where a Fascist government wanted to kill all the American Christians. Now I say this tongue n cheek, but I do now Evangelicals who are convinced that this scenario is just around the corner.

But in that fictitious world, I can imagine how, if we wanted the faith to continue, that we would have to suffer, giving up our instincts for survival and denying our selves . . . potentially facing grave harm.

But in closing of this post, my real question is whether or not if this concept of self-denial has been taken out of context and influenced by Dualistic thinking to the point that it really becomes a burden to many and even a possible tool of manipulation.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Foot-n-Mouth At Church . . . Once Again

I'm still thinking about this issue of self-denial in Christianity.

Meanwhile, I stuck my foot in my mouth again at church yesterday. Our pastor sometimes ask questions during his sermon and he really wants people in the congregation to shout out answers.

Yesterday he was talking about the biggest mistake people make when they go through crisis . . . they stop going to church.

Then he asked, "So what happens when people in crisis do come to church?"

In reflex, without even thinking, I shouted out, "They are blamed."

The pastor was stunned and the congregation silent. "Oh no." Was his response. "That's the answer we don't want to hear. No . . . when people, who are in crisis, comes to church they are part of the body, protected and loved."

I have to say that the pastor and I are on the exact same page when it comes to ideals. What he said is what "Should" happen. But then I look around at the congregation. I think of one family who were key, and who no longer come because they are going through some very rough things that they want kept secret. Then I think of a couple more couples who have serious problems going on . . . but they would never, ever mention within the doors of our church.

I do remember too when I was an elder going on visitation with the chief elder at the time. I was assigned the job of praying while the chief elder did the talking. We went to a couple's home who had disappeared from church for months. The elder (who is the pastor's right hand man) started to lecture the couple on why they should be in church and how God wants them there and by not going they are disappointing God. I wanted to scream! I wanted to be their friend and ask them how their lives were going. If I had been given the speaking role, I would never have brought up the issue that they had not been in church, unless they did first. I wanted them to know that they were loved and church attendance was not an issue for me. I have the feeling that a private crisis in their lives is what kept them away, but we will never know.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Christian Happiness and Self Denial

About a decade ago I had a good friend, Rob, who was a youth pastor in a large Apostolic Lutheran church. He was a good man, humble and cared a great deal about the kids he worked with, including some of my own.

It didn’t take long to realize that Rob was being severely manipulated and I would say, “spiritually abused,” by his senior pastor, Dave.

Dave was a very popular pastor. He was charismatic in personality and in theology. He had a direct link to God, so he thought, and God told him such and such each every day. It just so happens that the things that God told Dave were also the very things that would give some type of benefit to the pastor.

But with a booming voice, cobalt blue eyes and extreme confidence, parishioners fell in love with Dave and considered him a real man of God . . . a modern day prophet.

This made it really difficult on Rob. Dave had him under his thumb and demanded more and more “self-denial” by Rob, which translated into things that he had to do for his boss, like conducting services, giving up salary, driving buses. If ever you went against Dave’s orders, not only did you receive a scolding but his “righteous” anger would reach almost the point of physical abuse.

My friend finally saw the light. But going against this popular pastor was very difficult. In the end, the pastor split the huge church in half. He defined those that followed him to a new church in a nearby school as “God’s chosen” and those who stayed, as Satan’s people.

But I remember Rob coming out of this situation very depressed and disillusioned. He bounced around between several ideas over the subsequent couple of years. One of them (as a pendulum swing from his extreme self-denial) was what he called “Christian Hedonism.”

With Christian Hedonism, he so stated, was knowing that you are completely covered by the blood of Christ, therefore you should do whatever you desired to do. If you wanted to drink a case of Pilsner and get plastered, that was fine. The issue of sin didn’t matter just doing what you want and that would bring real happiness.

This phase did not last long for Rob, thank goodness. Once again, I think it was just a gut reaction from being abused for so long.

But this is just an introduction to this whole concept of “self denial” and the main question is, has this concept been abuse? Misunderstood? Used to manipulate people? Is there a Dualistic influence in the way we interpret self denial, taking in more of the Buddhist or Hindu approach than a true Biblical idea. Does a constant denial of self, in the misguided way, take away from some of our contentment or happiness?

I will close with one of the key versed that self denial has been taken from over the centuries. I want to mediate on this and get back.

Luke 9

21Jesus strictly warned them not to tell this to anyone. 22And he said, "The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life."
23Then he said to them all: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. 25What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? 26If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. 27I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God."

Thursday, January 14, 2010

God and Earthquakes

I'm taking a diversion from my conversation about happiness to talk about earthquakes . . . very briefly. The photo is of me (in the center) at the very epicenter (city of Balakot) in Kashmir, Pakistan right after the 2004 devastating earthquake. The death toll was near what the one in Haiti will be, 80,000 dead. This was taken soon after words. I post this photo simply stating that when I talk about earth quakes . . . it is very personal.

I am a Calvinist, even though most of my old Calvinist friends would say not. While I do believe that God is all powerful, able to adjust the size and shape of an individual atom, I certainly don't believe that God chooses to interfere with the world and the way He has made it.

Christians often paint themselves into a corner. To give meaning to their lives, they start to believe that they are the center of the universe. So ever event happens "for a reason." While this gives some false comfort in the good times, it leaves them in this horrible situation when the bad comes. They must declare that God did it, and then, like the dunce Pat Robertson, but start putting "reasons" onto the situation.

But I think this is part of Christian Dualism. If we appreciated the physical world, the way that God had made it, we know that cause and effect is real. Physics are real. Geological phenomena are real. Surely it is the fall that somehow allows amoral geological shifts to cause so much suffering, but how, I don't know.

I end by saying, I believe that when God looks at Haiti, he is neither powerless nor ruthless. He looks from a position of great power, but with deep compassion. He weeps. Why didn't He intervene and stop the quake? I don't know. But I'm not going to try to second guess the situation but to say that it was a cause and effect of an old earth crust moving and groaning and innocent people got caught in its way.

If any idiot starts saying it was God punishing the Haiti people or God sparing the Christians only crap . . . then I feel sorry for them. They need to go down and pull people from the rubble.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Should Christians Be Happy?

I feel a little strange even talking about happiness at at time like this. I was working on this posting yesterday when the horrible news about Haiti came in. Because I'm on an earthquake response team, I've been very busy since then. I don't think I will be going, unless I am really needed, because I just got back from Nepal and need to be at work. But I will go ahead and post this. I hope that no TV preacher says anything stupid about "why" the earthquake happened.

The more I have thought about this concept over the past few days I realize that the exercise it is about as futile as trying to grasp a warm Chinook wind with both hands.

It is even hard to define what happiness is. Is it just the lack of suffering? Is it the fulfillment of emotional pleasures? I asked Denise while we were sitting in the hot tub the other night and she said she thought it was contentment. It really gets difficult to frame into a usable contemplation. Is it even a mood? I honestly believe that someone can be happy and depressed at the same time because depression is an emotion and I think that happiness transcends that. What I’m trying to say is that depression and happiness are not polar opposites. I don’t think it was true with me, but I’ve had patients who report that they have never been more content . . . nor more depressed.

The other great problem is that Evangelicals are chronic liars. How could you even measure if they are happy or not? If you did a survey, especially if you did it in the context of a church, the response to the question, “Are you happy” would be a resounding “Yes. Of course! We are Christians. All Christians are happy. We have the fruit of the spirit of joy.” But, and I’ve said it many times, that I think the Evangelicals (because I was one) lives in a altered reality . . . Alice on the clean, but insane, Victorian side of the looking glass.

So I end this thinking by coming at the question from an entirely different direction. Is there anything unique to American Evangelicalism (I know that I’ve drifted from my original question about Atheists Vs Christians to Atheists’ Vs Evangelicals) that makes us more, intrinsically, unhappy?

I think there could be. While the good news of the gospel is that we have been washed clean, thus the inherent fear of low self value as been fixed once and for all, in reality, Evangelicalism brings with it a lot of (what I consider extra-Biblical but cultural) baggage that is counter-productive to fulfillment and contentment.

Firstly, Evangelicalism has an unrealistic standard that everyone must aspire to . . . but no one truly realizes. For men, there is this life-long belief that a good Christian man is sexually pure, without any polluted thoughts. Virtually no man lives there, thus all carry this deep, chronic, guilt about that. I think women must have an equivalent. Since I’m not a woman I can only guess.

I do remember that during our early days of our marriage Denise struggled with an “addiction” to Soap Operas. I don’t think I ever understood why that bothered her so much. At the time I assumed it was an issue of time management. Rather than doing her house hold chores like ironing (and she was a stay at home mom at the time) she was sitting on the couch watching Days of Our Lives. But I later realized that it was much deeper than that and is why I saw her brought to tears when she was tying to fight its allure.

I think she knew that she felt drawn to a romantic fantasy world, where men were handsome knights in shinning armor that swept women off their feet and carried them to paradise. It wasn’t about lust. She didn’t want to see them naked (I don’t think). But it was a amorous other reality, that drew her. She knew that I would never be that idealized matador. I think she could not express this addiction to me in such words, in the same way I could express my thoughts with her, because she was afraid it would hurt me. I was not that six foot six, tanned man, with a six pack, driving a sports car and dominating all conversations with poetry and intelligence . . . all with a Latin accent.

But those are just two examples. I also think of the pressure that Denise has always felt to be the perfect mother and wife, and me the perfect father and husband. It is magnified if we are “Focus on the Family” Christians. It is a bondage that no mortal can bear. I have known plenty of men and women who pretend and pretend well, while in their private places they suffer in an ominous isolation. But even in the pretending there can not be contentment because I think down deeply there is the self awareness that you are a total fraud.

I think too that the church, with a small “c” uses guilt manipulation to put a yoke around the necks of church people. They are not supporting the programs the way they should. They are not living up to the expectations of the pastor or the board. The self esteem of the pastor, only because they are human, are all wrapped up in having successful programs at the church they run (and run is the proper word in most cases).

Last week I heard almost word for word the same lecture from two different Christian sources. The first was a pastor on Christian radio. I have never enjoyed Christian radio because of all the nonsense that you hear (“You can buy DVDs how global warming is the first step of the Antichrist is using to take over the world,” etc.). But lately, I’ve gone back and to listen to pastors, especially those who don’t talk with a southern draw and speak without furious screaming. I sometimes think I’m too cynical and I go to these radio pastors, hoping to hear something healthy and reassuring (that they aren’t all nut cases) . . . but rarely do.

This pastor, who wasn’t screaming but did talk with a Texan accent, was speaking on the dysfunctional family. Since he comes on at lunch time, I listened to him several days in a row so I got the main points of his message.

He spent the majority of time simply illustrating dysfunctional families in the Bible. Then each message would end with enticements to get on their mailing list (which as an ex-missionary means a target for being a potential donor. We were taught, “once on your mailing list, always on your mailing list”). Finally on the third day, he got to the point of how to over come or avoid being a dysfunctional family.

I thought for sure he would have some psychological insights to healthy family living. His main point, however, was that you should be in church every Sunday morning. “The dysfunctional family doesn’t go to church, the functional family does because by going to church they put God first.”

These pastors always twist “being in church” by assuming if you are not, then you are sitting around in your boxers snorting cocaine with your kids and gay lovers. If you listen, you will see that they actually believe there is magic pixie dust over the threshold of the church door that when you go through it, you are a better person.

I am not a Sunday morning couch potato so I think I have the right to talk about this. I may miss church once or twice a year and it has been the same for the past 50 years. So, unlike some emerging church people, I am not trying to defend my church-avoidance behavior. But church attendance has been one of those yokes that are put around the Evangelical’s neck. I wonder how many people really go to church because it fulfills them in some way.

For example, imagine that Jesus Himself appeared, and no one had a doubt that it was Jesus, and he proclaimed that “the age of church going is over. You no longer have to go to church to please me. I am just as please with you when you are sitting on the couch in your boxers and reading the Sunday morning paper.” How many people would continue to go? I bet people would stay home in droves.

My pastor repeated the same message of this radio pastor the following Sunday. He could not understand how someone could claim to be a Christian and not be seriously engaged in the local church. He has said that many times.

Of course the only Biblical argument for mandatory church attendance, without seriously twisting scripture, is the need to meet together or to avoid not meeting together. But this is where I agree totally. We need to meet and I think our contentment is closely connected to the relationships that we have, especially honest, accepting relationships . . . not sitting on hard pews listening the lecture and never talking to each other.

The last item that may support the notion of Christians not being truly happy is the Christian concept of the denial of the self.

I always write these things in a hurry between this or that and once again, I wish I could do a word study on the denying of yourself. I do know that it is mentioned by Christ, but I would like to see the context. I have a strong feeling that the Church’s Gnostic Dualism, has perverted it and turned it into the same brand of “denying yourself” as the Buddhists practice (who, in a very dualistic way, believe that this physical earth is a place to transcend and escape . . . not something to embrace as created by good and loving God).

Maybe I will stop here and think about this more. Maybe I will get the time to re-read a few passages and come back and finish up this idea in one more posting.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Are Christians Happier than Atheists?

Obviously the first question that is waiting to be begged is should Christians be happier than atheists? The answer is not as obvious as we Evangelicals (or ex) might think. While joy, contentment and yes, happiness, are considered some of the major draws to being a Christian, I don’t think that view has always been unanimous nor is even shared by all today. I’m sure that this topic has been widely debated, papers and books written about it as well as many sermons and lectures.

Of course the Medieval church comes to mind, especially the segments that promoting personal suffering and the mortification of the flesh. I’m sure that they would see happiness as manifestation of the evil flesh, in a Platonic way, and a good Christian is one that suffers much. I wish I had the time to go back and to read Augustine and others and see what their views were on happiness.

In the post-reformation church, I think of the Aristotelian influenced churches of northern Europe. I’ve heard of stories of John Calvin ruling Geneva with an iron fist, stamping out any signs of personal pleasure, however, those may have been over-stated. I also think of the stoic Lutherans of Scandinavia. That’s where my wife’s roots are in. While her family would not deny joy or happiness, they do frown deeply on doing things that are not practical.

In more modern Evangelical circles there are pockets of belief where happiness is not consider a major Christian attribute. Certainly, the mainstream, such as Joel Osteen, have personal happiness as the center of their gospel. I became a Christian through a Jesus people-quasi Navigator group and the guy that led me to the Lord, Tom, said that finding Jesus would be finding happiness. I needed happiness at the time because I was just coming out of my first bout of clinical depression as teenager. I’m sure that my search for happiness is what drew me to Christianity and Tom assured me that my depression was a spiritual issue.

But I also think of one Navigator leader back in the 80s. Nick was the most extreme of the most extreme is my memory of Navigator legalism. I always wonder whatever happened to him. He is the guy, whom I’ve mentioned before, who said that we should never share the gospel with handicap people or even people sitting down, because neither ever accomplish much for the Lord. He was the one who forced himself to run 5 miles a day, every single day. He ran when he had the stomach flu and had to stop every quarter of a mile to vomit. He would run with a broken leg because he had made a vow with God that he would run every day come hell or high water. It was another form of the mortification of the flesh. I never had a conversation once with Nick where he did not beat me up verbally . . . leaving me feeling horrible about my pathetic self. He told a story once about a young college student coming up to him after they had been doing several days of physical labor and said, "I think we deserve a vacation after this." To which he replied, "What you deserve young man it the fires of hell. Everything else is a gift."

He would be one that would have said that “happiness or joy is of the flesh.”

But speaking of the flesh, he is the same Christian leader that vanished for a year and came back with a 20 year old college student wife (and he was in his mid to upper forties). And if I remember right, he left with a 40 something wife but I'm not sure of the details now. It was bizarre as no one was allowed to mention this event outside their own heads. So even he, who was against pleasure, must have found some pleasure seeking in his private world.

But besides a few exceptions, I think that most Christians believe that we are suppose to be happier than atheists.

I wish I had time to go back and do a Biblical study of it right now. I write these things off the cuff and not from a desk of careful research. I do remember that the beatitudes were consider God's guide for happiness. The word, "blessed" suppose to mean "happy." But I would have to look it up in a good Greek NT to know for sure.

The way that I look at it, if God is there, and I think He is, then He is our creator. If He is our creator, he knows how we should function best. So, if we follow His guidelines for functioning, we should be more content and thus happier.

But the problem is, flying in the face of common Evangelical beliefs, there is not a magic line of demarcation between “them” and “us.” It is not like “them” live opposite to what God intended and “we” live exactly like He wants. Like I said in the previous post, I think the Danes are happy, even if they claim to be atheists because they live according to God’s principles of living, including having a high view of human life (and not just pre-natal life, but homeless life, poor life, immigrant life, etc.).

Oh the other hand, I think that Evangelicals can live in opposition to God’s plan for successful living. I don’t just mean getting drunk, having sex outside of marriage and using “swear “words. I’m talking about more complicated issues. For example, if Evangelicals devalue art, human pleasure (relegating it to the “flesh”) and not understanding that our sin is covered by the blood of Christ, then it could lead to a more dis-content life.

I have to think about this more and maybe someone else has some ideas.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Are Atheists Happier?

Once again, the thought that has occupied my mind over the past, well 12 hours at least, started with Oprah. Denise had watched it during the day yesterday and when I got home she was going on and on about the episode.

The story was about how other people live in other countries. Oprah had selected about five cities around the world and followed typical residents. I only watched the segments on Denmark and Dubai.

While Denise was taken by the lifestyles of the Danes, especially their minimalism, I was struck by one particular part of a conversation between Oprah and her Danish guests ( actually she was their guest as the interview took place in Copenhagen). The point was this. In survey after survey, the Danes consider themselves as the happiest people on earth. In other surveys, they represent one of most "areligious" (even atheistic) societies on earth. Oprah (as did myself) seemed very perplexed about that.

In my old evangelical days, I would quickly have dismissed this as another facet of the great conspiracy against Christianity, and certainly would consider it to be untrue. After all, we have been convinced that atheists are miserable and that everyone who comes to Jesus is happy.

Now, when I hear information that flies in the face of my previous beliefs, I don't dismiss them out of hand any more. My fist step is to try and find out if it is true.

I've tried to read the studies that support the Danes=Happiness conclusion as well as the surveys that suggest that they are one of the most atheistic countries. In summary, the happiness factor is more subjective as it is self-reported by the Danes. However, the non-religious nature of the Danish society is indisputable.

So, if I intended to simply say this is not true, and to say that the Danes are lying, I would be saying that they really are miserable and won't confess up to that. Surely they can't be happy without Christ . . . can they?

Another approach the old evangelical Mike could take would be, the following reasoning. The Danes only have a fake happiness brought on by sinning freely. For example, many Danes either postpone marriage, or have no desire for marriage. So, they feel happy because they are always meeting new people, falling in love, having passionate romances, then moving on. You could say the same for many other vices.

It reminds me of something that the Christian psychologist Larry Crab said (I think) in his book, Inside Out. He told the story of a man that came to him for counselling and said, "I'm so unhappy. I just want to be happy again as soon as possible."

Larry Crab thought for a moment and then said, "Well, I think we need to get a case of tequila, two beautiful hookers and take off to a beach cottage in the Bahamas."

To this the man responded, "I thought you were a Christian psychologist?"

Larry said, "I am. But if all you want is to be happy fast, that is the best way of doing it."

But I think that line of reasoning about the Danes (being happy because they freely indulge in sin) is too superficial of an answer. But I could hear that coming from a radio preacher somewhere. But I think, like all things, it is more complex than that.

Let's assume that the studies are correct. That the Danes are more happy as atheists than Americans (who scored low in the happy surveys) who are far more religious. What does this mean?

I've thought about this a lot since I heard it and I have a few suspicious thoughts.

First of all, the Danes, as is true with virtually all atheists, cannot live consistently with what they say that they believe. So while organized religion is no longer on their radar, and they confess to be atheists, it is very difficult to live consistent with that presupposition. So, while they say that they are atheists, they, in many ways, live Christianly with a "remembrance" of their Christian heritage. For example, in the interviews on Oprah, the Danes spoke of having very high values. They don't steal. They value human life very highly (for example making sure everyone is cared for). I won't even attempt to talk about the anthropologists counter point here, where this caring is really just an evolutionary phenomenon.

But now to the so-called Evangelical nation, the US. Why would Evangelicals be less happy? This is the crux of my thinking since Oprah last night. I do think there is a reason. Maybe I should save that for the next post as this is getting long. But I will propose that Evangelicals are indeed less happy than their non-religious counterparts. They put on a facade of "joy," to be consistent with what they say they believe. You know, the ole, Keep smiling while your private world is crap, mentality.

So I will come back and next time pick up on that thought.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

My Father . . . A Man I Wish I Had Known

Pictured is my dad and I at Roan Mountain State Park, when I was around six.

I often have patients tell me, as we are getting to the family medical history, that they know practically nothing about their fathers. They each tell the story about how as soon as their mother started having children, that their father just took off one day and never came back or even looked over their shoulder. One lady in her thirties corrected me as I asked about her father. She said, “Father? Huh. You mean sperm donor.”

But my upbringing was very different from that. I grew up in a two parent—Leave it to Beaver—family with its roots in the stable, pro-family post war, 50s. My dad was always there. He was a good father . . . actually a great one. He was a successful (though not financially) businessman and leader of the local Boy Scout troop. He eventually became the president of the Tennessee Archeology Society.

He was a good man . . . involved with his kids and wife. I sat on his lap and he read the Sunday morning comics every week just before we went to our little Baptist church on the hill. But I’m wondering if I knew my real dad. I had some new information that came to light this fall that has me re-thinking that.

The information that I am about to share has no disrespect written between the lines. I respect and love my late father very much. However, I am speaking candidly. I do believe that every family has these issues, often locked in the closet. I know that there are the same types of things in my wife’s family however if I, or anyone, dared mentioned them, it would be a humongous scandal . . . like the blast coming from a psycho-social Death Star.

Before I break the new story about dad, I have to give a little more background.

Dad was born just before the great depression. His family was poor and the only thing that spared them from the ordeal of the Joad family (in The Grapes of Wrath) was not having the means of buying a Hudson truck to venture out West on.

When dad was a young teenager, he watched, first his mom, then three sisters slowly succumb to TB and die horrible emaciating deaths. They didn’t have medicine for even the simplest pain pills. Then, almost without a pause, when he was about 17, his father suddenly died . . . some say from a “broken heart.” Dad had to drop out of school to try and find some work to help support his other sister and two brother. I think my dad could have earned a Ph D if he had had the opportunity.

Before my grandpa’s grave had a chance to grow grass, the US declared war on Germany and dad was drafted into the Army. He was sent immediately for intensive training for some big mission. First to Georgia, then New Jersey and then the SW shores of England. Dad was in the first wave of grunts to land on the beaches of Normandy.

Dad never talked about the war and I didn’t know why. I knew it was a big part of his entire life. I knew that for sure when I was the one that broke the news to him that he was dying.

It is part of the Appalachian folklore that you never tell a dying person that they are just that. I called dad to explain his future. But then I asked him how he felt. You never ask a stoic man how they “feel” about anything . . . but I had no choice.

It was one of the most candid conversations we ever had with him and I will never forget it. I was standing in our large country kitchen in our old farmhouse in Marquette, Michigan. I had just gotten his biopsy report. I asked to speak to dad who was still in the hospital. I looked down at the quarter-sawn maple floors between my toes and mentally focused and searched for words.

After the typical “how are you” I asked, “Dad . . . it is cancer and you are dying.” “Okay,” he said softly.

“Well dad . . . how do you feel about that?”

“I should have died on the beaches in France. Every day since has been a gift I never expected.

Dad was a good man. He kept all his pain inside. I wish he was here now to share some of that pain with me. I think the other reason that this topic is coming to my mind this week was that infamous conversation took place just before Christmas. We drove down through the northern hills of snow to the warmer and wetter hills of Tennessee to spend that Christmas with dad. I said my good byes, my very last good bye about this time exactly 15 years ago.

I had never asked dad about Normandy until I studied the battle in college. I came home the next week and asked him for the details. He told a story that created a visual image in my mind that was exactly as it was later portrayed in Saving Private Ryan. It was horrible. I know that after dad had been pinned down behind a barrier on the beach for over an hour with his best friend. His friend looked up to see if the coast was clear to run for the cliffs. As he looked over the barrier his head literally exploded (apparently a large shell when through it) throwing parts of his face and skull all over dad’s face. They had just been looking at each other’s family photos and talking about how much they loved their kids. Dad took off running for the cliffs hoping for protection . . . or death. It didn’t matter by that point.

I also knew that dad had been hit by a mortar with shrapnel in his leg. But I also knew that he was able to continue on their march inland for a couple more weeks . . . long enough for dad to have killed a German solider in a duel (both were snipers and they took turns shooting at each other . . . dad “won”). Dad described how he rolled the man’s body over and they went through his papers. Tucked under his belt was glossy b & w photo of the man, his wife and three young girls. Dad remembered that photo for a reason.

Dad was a good man, whom I love dearly . . . but, like all of us, he was not perfect.

Mom told me once—in one of her many moments of insecurity—that the first question she asked dad when he got home was if he had “slept with any French women while you were there?” Dad became visibly angry and raised his voice to her, “That’s a question you NEVER ask a solider who is returning form war!” Mom knows, and I know that he could have simply said “no.”

I don’t think dad was always faithful to mom even after the war. I can remember, and I must have been only about seven, when mom found lipstick on one of dad’s white shirts after he had just returned from a business trip. I know that it hurt her a lot and I don’t know why he did it, except that it was part of the nomenclature of businessmen’s life in the 50s.

But the information that took me by total surprise was something else. I knew that dad ended up in a hospital in England after the war. But somehow I thought it was due to his leg wound. But again, I heard some story that he had suffered a head wound from some type of shell.

My aunt, dad’s sister, told me in September that the “shell wound” was actually “shell shock” and that the hospital that dad was admitted to in England was a . . . mental hospital. He stayed there two years and was placed on all sorts of drugs. I have no idea what the symptoms were. He never exhibited symptoms while I knew him, symptoms of what we now call, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”

Now that I know more about what dad endured, and the fact that he never showed any sign of anxiety, fear doubt or depression tells me that maybe I never knew my real dad. I hope that in the new world that dad and I can hold each other share our sorrows and cry together . . . but then again, there should be no sorrows there. Maybe we can share memories of sorrows.

A year ago, on my previous visit to Tennessee, my first cousin handed me something that I never expected. It was an original envelope sent from France during the war from dad to his brother, my cousin’s dad. In the letter was the story about him having to kill a German solider and about seeing the photos of his family. Enclosed in the envelope was the armband swastika from the dead solider . . . covered in old blood stains.

In my wildest imagination, I’ve thought of how I would like to trace the DNA from the blood (of course I would have to know more about who the solider was) and find the family of the man who dad had killed. I would love to tell them that my dad was a good man and he felt the pain deeply of killing their relative. He shot the man as last resort. One of them had to died, and I was lucky enough that dad had survived. Since I wasn’t conceived until a decade later, I wouldn’t be here if the German solider had succeeded and dad had failed. But that may have been the tipping point that sent dad over the edge into the abyss of despair. It was because of all the grief that my dad had carried, including the grief of killing their relative that he suffered mentally. Those who watch others die and feel no sorrow . . . those are truly the insane ones.

My father treated his sorrows in his last years with alcohol. That was the only way he knew how. I wish I could have known his heart and his sorrows and that I could have helped him bear them better or that we could have borne them together.