Monday, February 21, 2011

The Eddy of Guilt - Part I

My first Kayak was made by the company, Eddyline. I wasn't really sure what the name represented until I read more.

An eddy is actually a reverse vortex produced by the void behind an object, which is standing in moving water. The eddyline is that boundary between the water moving downstream, the intended direction, and the water moving in reverse, being pulled by the void. It is a good place to play and rest while in a kayak.

But I was thinking about guilt a lot lately and how it is like an eddy, creating a vortex around the objects that appear in natural flow of your life. I suffer a lot from guilt. My acute guilt right now is my leaving a job I've been in for eight years and one of my bosses has now become pissed about it (once it soaked in). But I've done nothing wrong. I had to beg him to hire me. I took a big cut in pay to take this job, and my boss hasn't treated me very well during the time I've been in this job. But that's not the point. The point is how guilt can dominate us so easily, robbing us of the joy we could otherwise have. I made the comment once to a Christian friend that we have too much guilt, after all, Satan IS the great accuser of the believers. He looked shocked and said the real problem is that we don't have enough guilt because Christians still sin a lot, especially these days.

Guilt is also a fabulous tool for getting what we want and for driving other people to meet our needs like driving cattle with a cattle-prod.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

I'm Bit Naive Myself

No, that's not me pictured. But I did participate in a "march" today . . . maybe my first.

You see, on our little island, there is a famous ritual. Every Sunday, in the main square, there are four corners where demonstrators take up positions. There is one large corner that is "pro American." The other three corners are made up of three smaller groups with some aspect of anti-war, peace, human rights.

Back when my Egyptian friends were marching, peacefully, on Tahrir Square I felt a kindred spirit. It wasn't a political feeling. It was empathy. Me feeling what they feel. People created in God's image, who wanted the same freedoms that I enjoy. I would have felt the same way during WWII when the Jews were being persecuted. It doesn't matter to me what color their skin is or what language they speak nor even what god they worship. A "fundamental" Christian belief of mine is that we are all created in God's image and in the more perfect universe, we all deserve the freedom, dignity and love that God intended for us.

I ordered my Egyptian flag when the protest was at its zenith in Cairo. It came last Monday. So after church today, I decided to go down and stand with my Egyptian flag and a sign, in English and Arabic, supporting democracy, or at least human rights. I didn't think I would be doing anything offensive to anyone.

I did pick a "peace corner" to stand in because I thought I would fit in better. The "Pro-American" corner had about 10 American flags, guys in quasi-combat uniforms. Then, that loudest corner, had music playing with the volume turn to the max and a guy giving commentary over a loud speaker. The music they play is all God Bless America stuff. That one country and western song, "I'm proud to be an American . . ." was played over and over. The Pro-American corner often plays Gospel Hymns as well. I know a lot of church people who honk and give that corner a thumbs up. I've seen some fellow Christians standing on that corner with their flags, and sometimes crosses.

I'm really non-political. I hate rhetoric regardless if it is from the right or left. I can't stand Fox News or MS NBC. But the thing I wasn't prepared for was the insults that I heard directed just at me. The guy on the loud speaker said (so the whole town could hear) for me to get that "shitty flag out of here and hold up an American flag!" Then they called me an "asshole."

I am naive. I don't understand where the hostility is coming from. There are some on the "peace corner" who do hold up provocative signs. Things like "George Bush Should Be Prosecuted for War Crimes!" Now I could understand the Pro-American/Gospel corner yelling profanities at them or at the signs that said "Sarah Palin is an idiot!" But why does a sign that says, "Support Arab and Iranian Democracy!" make them mad as hell? I honestly thought that was the "American Way" (which Superman talked about). That is the spreading of democracy around the world, and all the better if it can be done peacefully.

Anyway, I'm still scratching my head. I certainly don't want to make this blog a political statement it was more of a human nature confusion of mine. I think Obama is a decent man, but I don't agree with everything he does . . . and I held the same views of George Bush. I always see it a dangerous thing when you mix nationalism (of any country) with your Christianity.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Staying Out . . . of the Church, that is

I had this good friend a few years ago. Her name was Sandra. Sandra had been happily married, with two kids and then her, otherwise healthy, husband had a freak and fatal heart attack when he was thirty. I met Sandra about a decade later.

It became a bad habit of mine, but out of kindness, that I would suggest to Sandra certain men-friends of mine that she might be interested in. Not that I don't believe women, or men, can't be complete without a mate, but she was always talking about men. She thought the UPS guy was cute and etc.

But one day, after I offered to set Sandra up, she said the most interesting thing. "You know Mike, I'm really not interested in a relationship with a man right now. I mean, if I knew he was Mr. Right, then maybe. But you never know until you've been with someone for a while. Then it is so very messy trying to get out of the relationship. So, I've always said that it is easier to stay out . . . than to get out."

I know I've spoken here a lot about the twenty-something generation. I have a heart for them because I have 4 kids who are in their 20s and the last one will join that distinction next year. So we know that the vast majority of that group have nothing to do with the Church, even those brought up in the Church. While Denise wishes all our kids attended church each week, it honestly doesn't matter to me anymore. What matters to me is what they are thinking about life, about what the meaning of all of this is and etc. But one theme I hear, at least from my son's Tyler's friends, is that they are fearful of the entanglements of the church. There are strings attached.

People would invite them to church and if they go once, but not go back . . . then there is an issue. "Why didn't you come back? Did someone offend you?"

If they go on a regular basis, soon it will be, "Why aren't you going to such and such program. You know, God wants us all to do our share."

Then if they participate with the program, soon the question comes, "Why don't you lead such and such, or give such and such."

Continuing to speak for that age group, the next thing they fear is entanglements into their personal lives. I'm not saying that's a bad thing but just that's how they see things. What I mean is, say the 25 year old guy brings his girlfriend. Soon it becomes obvious that they are living together. Then the questions and judgments start to come.

So the question I propose is what is minimal, but healthy, Church involvement? I'm asking this question as a realist. Many would say that my question is a bad question because we really should be asking, "What's the maxim involvement with the church we can do." But if you keep that narrative, that more is better, then the percentage of the 20 something kids not associated with any church will rise to 99%.

I still think the best thing we can do to reach them, is to offer them minimally intrusive church. I'm talking about, one get together per week at a coffee shop, were deeply candid questions can be discusses. The sacraments can be observed on occasion. Counsel always available. Then create a social community (aka church) among the group. I think it would be healthy if this smaller microcosm was attached to a larger fellowship that involved all age groups. But that the expectations of involvement with programs would be low.

The types of involvement for this new generation has to be different from the 90s. I think these 20 something kids would relate far better to helping with a church sponsored soup kitchen, or park clean up, than a very evangelistic program of drama, tears and preaching (think of Jesus Camp here).

I know that Frank Schaeffer said that what attracted him to the Othrodox Church was this strong sense of community but with a lack of intrusiveness into your personal life. What he meant was a judgmental intrusiveness. The example he gave was deciding for no clear reason, that they would not attend church for a month. When they went back there would be no assumptions that they were mad about something or turning their backs on the Lord but simply the assumption that they must have had good reasons.

I think I'm starting to ramble so I will pause.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

What is the Heart's Capacity for Grief?

This topic has been in the back of my mind for a while and it has nothing to do with Valentine's day. It started six months ago when I was working on a family tree. History is full of the tragedies of the Fall. The one most connected is that of my father's family.

I gazed at the old photo of my grandfather Jones (below), whom I never met in person. He had to watch as three of his daughters slowly succumbed to TB when they were barely teenagers . . . and this his wife. I think how lucky that while I've lost my father, there have been no other close losses of this magnitude.

I think why this topic is most acute this morning is that I spent last night in the ER with my 19 year old son, Ramsey. He was having a heart problem. I won't go into that here, but there was a moment when the ER physician (who, btw, never made eye contact with me) indicated that, his first impression was that the condition was grim. I had to sit and wait for about 45 minutes before the news seemed to improve and the physician changed his mind. We still don't know what the problem is until a cardiac workup is compete but I'm living in the hope, and odds, that it will be benign.

But the major reason this topic has been on my mind of late is that a neighbor of mine was not so lucky two weeks ago. It was a father's worst (and I'm being factual here when I say "worst") nightmare. He was directly responsible in his six year old son's tragic death. A misjudgment then an accident and his precious little boy's life was snuffed out. I didn't know this man, but knew of him as friends of mine are their friends. Each morning as I drive by their new house, my heart breaks. In his son's window was this, largest stuffed lion I had ever seen. It is still there.

A good paster friend of mine, Rusty, was asked to preach at the funeral. I talked to Rusty about the experience, feeling drawn to the father whose loss was immeasurable. Rusty said that he had never met the family before but was asked to preach because they had visited his church once and that was their greatest religious affiliation anywhere . . . one visit a long time ago.

It really doesn't matter if you are a Christian or not, the grief in this situation is beyond containment by happy words or thoughts and certainly not by answers.

I know that there are pastors (and I hope that Rusty is such a pastor) and other Christians who are wonderful in this situation. Even my old pastor, the one who came into my house and yelled at me, is known for being good in family tragedies. However, I know as a whole, Evangelicalism tends to fail those in pain. You see, the greatest narrative within Evangelicalism is the idea that we have the answers the world is looking for. The bumper sticker slogan, "Jesus is the Answer," use to be the most popular one . . . at least in the Bible belt. I can remember a few of the minority atheists had the bumper sticker (in response) "What was the question?"

The problems is, there are two kinds of questions. One comes from the intellect or mind. Those questions deserve real, honest answers and certainly not cliches. But the other species of question pours out of the furnace of pain. It is rotten stuff that over-flows the brim and pours down the side of the cup like battery acid. Christians often make the mistake of trying to answer those questions. "God did this for a reason." "Your job now is to trust God." You know how it goes.

But the real discerning listener sits, sincerely listens and cries. That's all. I really wish I could go down to this stranger-neighbor's house, knock on his door and when he answers, give him a deep embrace and cry my eyes out with him. I may try to do this.

I did try this, about two weeks ago, with a different friend. He is a retired Marine. I just found out his wife died at Christmas. I saw him here at Starbucks. I approached him and told him how very sorry I was. Then I gave him a big hug. He did not reciprocate but stood awkwardly until I let go. The father of the little boy may do the same. But that's what I offer. Not a word of advice. No directives . . . "You must think this or do that."

But how could a father ever get over this . . . causing the death of your own son? There's no question of the intentions. He was just trying to show his son a wonderful time, but he made a mistake and his son died. Does the human heart have the capacity for such grief? I'm not so sure.

One chiche states that God would never give us more trials than the grace He gives to handle it. But, in my opinion, the Fall of mankind is real. The pain is real and has real consequences here on this earth.

I dated a girl in high school whose little brother accidentally drown and it would be easy to have blamed her mother. And her father did. And her mother did. In the end, her mother went insane (psychotic break) and her father became a life-long drunk. The Fall has real consequences and the resolution of that pain may not be realized on this earth.

This is not to say, that we can't go on. My grandfather went on. My father and his sister went on and had productive lives with no outward scars of pain. But my mother did find my stoic dad curled up in a ball sobbing once. It embarrassed her.

So what's my point? Maybe there is none. But maybe what I'm trying to say is that the pain of loss here on earth is too great to dismiss under a narrative of all things work for the best. That verse is taken out of context. We should not make attempts to explain pain because to do such, is to diminish it. There's not enough chiches in the world to bury pain where the sting is gone forever.

But we don't despair. It is really the hero who, doesn't make sense out of things and go on like nothing has happened. The hero is the one, who after such a great loss, can get up in the morning. Maybe that's all that's required of him or her. Okay, that they can eat once again, and if they are lucky, they can maintain a shell of a happy life. But the hope of the true Christian isn't that our pain vanishes here or that we learn to "deal with it," but that we know someday, somewhere, somehow what's wrong will be made right again.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Egyptian Revolution . . . the "Biblical" Perspective

(The photo is linked from CBS New York's web page)

I felt so proud of the Egyptian people that I had to speak or the words would come out of my ears. I feel great joy for them.

I have a close connection with Egypt with the fact I lived there for a few years and got a degree at the American University in Cairo in Arabic Studies. My son Tyler was born there. I still have many Egyptian friends with whom I communicate with. They, as a people, are endeared to my heart. But I've really been perplexed this week by the lack of enthusiasm that I've seen among my politically conservative friends . . . especially my Evangelical friends.

My Christian friends often accuse me of being 1) liberal and 2) negative. I come across as negative because, as you've observed here, that I'm often critical of the way Evangelicals do things (and think). But I also come across to them as Mr. Grinch when I speak the pure, honest truth, even when it is not pretty (the anti-Pollyanna syndrome). But this week, from my perspective, it seems to be the opposite.

I'm proud of the Egyptian people. They overthrew a brutal dictator without firing a gun. They did throw a few rocks in self-defense. They took great risks and didn't back down. Christians and Muslims stood arm-n-arm in unity. I sensed God's presence. They are all His children, created in His image. Being Muslim doesn't make you the children of a lessor god (or of Satan). All people carry the scent of God, their creator, on their breath.

But the conservatives (as I switched between Fox and the other channels at Thrive) had deep furrows on their brows as this unraveled . . . as did some of my Christian friends. Why? What's with all the negativity? This is a wonderful moment in history and we should all be dancing in the streets in the same spirit of the joy in green hills and cobblestone streets of the Shire after the fall of Sauron.

The reason that the Christians can't grasp the joy of this moment is because they are under the curse (as in a Tolkien fantasy) of 19th century and early 20th century men such as Darby, Scofield, and Moody. In the dispensationist perspective, further developed by Lindsey and LaHaye, 1) Israel must become a nation again, and God will use that nation, 2) the end is near, 3) the whole world is going to hell in a hand-basket (tribulation) in the end.

So, rather than celebrating the wonderful good news of God's created people standing up to evil and being liberated . . . these Americans, sitting in their hot tubs and watching it unfold on their huge, flat-screens, have sour faces. They only have one concern (not the 80 million Egyptian souls) and that is, "What does mean for Israel?" or, "Is this the beginning of Armageddon?" How many times this week I've been accused of being naive because I don't realize that this was orchestrated by the Muslim Botherhood and the people on the street were just lemmings. They don't deserve any of the freedoms that we do . . . lemmings are nonhuman.

But sour, ole me is really an eternal optimist at heart. I am also more of a fundamentalist (rather than liberal) than even the snake handlers of East Tennessee. Why do I say that? Because I believe that we should take the Bible very, very seriously. We shouldn't add words or thoughts such as from men like Scofeld. We shouldn't claim certainty (I'm certainly not certain about my views of the end times) where the Bible isn't certain. I believe that lying is sin . . . even when we lie for Jesus (or to make ourselves look spiritual). So I rest my case . . . and smile big for the Egyptians.

Below is a photo of me with some Egyptian school kids near the pyramids three years ago. They came up and shouted, "Hello. How are you!" showing off their English. So I said to them in Arabic, "What are your names? Where are you from? What school do you go to?" They thought it was a hoot that a white-faced tourist spoke some Arabic. I think of these little ones. They have a bright future . . . and I'm not being naive.

me and kids in Egypt

So, how can you look in these precious one's faces and not care? How can you let your theology diminish their value? What is truly the Biblical view? I will let you decide.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Exiting . . . What a Difference a Belief System Makes

I've been in a long, stressful process of creating a new medical clinic . . . but that's not the point here. The point is, one of the most stressful things about this is process was knowing that I would eventually have to tell my present bosses and my fellow workers that I was leaving. I've been in this job eight long years. Wednesday night I broke the news that I was leaving (in the midst of an office meeting) and today I spoke about the details to my main boss.

Now, I really think that two things have led to my stress about this event. For one, as I've talked openly about, I struggle with anxiety including social anxiety. People with social anxiety tend to be overly concerned about rejection by others. The second reason is that this situation was sooooooo reminiscent of my leaving my old church last summer. In that later situation, it couldn't have gone worse. It exceeded my worst possible fears by a good measure.

So, as the time approached, and being a little shell shocked from the last time I tried to exit something, the dread melted into pure panic. I will get back to this story in a minute.

It was about 21 years ago that I returned from the so-called "mission field." We were living in Egypt. It was a horrible experience, not at all related to the wonderful Egyptian people, but a very controlling, dominating and manipulative missionary boss and an organization that was so dysfunctional that it could not address (or even acknowledge) such internal problems.

As we came back to the states, devastated, it may seem strange but we deeply missed living overseas. It was on our hearts in a very deep way. We immediately started looking for a new avenue to fulfill that dream.

I remember a very candid moment in those subsequent months. A fellow church member in our Ann Arbor, Michigan church asked me if we would every try to go back overseas. I surprised him by saying, "I would give my right leg to go back."

He had assumed that we came home broken because of some issue with culture shock despite the loving missionaries who were there to support us. He didn't realize that it was really the antithesis to that thought. It was really "missionary shock" in the midst of loving support from our loving, Muslim Egyptian friends.

He asked me, "Are you looking for a new mission board to go with?"

I answered him in a way that made him so angry that he walked away. I said, "You know, I would never go overseas with a Christian group again. A Christian group can abuse you, manipulate you and then say it was God's will. A secular group could never get by with that."

So, then I come back to my leaving my job. From a sociologist view point, leaving my work and leaving my church are very similar. I had been at both for about eight years. I was closer to the people I work with because I was with them everyday. However, the response was totally opposite.

When I announced to the group I was leaving, there were tears, hugs and total support. Even the doctors (my boss and the equivalent to "my pastor") shook my hand. They told me that they were behind me 100% (realize too that my leaving will cost them $200k/year in income that I produce above what I cost . . . so pure profit to them). They had every right to be mad as hell. But they were professional.

I know that I'm sounding critical again. But I think it is a crying shame that the non-Christian business community knows how to handle perceived rejection in a mature way.

As I was telling the story about leaving my old church (at the time it was happening) and I tried then to make the comparison to leaving a job, someone pointed out that there was a big difference. They made the point that your church is far more important than your job (and other spiritual entanglements). I have to disagree strongly. We Christians use "spiritual" manipulation to vent our infantile emotions in the pretense that we are doing it for God or for some higher purpose.

My bosses (there's two of them) knew that they couldn't vent their raw emotions and disappointment about me rejecting them, such as saying, "You son of a bitch, I dare you leave my company!!!!!" because they knew it would reveal to the world that they were being selfish and childish. But a pastor (or any Christian) can use the same tone (but different words as not to look unpiritual) and then use psychological deflection by adding, "I'm not coming down on your because you have rejected my little church which I own . . . but because you've rejected God-da and His will for your life!" then you can almost hear this whisper softly under their breath . . . "you sonofabitch!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

Okay, I digressed again. I said I wouldn't talk about me leaving my old church anymore but the contrast with me leaving my secular job this week was huge. My non-Christian co-workers treated me with compassion, love, respect . . . sort of the fruits of the spirit. The Pastor treated me like I was the son of Satan himself.

I must move on. I've beens so busy with creating this company that I haven't had time for anything else. But I did hear an interesting story on NPR yesterday. They told the story of how many evangelical churches are focusing Super Bowl Sunday, on pornography. Apparently there is an church, called the Triple X (or XXX) Church, whose (as it isn't obvious) main ministry is to combat porn. They've created a video with several Christian NFL stars (who else) that focuses on Christian men caught up in porn.

I've never cared for these (very American way of doing things) canned MLM kind of church programs. Somewhat like the "Truth Project." Where many different churches are trained to present the same program. Anyway, while there is good to come out of the attention given to pron, I think there is another side of the problem that is over-looked. I'm debating if I want to walk into that mine field, especially with so much other work to do. But maybe I'll be back tomorrow and talk about that.

Once again I had to type as fast as I can without proof-reading so, I'm sorry about the typos. Try to read what I meant to say.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Fatalism and Impotence

I've been thinking a lot this week about fatalism and its fruit . . . impotence. Here's how my reasoning got to this point.

I've been really interested in what's happening in Egypt because I use to live there. Twenty one years ago I was sitting in a coffee shop with an Egyptian friend in downtown Cairo. He made a statement to me, "Michael . . . there's a revolution coming. Mubarak will be thrown into the street."

"When Mazen?"

"I don't know but when God wills."

An American friend said to me this week, referring to the Egyptian revolution, "No one saw that coming."

I begged to differ. I went on to explain, "When I lived in Cairo that we had a bundle of hundred dollar bills (US) hidden for our escape if the revolution started . . . and that was twenty years ago."

"Well why did it take so long?" he asked.

"Islamic fatalism" was my answer.

I had thought about that a lot. My friend Mazen's comments, "We will throw Mubarak out into the street . . . when God wills" may have been the impotence that kept Hosni in power so long. So, it was when the frustration of the people got to a kindling point, and the light of the flickering Facebook and Twitter ignited it, there was no stopping it. It was when the impotence yielded to the impetus that all hell broke loose.

Bringing this home to our Christian world, I often see the same thing. It is amazing that we get anything done. I have not been around this blog very much of late because I've been totally consumed with starting a new headache clinic. Starting a clinic is hard to do. Doing it as a PA rather than an MD is a mouse's mustache away from impossible. I've spent about 4 hours a night for many months working on this. I ran into my latest roadblock last night when the bank (whom had assured me that I would get the loan) started hedging.

I'm in a men's prayer group, which meets on Monday nights. It is part of my new church. I do really enjoy going. I've tip-toed around praying about candid things. You know, even with good Christian people, you are never safe.

A few weeks ago I prayed about my anxiety. Someone prayed after me a long prayer about how I need to learn to trust God. Really? So that's been my problem for the past 50 years . . . I've never known how to trust God?

But then I decided to share last night about how the bank is backing out and it is very disappointing. One of the men shared a story (that I think had a point) that it took him a long time to learn to stop beating on the door which God had closed? I knew that he intended that thought for me.

God closed the bank loan door? I don't think so. I can explain their decision in rational terms (but not here). So, if I would take that closure and the ten other closed doors in this process as God's act . . . I would go nuts to try and do this or try and do anything hard. It would make me a pile of impotent Jello.

I heard an ad on TV this week. I can't remember what it was about. But, they played the tape by John Kennedy saying that he was committing American to going to the moon. Then he added in his Bostonian accent, "We are doing this not because it is easy . . . but because it is hard." Is it now against Christian principles to do anything hard? Is it really against Christian principles to struggle and have gnashing of teeth in the process? I know that when I came home, just having hearing that the bank was hedging (after counting on this for months) I told Denise that I was depressed. I could see the silent anger in her eyes. "Who are you to have the right to be depressed," she said. I tried to get away from that conversation as fast as I could.

I have to remember that I grew up in a family where the extreme expression of emotion was common, anger, depression, grief, crying, throwing things, and great laughter. The laughter was the most common. Denise grew up in a culture where emotional words were not used, hate, love . . . or depression. My kids, when they were young, called Denise's family the museum people. They felt like grandma's was a museum and the people wax figures. To be fair, my kids called my family dysfunctional. Both sides have their strengths and their weaknesses. I prayed about this aspect of my marriage too. The men are probably confident that we are near divorce because in Christian circles you NEVER talk or pray about abrasions in your marriage . . . unless you are near divorce. I can almost guarantee that Denise and my marriage are far more stable and good than any of the other's in the group. But I digress once again.

So why can't we ever talk about doing the hard things, or the doors that close and then you beat the hell out of it until it opens for your. I think that is very liberating to know that we have the right to struggle. There is a time when you give up, but you don't give up in the face of surmountable barriers, but insurmountable ones and wisdom is knowing the difference.

I challenge you to go into any church or any Christian circle and start telling a true story in your life where all the doors didn't magically open but it seemed like each door was closed and you kept pushing ahead in spite of the difficulty. Sooner or later someone will rebuke you for fighting against God. There is something wrong with even the Christian brand of fatalism.

I saw that imonk had one of my type of postings, about decision making. I wish I could have read the posts and participated. But I've been consumed with my effort in the clinic-starting war.

I did e-mail Mazen the first day of the riots. "Mazen, is this it? Is this the big revolution?"

He answered back simply, "Enshalla."