Saturday, June 30, 2012

Christianity Inc.

It is interesting how I got to this thought. I was at a medical research meeting in Beverly Hills last week. I saw the ad on TV for "Christian Mingle."  I of course had seen the same ad many times back in Washington.  Because they claim that you can sign up for free to "find God's match for you," it has the psychological effect that it is some type of ministry. You know, like a no-strings-attached soup kitchen for lovers.

But my cynical mind led me down to path to find the rest of the story.

I won't bore you with the details but to say that it was started by Adam Berger as a niche dating service. It was ironic because he apparently lives in the Jewish section of Beverly Hills and I had just walked through that section of town that afternoon. For more about the company and the man you can read here. The Sparks company (which is behind the site) also has dating sites for blacks, Jews and later day saints.  I expect them to move into other areas.

I also read about them through several blogs.  I heard the same story over and over of people who signed up "for free" only to be enticed into paying money, sometimes a lot of money, to really make a connection. So, while I'm sure some good matches have taken place there, several of the women on the blogs complained of the same problem. They claim that they were matched up with older, divorced men who were odd and shared no common interest and certainly not a love of God in a way that would effect how they lived their lives.

But enough about Mingle. This isn't about them but more about the whole concept of for-profit business giving the psychological presence of a "ministry."

A number of years ago our old college Navigator group had a social forum. This was intended to be a place where we could all reconnect.  It didn't turn out so good in my opinion, except to show how diverse our paths have been over the past 25 years.  But one day an old Navigator leader, who is now a pastor, made the comment that God had showed him something special about health and he wanted to share it with everyone.  It didn't take long for cynical me to start and see through what he was doing.  He was part of a multiple-level-marketing group selling worthless supplements. Yet, he wrapped his business in God . . . or at least God's will.  I finally lost it when he suggested that someone stop their chemotherapy for breast cancer and buy his supplements instead because that was more congruent with God's plan for us. I was pissed about that and left that forum after having an argument with him. 

After I confronted the pastor in public, he sent me a private e-mail telling me that I had sinned against him and his company and I need to seek repentance so I could be forgiven.

So, my real point here is what is a matter with evangelicals that make them so gullible? How do Christians have the lack of consciences or moral compass that they could use Jesus to sell their products?

My Nav pastor friend argued with me that he had the right to earn a living by selling supplements in the same way I have the right to earn a living practicing evidence-based medicine. But I strongly differed. I would never, in a million years, tell a patient that God wanted them to see me, or even it would be more Christian to see me.

I've heard the same about Amway (with a lot of Calvinist Christians behind the company).  Some of the people get so involved, almost cult-like, because they feel their business is their ministry.

I really think that the Christianity we have come to know in America (and it has happened in many other times in history and in many other countries) that we really need to come to grips with the simple and pure Gospel. Keep business as business and Jesus as Jesus and may the two never meet.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Human Finiteness

Woody Allen, love him or hate him, he is the one of few who asks the hard, burteily honest questions about life in films.  Our movie club viewed and discussed Midnight in Paris last week. In that movie Woody expressed his own thoughts (I know because I've heard him say so in interviews) like a ventriloquist through his dummy . . . but in this case through the mouth of Ernest Hemingway (played brilliantly by Corey Stall) in the movie.  
Ernest Hemingway: I believe that love that is true and real, creates a respite from death. All cowardice comes from not loving or not loving well, which is the same thing. And then the man who is brave and true looks death squarely in the face, like some rhino-hunters I know or Belmonte, who is truly brave... It is because they make love with sufficient passion, to push death out of their minds... until it returns, as it does, to all men... and then you must make really good love again. 
 My point here is not the love-making part but the thought of death, as Ernest . . . er, I mean Woody, implies haunts all men, and women for that matter.  This is another one of those unspoken things.

When I became a Christian, the man that led me to the Lord was 100% sure I would never taste death. For a 18 year old, that wasn't hard to believe. As a 56 year old, it is much harder to ignore. But the reason that he told me that I would never taste death is that, a) if I loved the Lord, He promised to protect me from all harm and b) because Israel had become a nation in 1948, we would all be raptured into bliss by 1980 . . . okay 1998 at the very latests.  You may noticed that it didn't happen.

I don't when the concept of death ever came to me. It may have been when I was 10. That year my grandfather died. He was the first family member and prior to that point, it didn't seem conceivable that it could happen to our family.  I felt vulnerable for the first time. But then came Tom and the Christians I met who told me that I could avoid death.

It is that celestial paradox. As Don Richardson points out in his book, Eternity in their Hearts, that we all have that intrinsic notion that we were made for infinity . . . yet living in the finite. Taken at that alone, we should all be depressed if not stand and scream in terror. I do believe that we are the square pegs in the round hole due to the fall.

Most people escape the depression by distractions.  TV, hobbies, money, sex (as Woody was alluding to), substances or religion. Religion doesn't solve like it claims, but just distracts like everything else.  Just like with the other junkets, it creates a mirage . . . "don't worry, grandpa is dancing with the angels in Heaven now."

I love history and my favorite thing is to read about history in the place it took place. About three years ago I became obsessed with Dicken's Tale of Two Cities.  I had the privilege of finishing the book while in Paris.  I walked past the Bastille and down the narrow streets to the city square where thousands of heads literally rolled during the Reign of Terror.  I looked down at the cobblestones and thought how CSI could pull up those granite squared-cut stones and find traces of hemoglobin and DNA of the thousands who died under Rousseau's failed experiment with anarchy. Dickens told the story well.  I felt myself in line for the executioner. 

When I read Dickens and thought about it, I concluded that standing in that death line, watching those in front of you, one by one, have their heads chopped off by the machine, then their heads stuck with a spear and held up for all to see and jeer at . . . there must never have been a more terrifying moment in human history.  Okay, maybe when the thousands of human sacrifices climbed the steps of Templo Mayor as the Aztec priests cut out their hearts one by one.  The sense of mortality and finiteness has never been more acute, not the mention the fear of the pain.

I know this sounds depressing and morbid, but I will try to quickly make my point.

But my point here is that we are all in that line. One by one my family and a few friends have stepped up to arms the great executioner, be it cancer, car wrecks or suicide. I've had my own close calls with death, most while behind a wheel of an automobile, a few hanging from ropes on cliffs. Once a doctor told me I had just a few weeks to live. I had to live with that news for a week before the specialist proved his diagnosis wrong. But it was contemplative week that, though 12 years ago, change my perspective forever.

So what do we do?  How do we not succumb to despair and perpetual depression?  We should.

I don't think the Christian answers of us being spared (as I was told) or that we are transported by a flash of the eye, through a painless tunnel into eternal bliss is much better than Hemingway's distraction through better and better love making.

After all these years of being a Christian, I still don't know how it plays out. The Bible isn't clear.  Beyond that, each scenario that I can think of isn't very appealing.  My favorite is being held in suspended animation until God recreates this world and allows us to repopulate it (this is the C. S. Lewis view).

But at this juncture is where the faith of Hebrews 11 must find its fulfillment.  I actually think us thinkers and doubters have a much honorable and robust faith, trusting God in the great unknown, than the "men or women of faith" who have it all figured out and smile and claiming that death doesn't scare them.  If death doesn't scare you then it only means one thing . . . you are totally out of touch with reality.  Death scares the hell out of me, but at the same time, in total confidence I say that I know that God has it solved. I just don't understand it.

So then, what do we do?  I have grown to love Solomon.  The real Solomon, not the one recreated by Evangelicals. The Evangelicals say that Solomon's discontentment, searching, struggles and partying was all before his "conversion experience."  I say that it was his conversion experience.

So what I mean is that all that we do to distract us from the inevitable, all the distractions, the striving for meaning, in the end is hopelessness.  So, we put on a smile, not a fake one like the Evangelicals, but a sincere one, and say to ourselves, "It makes no sense.  I'm built for eternity living in the temporal. But God has it figured out and in the end . . . it really will be swell.  In the meantime, I deeply enjoy the sound of my wife's voice. the smile of a friend, the taste of chocolate, the smell of lavender, the view and thunder of a cascading waterfall and live each day and each minute as if were my last . . . and my first.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Another Reflection on Anxiety

(I will warn you about typos. I literally have to catch a plane and am typing as fast as I can without the chance to proof-read. Please read with grace and I will come back and try to fix it later.)

I hesitated again to talk about old topics. I've had exhaustive conversations here about my long history with an anxiety disorder.  The only reason I decided to once again, is that I can tell which pages are read here and the ones about dealing with anxiety are at the top of the list. This tells me that there plenty of others out there with the same issue.

To recap what I've said before.  I have suffered from an anxiety disorder since preschool. I don't know why, but starting at such an early age, and the fact that my mother has an anxiety disorder, tells me that genetics must play a part. I mean, I had no early childhood trauma that would explain it.

My anxiety disorder is mostly social but is generalized into other areas such as acrophobia. It has fluctuated over the years between mild and severe. Presently it is towards the milder end of the spectrum.

I believe that people with anxiety disorders wrestle with guilt more than they do with the actual anxiety and this is especially true in Christian circles.  Within Evangelicalism, at least, anxiety is seen as the opposite of faith and faith as the paramount Christian virtue. The verses that stick in the back of our minds are those such as Phil 4:6 says, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present you request to God." But I think that verse is talking more about worry, something you do consciously and willing.  People who have never suffered with anxiety disorders love to quote this verse at us who do.

I dare you to walk into any church and share that you have an anxiety disorder . . . say in a Bible study or Sunday school setting (Christian respond very differently in church than when you ask them the same question in a bar or a public event).  I would say, despite them saying they understand, that 100% of the time they will pass judgement that you have a "spiritual problem."  If they don't, then you have one great church and you better never leave it. So, we face this guilt in the same way people use to have shame about congenital birth defects (and may still do in some places) because society blames them for the fault.

I can remember a time when my anxiety level was up towards the extreme end. It was my old basic nature plus three years of incredible stress . . . and guilt . . . that led to my fall.  My persona began to unravel during a church service (one of the most common places to have a panic attack).  I was asked, on the spur of the moment, to go up to the podium and read scripture to 500 people. Prior to that, I had only had one panic attack in my life and that was when I was holding someone's beating heart in my hand at age 22. But that's another story.

So I felt intense anxiety building. Then I got in front of the entire congregation and had a full panic attack.  It caught me by surprise and if I had not been in medicine and knowing how panic attacks operate, I would have though for sure I was having a heart attack or going insane.  I was so embarrassed as I could not finish reading the scripture and my voice was shaking uncontrollably. I can't prove this, but I saw my "spirituality" in the eyes of my fellow church people plummet after that. I was never asked to do anything at church again. 

So why am I bringing this up now?  About two weeks ago I signed up to climb a pretty big mountain. I'm talking ice axes, crampons and the like.  I've been 1/2 way up this mountain before and it is scary in places. We will have to cross 200 foot deep glacier crevasses and etc. Now why did I sign up to do this? Two reasons. I do like mountains. But most of, because it scares the hell out of me.  But I'm not an adrenalin junkie. I don't like to have the hell scared out of me. I hate it! But I know, as a discipline, that facing my fears is the best way to overcome them.

I'm taking my wife with me up the mountain. She doesn't suffer from any kind of anxiety disorder including acrophobia.  But she is voicing that she has fear about this trip. She has the rational fear that anyone would have. I explained to her, that I really don't see  a lot of difference, for me, in climbing this mountain and getting out of bed and going to work every day. I'm scared shit-less every day I go to work, and that is the social anxiety part. So, I explained to her, this is the world I live in.

So, I decided to start reading about anxiety again to prepare myself for this trip. One of the things I read, written by a psychologist, really rang true. The biggest fear with most people with anxiety is having anxiety. So in my case, I don't lay awake at night fearing about falling to my death in a crevasse.  No, my biggest fear is having a panic attack when I see the crevasse. Actually falling in could be a relief compared to the actual panic attack.

The second part, and the part I haven't told you about, is that I'm joining a group of Christians on this climb. They are planning some Bible study time.  As someone with anxiety, including social anxiety . . . and as someone who doesn't fit at all within the Christian society anymore, that gives me the greatest fear.

Here is my anxious vision (okay, maybe this is worry).  I see us sitting in a circle on the glacier with our Bibles open and the leader says, close your eyes.  Feel Jesus walking behind you and touching your heart. Tell me when you feel him.  Then, one by one the people will say "I feel him!"  Then, after my wife beside me (honestly) says that she can feel Jesus' presence  as I sit silent.  The reason is, I am a very honest person. I'm not even sure what they mean by "feeling Jesus presence."  Sure, I would feel a lot of emotions sitting on a glacier high on the mountain side. But for me to actually say that I feel Jesus, would bey lying.  I believe that lying is sin and I really try not to.

But my anxiety, and this has actually happened to me in these circumstances, is that the leader will then start to conclude that I'm not in tune with Jesus because I didn't fall for his manipulations of emotions. I don't know if that makes sense. But I have come out of these situations . . . simply because I want to be brutally honest, smelling like crap.  That's what I fear. However, I had the same type of fear before I attended a men's retreat and it turned out fine. It wasn't nearly as evangodysfunctional as I had feared. Maybe that reflects more of the character of my new church.

I also fear being told that if we really love Jesus, and we really trust God like the leader does, then we would have no fear of falling and dying.  I know that even if I suggest that I have an anxiety disorder, it will be seen as a sorry excuse for a pathetic little man.

I'm so glad that I do have a couple of Ativan tablets to take with me.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Words You Must Never Say

It seems like I always have the provocation to writing and that's listening to Christian radio.  I don't normally listen to it. It is so odd, the repetitive nature of my experience, that is reminiscent of the movie Groundhog Day.  Friday mornings I borrow my wife's car as I work in our satellite office, which is a 35 mile drive. Her radio is pre-set to the Christian station.  I personally listen mostly to public radio, especially in the mornings. As I'm driving I start fiddling with the radio . . . but eventually catch a few minutes of the Christian station before I can find NPR.

This week the preacher (Dr. so and so from some Baptist church in Texas) was talking about Christian behavior that doesn't offend the weaker brother.  He gave the classic example of being caught buying alcohol. While he doesn't think drinking is sin, he did think that if a "weaker" brother saw him buying alcohol, that weaker brother could assume that he was buying it only to get drunk, therefore he never drinks alcohol. He couldn't drink it without buying it so to avoid buying it, he doesn't drink it.  He did (so feeble in my opinion) try to put distance to what he was saying and "legalism."  But in my opinion, the very essence of legalism is trying to put on an appearance to fit within the mores of the Evangelical sub-culture.

He also went on to talk about words that shouldn't be said, which then catapulted my brain into a far more philosophical realm of thinking.

I know I come back to this same theme, this feeling out of step with the culture around me.But there are so many un spoken words that we will take to the grave with us, that it is a crying shame that they have to be boxed up and put into storage . . . forever.

I love truth . . . even if it hurts. I get in trouble often for speaking truth, even though I do try not to. Putting in context, the society (in this case the Christian society) says that there are a list of things that you should not say (I'm not at all talking about damn, shit, hell and etc.), so if you do say them (and everyone in the room knows it is the truth) it is assumed that you did it with vile intentions.

Now, I'm certainly not talking about telling someone that they are fat, ugly or stupid. I will try to communicate this more clearly in the following examples.

I used my wife as an example a lot because she is very normal . . . I am not. She fits well into the bell curve of society accepts. She is loved by most, including me, while I'm seen as "odd" or even "a trouble maker." So, I will speak very honestly to her and if it makes her uncomfortable she is simply silent. But often my honest words are in the form of my intellectually questioning.  "I wonder if son x (who is in a band) uses drugs?  I hope he doesn't it but it is certainly part of that culture. I would like to ask him."

Her response is, to be normal, and say, "Why would you even want to know? Why does your mind even think  of these things? I would rather imagine that he doesn't and never ask."

Okay, it is Father's Day so I will continue talking about my kids a bit.

I have the same questions inside about what they believe about Christianity. I do ask them these hard questions sometimes, but it is awkward for them and my wife when I do. But I'm not doing it to stir up trouble. It will be hard for me if I found out they were using drugs, being sexually active, doubting God's existence, but still I just want to know. My knowing doesn't change reality. My wife's view is that these are questions should not be asked but if they want to talk to me about them, they should bring it up.

I wanted to say something about my old Evangelical pastor's abusive behavior towards his wife. But my wife said that would create total chaos within that church.  She was right. I know what would have happened because I got a taste of it in the end. The pastor would have turned his rage towards me, he would use is spiritual manipulative words to persuade the whole church to turn against me. But I think as I lay on my death bed, I will wander why I didn't speak up.

Years ago I was getting ready to face the board of directors of a Christian organization about a very serious matter.  Just before the meeting, one of the leaders of that organization called me. He wanted to give me a script of what I could say and couldn't say.  His point was I needed to start with a Bible verse, keep a smile as I spoke, show no anger, and point all my words towards giving "God the glory."  I hung up on the man. I hung up on him and he called back. He said, "Hey brother . . . it sounded like we got cut off?"  I said, "Hell no we didn't get cut off, I hung up on you. This is a very serious matter and you are calling me to tell me what I can and can't say?"  To which he replied, "I'm just warning you, if you don't come across as very spiritual to the board, they won't listen to you."

This drives me insane!  Things that are taboo to say and things we must say even if we don't mean them.

I look around church sometimes, even my new--much better--church and I think of things I would like to say to people.  Sometimes I do.  I watched a lady start a business with great excitement, then that business failed.  I don't know her very well but I did walk up to her and say, "Loosing that business must be heartbreaking."  I thought she would be grateful but I sensed her feeling angry at me for bringing it up. She quickly responded, "God is in control of these matters and that's all that's important."

I'm a business owner and if my business failed (and it has come very close several times) I would be damned depressed.  It would have nothing to do with God being in control or not, it would be about my emotions.

I just wish so much we could raise the questions, talking about the elephants in the room, without offending.  Words. Just words . . . sadly put to rest before they ever had the chance to mature into meaning and knowledge. I think of all the, "I love you," "I'm sorry," "Why did you do this," "How did you feel about that" and many, many unspoken words . . . that we take with us to the grave.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Now Stephen . . . Really?

I love science. I was honored when my youngest son, Ramsey, graduated last week from U of Washington's astrophysics department (their youngest graduate) and the message read by the presenter (written by my son) that he thanked his dad for giving him a passion for science.

Ramsey is home for a few days. I caught a lecture via Stephen Hawking on Discovery. I knew I had seen it before. I thought it was dealing with some of the fascinating things of cosmology.  I ran out from my bedroom into the living room where Ramsey was watching Seinfield  and told him to switch channels. I returned to bed. There I discovered it was Stephen's lecture to disprove the existence of God.

Actually, the real title of the lecture was along the lines of why quantum mechanics takes away the need for God.

In summary, the main problem, which I've alluded to previously, is what the old philosophers called the prime mover dilemma.  In other words how did anything get here without an starter . . . God in other words.

The way that Stephen handled it was with the issue of time. We know that mass distorts the fabric of space and time. In the incredible density of a black hole, time is distorted to the point it eventually stops. So, Hawking's main point that just after the big bang, all of the physical universe was confined to a point of singularity, that (now get your head around this) is infinitely small and dense. Now in that setting, according to quantum mechanics, time would cease to exist. If there was no time, there could be no "before."  If there is no "before" then there can't be a prime mover . . . or at least a need for one.

I think the classical physicists and philosophers from the nineteenth centuries would break out in laughter to imagine that this solves the problem of atheism. As I said before, all ways out lead to an incredible wall or dilemma  . . . including Christianity. This mind game of Hawking's is an attempted elevator up that wall . . . but it doesn't work.

I had a discussion the next morning over coffee with Ramsey. The quantum answer to the prime mover problem is just the beginning. The other great problem of atheism is meaning. There can be none, unless you take the same irrational leap that the Christians take when they say they know God is there because they have a "God-shaped void" in their hearts.  Nihilism is the only possible, rational conclusion to atheism. There can be no meaning. No ethics, No purpose. A dog turd has the same value as the greatest human accomplishments.  Stephen has no reason to smile. But he did give me a cold night of pondering, and a little doubt, before I came to my senses.