Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Church Defined Without Stones

Of course . . . ask any Christian, evangelical, catholic or other, and they would quickly define the Church as the people and not the building or organization . . . but . . . of course they don't mean it.  It is so ingrained into our Christian culture that getting your heads around the concept of a stone-less church is about as beyond conception for most of us as the proverbial one hand clapping, fourth dimension . . . or the Higgs boson.

Now, I think I'm in a good position to discuss this right now because I am happily involved in the organized church.  I'm not as involved as they would like.  As I said before I must stay at this point of equilibrium . . . half way out . . . half way in . . . or it wouldn't work for me.  If I moved in a little further inward, it would be like the satellite that looses just enough speed that the centrifugal force is over-taken by the gravitational pull and goes crashing inward like a meteor. In the inward circles of even my great church, I'm sure I would find the same evangelical voices that can drive me crazy.  I'm not cut of that "church culture" any more and I'm beyond re-reform. But, I'm at a good place in this church and that is my main background point.  Now to my main-foreground point.

Several things have brought this to my mind of late.  One was someone here asking the question (in a prior discussion) about whether we were referring to The Church or a church. The next situation was during a week-long family reunion in Florida last week.  It this strange stew of people (20 in all) the common "Christian" denominator was being brought up in the Bible belt church.  Most of them don't believe anymore. Some go to large churches that embrace new age spirituality.  One works for a famous TV evangelist. You can't have a conversation about spiritual things at all without it being defined by church meetings ("do they still go to church?"  "Oh, having seen him at church in a while").  One clear example is a family member who is almost out of control. She drinks heavily and runs around with a lot of men, rich and married, men.  So, rather than talking about the real issues of her endless search for meaning, the conversation is about when is the last time she was in a church meeting.

Another thing that was the final tipping point was a story told in my good church last Sunday.  The speaker told a story about a woman who was almost blind and almost deaf was brought to church each Sunday morning.  When her driver asked her, "Mrs. Brown, can you hear anything said or see anyone at church?"  She answered, "Of course not."  Then her driver asked, "Why do you still go?"  She smiled and answered, "So the world will know whose side I'm on."

Now stories like that sound sweet and most Christians love them . . . but when you deconstruct them and I mean totally deconstruct them . . . I don't think they are so sweet.  For one, like my formal paragraph about my extended family, implies the magic of working into a church meeting.  This is a long ways, in my opinion, from the original intent of Christian getting together.  It wasn't about penitence or magic as it is today (and has been for 1500 years). It was practical.

I don't know if I'm making sense in this.

I just glanced at Imonk (don't have time to read anything these days) and saw they were listing the long history of Church abuses.  I can't imagine how to qualify the amount of psychological abuse that has occurred under the guise of God wanting you to come to the church meeting.

My previous evangelical pastor was very skillful at this.  He was a control freak and abusive to people and his family. Yet, to question him, was to question God. He often preached about those people who have turned their backs on God because they were not under the authority of a pastor.  Now, in a perfect world it is wonderful to be under the care (better word) of a pastor. But, having worked with him as an elder for 8 years, I knew what he really wanted was obedience to himself and he used God as his tool of manipulation.  Even when I left his church he suggested that I was leaving God's will and calling and thus was doing something dangerous.  If you listened between the lines, he was making treats that God wouldn't protect me nor my family anymore if I walked away from his church (very cult like talk).

Now, this brings me to my final story and point.

I have a friend now who is one of the nicest men I've ever known and I will call him Hank.  He is an insider at my new church. He is an insider simply because he thinks that is where God wants everyone to be and he has great motives.  Yet, poor Hank, has just endured a season that is Job-ian in nature (as Job in the Old Testament).

I will tell the story with my limited knowledge of the situation.

Two years ago his wife wanted to start a business, her life dream. He liquidated his entire savings and retirement to help her fulfill her dream. The business was a disaster and failed.  This almost bankrupted them, but he seemed to have the attitude of a saint about it.  His wife, however, seemed to be too evango-cavalier about it. I approached her after the failure, "How are you holding up?"  She tried to make distance and answered, "What do you mean?  I always trust God and he never fails me."  Evangoplastic.

So, anyway, the next curse for Hank was that his deeply religious wife suddenly left him, or threw him out of the house.  I think it was tied to her shame of failure somehow but not provoked by his cruelty or anger about her loosing their savings.

The final blow for Hank came a few weeks ago when the company, which he had worked for for 30 years, suddenly announced hey were going out of business.  He is left unemployed after enjoying a good position.

My heart grieves for Hank and I'm trying to get together with him.  But he confined with me on Sunday morning that he can't go to all the men's groups that he had gone to for years because they blame him for his troubles.  They say things like, "He hasn't claimed it for the Lord."  It is so hurtful for him, that he feels like he can't fit into the epicenter of the church anymore and I wouldn't be surprised that if he doesn't walk away altogether.  I want him to come out to my orbit, where you can enjoy the good teaching without the evangocrap.

So, finally I reach my point.  I wish there was a way to "give permission" to good meaning Christians that they can come out to this outer orbit of involvement . . . or, I'm nervous to say this, they can be freelance Christians with no church affiliation.

Now, this last point scares the hell out of most Christians and such a statement would have had me burned at the stake for anyone of about 1500 years. But I'm talking about the lessor of evils.

Sure, in the ideal world, the way the Church started, getting together with other Christians and enjoying a meal and having some education was better than going at it alone. But when the choice is between a evangotoxin or a total rejection of Christianity, then there has to be place of either minimal involvement, like I enjoy or going solo.  Now, even going solo is healthier with others to iron-sharpen-iron, but that could be a couple of like-minded friends or even an Imonk "virtual" church.

But too often we give up the good, replace it with the terrible, while hoping for the ideal.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Under the Cover of Godliness

Well, it has happened again.  A prominent, local pastor was arrested for trying to have sex with a minor.  It was a sting and the policeman pretended to be a 16 year old girl online. The pastor agreed to meet her and give her $200 in exchange for sex back at the parsonage. He had the cash and condoms in his pickup (no pun intended). If you have nothing to do some day, do a Google search for "pastor arrested" and see how many you turn up.

I had an old, ex-coal mining uncle (who died a couple of months ago).  He was quite rough around the edges. He use to say (and he was quite a character from deep in the mountains) that when you bait a trap with . . . well a very vulgar name for a women's genitalia . . . you will catch a preacher every time.

But this is not a discussion on preachers or pastors. They just happened to be an easy target as their professional name implies a sense of "godliness." This is more of conversation about godliness and what I believe is the myth inclusive in that concept.

I use to be a godly man for about 15 years.  I considered myself godly as did my peers.  I could quote scripture left and right. I had quiet times every morning. I prayed before I ate . . . especially if other Christians were watching.  I was as sincere as anyone could be.

But here is the real problem.  I do think that godliness is always a myth.  I'm not doubting sincerity. But we have a human nature, emotional baggage and other vice driven parts of us that don't mend over night, or even after years of "discipleship."  The process of discipleship is the process of socialization into a particular Christian class and is as fragile as paper thin porcelain.

I'm not suggesting that the process of godliness makes us more likely to do horrible things, like solicit sex from a minor.  I'm also not saying that our nature is so bent that we can't resist that draw of evil.

My point is, if you believe that you can change your character overnight, and your peers believe the same thing, but in reality you cannot (because our character is written on the very real brain) then we fall into role playing.  We start pretending that we are above the nature.

This is where I think we become most vulnerable.  How many people have been hurt by so-called godly people?  Too many to count.  But if they see themselves as godly and their local society sees them as godly, then a space or hollow develops between the facade and the real person. It is within that hollow that bad things can grow.  That is why the most visible "godly people" have done the most horrible things.

I would much rather trust my daughter to take a trip with a man who is humble and extremely self aware of his fallen nature, than a godly man.  I no longer trust godly people because I was one once . . . and I've been betrayed by them.

I think of a friend of ours who discovered that her very attractive 13 year daughter would hold hands or cuddle with her 30 year old, married, youth pastor when they were alone.  He assured her that he was a godly man and only did it only to comfort her, spiritually . . . but never did it when other kids (and certainly not his wife) were around. Hmm . . . now that is odd. She, being a naive girl raised in the myths of evangelicalism never doubted his motives . . . even when he told her to keep it a secret as the other kids would be jealous.

Thank God that we are forgiven.  We do strive to do good. To walk in humility, to seek justice and to love kindness . . . but we never arrive at any of those lofty goals.  What we fear are bad motives deep within us  . . . usually are.  We don't deceive ourselves into thinking we are above that. We don't need to hate ourselves for our nature, but to understand our true and dangerous self and to enjoy grace but beware of nature.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

A Thought on the Heaven Seen

I am on a short vacation, actually family reunion, in Florida.  I was really hoping to do some writing while here . . . and while away from the 24-7 demand of trying to keep a medical practice afloat.  But through a strange chain of events (too complicated to discuss here) I found myself computer-less on this trip.  So I've focused on exercising, watching back to back episodes of International House Hunter (some would say my attempts to get in touch with my feminine side) and of course visiting with my extended family.

So, I've borrowed my wife's computer this morning and after a 10 mile ride to Starbucks, I have some solitude to write.  My infamous typos will be worse this morning because my wife's computer's keyboard is offset to the left (has a number keyboard on the right) plus her computer has some type of virus (I think) that causes it to constantly lock up. This, oddly, also causes the spell-checker not to work.

But anyway, I took a reprieve from reading novels to read the book, Proof of Heaven, by Dr. Eben Alexander. That is him pictured above.  I was drawn to the book when he appeared on the Katie show for an interview. To make a long story short, he was a highly accomplished Harvard neurosurgeon, who knew the brain inside and out but then whose own brain completely shut down (a very, very near death experience for a week) and during that shut down, he had a NDE (near death experience) but as a scientist is 100% convinced that this experience was real. It has changed his life.

I could write an entire book on this concept of the Psyche (as described by the Greeks and those prior to them), the Judo-Christian soul and the mind.  But let me say that Dr. Alexander does a good job of it in his book.

I personally am the greatest skeptic you could ever know. I don't believe 99% of the stories I hear people tell . . . not that I think that they are liars . . . but because I have some humble glimpse of the deceptive nature of our own psychological make up. In the case of Dr. Alexander, I'm am less doubtful than usual.  This is mainly because he does have an intellectual approach and he too understands how our hearts are deceptive, and our psychological make up can trick us (as can a malfunctioning brain).

So, I actually think that it is very possible that Eben's experiences were an actual excursion into the other side.  Now, I don't agree with his interpretation of his experience, which is very 21 century American (quasi-pantheistic). In his story, it appears that there is no fallen nature, although he does allude to evil.  But that is not my point here.

The one facet of the book I wanted to talk about is that which relates to this blog, the nature of monistic thinking, or the harmony between that which is seen and unseen.  This especially was a focus in the book when it comes to consciousness, what is it. Dr. Alexander assumed it was from circuitry in the neurons of the brain's cortex . . . before his big adventure. Afterwards, he is convinced it is something else.

I've said before that the one convincing proof for me is that I am. It is a Descartian way of thinking, but I am aware that I exist, that I'm not a mechanical or semi-conductor robot . . . nor am I an organic, biological robot. I am a soul and I can tell from the inside out.  This is what is also called self-consciousness.

Once we know that we are . . . there is no easy way out.  As I've said before, all paths out of the crater have great barriers to rationality.  I believe that these barriers exist because our minds are fallen and can't grasp what would seem like an easy path out.  So, the atheists are no better off than the most extreme fundamentalist Christians, who don't think at all but blindly believe.  They each must come to grips that we are here and the universe is here and how it got here, if you take each thought to its ultimate conclusion, becomes complicated.

I do digress, but I think the book does a good job (maybe I should say that Dr. Alexander's experience did a good job) of trying to grasp the universe as it is . . . dark matter and all.  Knowing that the spiritual side is not understandable by us people any more than a two dimensional being trying to understand the three dimensional world of which they have never experienced. But somewhere in this madness is the answer to why we are here (not the purpose of why we are here but the history of how we got here).

So now we come to the mind.  The book got me thinking about how our physical brains and our spiritual selves relate. I use to say that the brain was the interface between the spiritual selves and our external persona. But now, I would say that the brain is a window to our true spiritual selves. But, the brain is real and of tremendous value. If a window is fractured, it distorts the image of the other world. When our brains are fractured through mental disabilities from the severely mentally retarded to those of us with some form of mental illness to the rest of us who are never perfect. We do see in a mirror dimly who we are but our spiritual selves are the real, the un-fractured view.

But I close this rambling and semi-book review with one more thought.  Eben, like so many, seems to take the view at the end of the dualists.  But rather than being an evnagelical dualist, it is more of the panthesitic dualist, where our labor should be to transcend this world through meditation and try to connect to the other, more important world.

I still think that the most healthy view is to embrace this world, as fractured as it is, and to love it as a God created space for our present lives. But to know that in the other side are the parts that make sense of the big questions. We will enjoy those parts in their due time. And there is a need and a place for the redeemptive power of Christ. The cross did mean something, which Eben implies it did not. But I see the Christians who do not think embracing Eben, as nice of a guy that he is, line, hook and sinker . . . not noticing that he completely eliminates the need of Christ. They will embrance him because he talks about angels and does visit a church to light a candle. Just like the Christian bookstores embraced the godly couple of Jon and Kate + 8 because they prayed before they ate their fish sticks .  .  . And exploited their children for money. I'm sure his Poor of Heaven book is available in the Christian bookstores even now.


More Lessons from a Soup Kitchen

The last time I worked the soup kitchen, and I wrote about that event was bizarre. I act as host and different churches prepared the dinner.  The last time a motorcycle church did the cooking. There was constant "God chatter,"  usually thinly veiled self praises. "God gave me the gift of always doing the right thing and always making the correct decision, so I give Him the praise for the abundant wisdom He has given me."  You get the picture. But I also felt a deep sense of Christ-o-narcissism.  They were  mad at me that it was too cold, mad at me that things just weren't right in the kitchen . . . and worst of all . . . they lost a bag of money and accused me of stealing it. They called the police and it was a mess until they found their bag of money.

But this time things went well.  People were sincere and worked hard. But one thing was said that has put me in a contemplative mood for a few days.

My wife always helps me, even though she doesn't go to my church.  As I was washing dishes, a man from the serving church was talking to her.  The noise of the dishwasher was drowning out most of what they were saying. Then they turned to me and my wife asked, "Why do we go to separate churches?"

I hate that question from strangers and it seems to always come up when we do the soup kitchen work.  There is often, as was the other night, the superficial statement that "it isn't healthy for a couple to go to different churches."  It would be so tempting and I think maybe the right thing to say is simply, "God led us to different churches."  That is weak but evangelicals are use to playing the "God told me to do it" card to get off the witness stand.

I tried to sum up a difficult situation with the simple words that I was often told that I couldn't be a real Christian unless I believed that the earth was 6,000 years old and other extra-biblical baggage. I didn't dare mention one of the main reasons I left was the pastor ran the church like a cult.  He was absolute authority and no one questioned him.  I saw him questioned once and he was like the incredible hulk and morphed into a raging animal . . . the same way he reacted to me after I told him I was leaving.  The same way he relates to, and berates his wife.  But that's another story.  I explained to the church man at the  soup kitchen that my wife decided to stay because she had so many friends there.

Then the man said something that really got me thinking. "I bet you have no friends.  I say this because men who think a lot, question a lot, and put that above friendships . . . usually are friendless."

My wife quickly agreed with the man . . . that I am friendless.

I've written about this before too.  No one on this planet desires friendships more than I do.  I deeply miss the friendships of days, like when I was in college and had roommates.  But now?  If I were to die, I think they could house my funeral in one of those smaller storage units.  My wife? She would need a cathedral. I know I sound a little melodramatic, but I think it is true.

The really odd thing about this is that I spend my entire 10 hour day with people, talking about their most personal problems and issues. But in their eyes, I'm not a person . . . I am inanimate. The conversation is strictly one way.  I sit, I hold their hand and sometimes cry with them while I listen. But it isn't a relationship or friendship.  They wouldn't hesitate to write me, which some have,  horribly angry letters, like when the doors to our building got accidentally locked, or when I wouldn't prescribe enough pain pills that could get someone addicted or a patient's copay went from $20 to $30 a visit.  The letters are vicious as if my heart was made of silicon. So, while I have 1,200 patients, and I am consumed with helping each one to get well I know the reality that I am nothing
more to them than a means to an end . . . not a personal friend.

But I wonder why, what the church man in the soup kitchen is right?  I mean, I am a very skeptical person . . . but I don't wear my skepticism on my sleeves.  When I sit and listen to people spouting nonsense, I'm not like the Sheldon character on Big Bang Theory ( in cause you've never seen it, he is an arrogant super-smart astrophysicist) where I quickly correct people.  I sat in my old church week after week listening to people spouting how real Christians, men of God, reject the old-earth crap etc.  I only spoke once after enduring six weeks of brain crushing pseudoscience.

I don't know what it means.  I watch my wife operate and win friends.  She possess a skill that I don't understand and a talent that I don't have. Maybe it isn't me offending people by doubting them (which I keep to myself) but my lack of enthusiasm when they describe how God led them to a message on a piece of news paper laying on the street that had a car ad, and it was proof to them that God wanted them to buy a new car. My eyes glass over. But then, when it is my turn to speak, and I start talking about some story I heard on NPR, a discovery of sedimentary rock formations on Mars and I have great excitement in my voice . . . and their eyes glass over as something totally insignificant and of this world . . . that our attempts to connect are aborted. But I accept the blame for the loneliness, it is my social awkwardness.