Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Christian in the Age of Ebola

It will only be a matter of time before some TV evangelist publishes a book about how Ebola is a sign of Jesus second coming.  On the surface this may seem innocent to many Christians, but to the eyes of some of us, it is the most hideous form opportunism. If you take it at face value it is someone trying make money off the suffering of the many, mostly poor, in western Africa. This very behavior is anti-Christ (meaning here as against the nature of Christ) who gave himself for the suffering.

If you do a search for "Ebola + Christian" or "Ebola + End Times" you will see the discussion has already started.  For a direct link you can go here or listen to the video below.

I wish that I had time to do a scholarly article here but I do not. I'm confident that in the midst of each human tragedy in history there have been those wonderful Christian saints who exhibited the Christ-like selfless care for the suffering. I think of the priest and nuns who sacrificed their own lives during the black death of the Middle Ages by being the only ones willing to care for the sick and dying. I think of those saints who gave themselves to care for AIDS patients in the 1980s when they were shunned by many, including many evangelicals who saw their plight as God's judgment for a "homosexual lifestyle."

While I'm often critical, I do recognize that there are many wonderful saints out there who get it right. Even now, we hear of many brave volunteers going to help in west Africa, many are going from a humanist standpoint (MSF) and not a Christian conviction. Yet, I'm sure that many Christian groups are going or are missionaries who are there now. They give selflessly of their gifts and time.

I had a call from the relief organization that I've served with before. It is not a Christian group but somewhat like MSF.  They wanted volunteers for the Ebola outbreak.  I felt deeply torn.  I do see it as my "job" as a Christian to fight to help the suffering and to fight against the brokenness of this world and I'm very willing to risk my life to do it. The problem was that this time, they need at least a six week commitment in country, plus another four weeks of quarantine once back in the states.  I own a medical practice an am basically the sole medical provider.  Since our opening day four years ago we have struggled to avoid going bankrupt despite an overflowing schedule of patients. So, being gone from the practice for even two weeks would be a death sentence to the practice. It would be bankrupt by the time I returned. Not only would the practice be bankrupted, but I would personally be bankrupt by the time I got back. The reason is, our bills average $1,000 / day. This is for rent, malpractice insurance, software licenses (only about $2500/month), plus there are many other expenses.  If I were gone for 10 weeks, this would mean that I would personally owe $70,000 upon my return. 

But I ask myself daily, am I just making excuses?  In my old evangelical days, I might say that God is mysteriously "calling me to go" or maybe he was "calling me not to go." But if I believed the emotional voice that he was calling me, then I would assume that he would provide the income to keep the practice alive. But I don't believe in that kind of magic anymore. The priests and nuns of the Middle Ages trusted God, but they also knew that they had buried many other faithful brothers and sisters and it was more likely they would die from their service and they served anyway.

So, I do pray that it would be clear what I should do personally. But the bigger picture is how will the Church view the Ebola outbreak?  I'm afraid that the pop-Christian culture will see it only as proof that we are on the fast track to Jesus' return and their eyes completely miss the eyes of those suffering.

Christians often get it wrong when mass hysteria hits our general culture.  I remember like it was yesterday when Y-2K was approaching.  A group in my old church in Minnesota formed to prepare for the event. They became convinced that it would be the beginning of the end. So, their response was to hoard up food, generators, guns, ammo and water.  It made me sick to my stomach, because at the same time there was a terrible famine in Darfur. Bono got it right about Darfur. I lost a lot of good friends over that issue when I vented my disgust towards what they were doing.  There is something narcissistic about only thinking of yourself when others are suffering. Sometimes I wonder if I'm doing the same.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Follow UP - And Response to HUG

HUG, nice to know you are still around. I was going to respond in the comment section but decided to bring up here.

1. Yes, my crushing workload of the past 3 years is lightening up a bit along with the stress.
2. As usual, I agree with most of your comments.
3. Yes, the manuscript is the one that I use to have linked to this blog, but it has gone through a huge transformation through rewrites and editing.
4. Yes, I still have the same email address and always count it a pleasure to read your writing.

Follow Up:

I completed my sermon/talk on Sunday and met my goals. My goal was simply to face the most terrifying thing I could think of, knowing that exposure mends phobias. I don't know if anything I said made a difference as most sermons do not make a difference.

We attended the small group on Monday.  Afterwards I felt frankly depressed and awaken with depression the next morning and have felt depressed since.  I'm trying to get my head around why a Christian small group would make me feel so sad. It think it is because, almost on a subconscious level, I sense that, this is as good as it gets. When I was one of them, it was quite wonderful, but that was decades ago.

It appears in order to have a really good group of friends, there needs to be mutual respect. I could be best friends with an atheist and have been best friends with Muslims, but we had to reach that point of respect to have a really deep friendship.

In the Christian context, it should be simpler . . . right? We all share a common goal and orientation to life?  Or do we?

The problem, the way I see it, is that while we do share the fundamentals, it is the extraneous that make it virtually impossible to meet, or at least us who are disenfranchised to meet with the franchised. Yes, we can agree that God is there, that sin separated us from God (and fractured the universe away from its ideal) and that Jesus, God in the flesh, came to restore that brokenness.  We can further agree that the Bible is God's message to humanity. If it stopped there, it would be wonderful.

The problem is the American Evangelism is wrapped in many, many layers of specific extra-Biblical culture.  Differences in culture should not separate people either.  I mean, I've been great friends with fundamentalist Muslims, Chinese, Nepalese and you name it. Here is where the problem lies.  American, Evangelicalism have the simple essentials of the faith, wrapped with layers and layers of cultural beliefs and then it has been forged into a monolith. They see the whole thing as essential. So, to not agree with any part makes you suspect.

My Nepalese friends would never expect me to agree with all of their viewpoints but would celebrate our diversity. Christians treat other Christians very differently. We have this high standard (made up of many cultural, non essential parts) that our Christian friends must confirm to. If not, we must view them as a danger to themselves or to all of us.  I'm not saying this is how I think now, but how I use to think and how many still think.

American Evangelicals have forged the cultural beliefs (below) onto the simple essentials.  If I say anything in the group that is not consistent with these additional beliefs, then I know (from experience) that I will not be respected and immediately seen as a "liberal." So friendships must exist where the majority of yourself is hidden.

America is God's Country, like His new-chosen people.

America was a Christian country from the beginning and only recently did people, usually Democrats, start to put us on a godless path.

America, as a country, is always rights. All of her wars are justified, us-the good guys, against them-the bad, godless guys.

God is in the Republican party, not the Democratic party.

God wants us all to have guns.

Jesus is coming back any day.

The world is a terrible place and getting worse each day. We are on a path of total destruction of the world and it is not worth saving. Gays and gay marriage is proof that the world is becoming garbage.

Everything is divided between good and evil and we are on the good side.

God loves the grunt, because the wars they fought were God's wars.

Israel is in God's plan to be the chosen people through which we are all saved in the end. Therefore, those who oppose Israel (Arabs) are sub-human and do not deserve justice.

God hates the environmentalists because he hates the material world in general.

Miracles (meaning those things totally impossible within the laws of nature) happen all the time to people whom God loves, like the other people in the group. If miracles are not happening to you, you are an nonspiritual person. There is no concept of psychological self-deception.

Mature Christians never doubt or ask question but believe all the crap of their subculture.

Godliness is obtainable (while only a mirage) so we must loose touch with our own manipulative selves.

This is only about 10% of the things that come to mind.

So in closing, as I've made this too long, the people in our small group are great people. They don't realize the origins of their thinking. But how do you exist where you are not respected?  Do you sit in silence night after night smiling and pretending while people are saying things that are totally against your beliefs?  That is the choice that no one should be forced to make. It is the reason that young people are leaving the church in droves.

Friday, October 17, 2014

A Day in the Pulpit - and Other Thoughts

Page 1: Years ago, it wasn't that uncommon to find me in the pulpit of a church. Rarely did I do a morning service but often as a guest speaker in an evening service or at a missions conference. But I haven't been in a pulpit in a genuine way (to actually do the sermon) in 20 years, but this Sunday I am. It is a strange event how this came about. I knew that I had to find common ground with this church to say things and to say them in a way that I would not be misunderstood.

Probably the major reason I accepted the opportunity is for personal reasons not to make some great point in the message. I suffer from speaker's anxiety and when I don't do it, it gets worse. When I was asked to speak this Sunday, there was nothing on this earth I would find more terrifying.  I mean, about six years ago I was laying in a pup tent in NW Pakistan (came to help in an earthquake) surrounded by Taliban-types screaming, in English, "Death to the Americans!"  My own body guard abandoned me because he was afraid. But that wasn't nearly as terrifying as speaking to a large group, especially a church group and I'm serious about that. But so far, with some prayer, deep breathing, cognitive thinking, I'm handling this rather well. There have been times in the past that I didn't sleep for days before a talk. I slept like a baby the night when the Taliban-types were threatening to cut my throat in my sleep.

But to deal with fears requires exposure and exposure it will be. But I do want to gently talk about the metaphysical problems that Christians can have when they see this material world as junk ( a Platonic idea) and only the "spiritual" has value.  The talk is about stewardship of time and our metaphysical view has a major impact on how we approach that topic. If this material world is junk, as I was taught during my first 15 years of Christianity, then only time spend in matters of the "spiritual," prayer, Bible study and evangelism are significant. But if this material world is of great significance, then the matters of this world are of great value. Things like feeding the poor, fighting Ebola, helping in earthquakes, listening to the hurting non-Christian because we really care about them, not because they are an object of evangelism.

Page 2: Speaking of Plato, many people have encouraged me to read NT Wright. I had never until now. I'm in the middle of Surprised by Hope. It is strange and reassuring how I reached the same conclusions as he has through my years of personal study (the influence of Plato on the current Christian view of the cosmos).  We do disagree, which is not a big deal, it seems,(as I'm not finished yet), about the future. I'm post-mil, believing that the Church will eventually succeed and then Christ will return.  It appears that he is saying that my type of optimism is misplaced rational optimist of the old modernity (thinking that science and reason will solve all of our problems).  I don't think that is my position. I love science and reason, but they each are wanting in the area of morals.

Page 3: I was listening to the end of an NPR program yesterday. They were talking about new type of pastors or chaplains.  I will have to cut to the chase to say this new generation of chaplains blend religious orientations. One young man, who is finishing up his ministry degree, shared that he started out as a Lutheran, then atheist and finally a Buddhist. However, he declared, all three positions rest comfortable within his mind and he can reassure people with each orientation.  Then he went on to add that this generation (people under 35 I assume) are comfortable with believing several ideologies at the same time, even if some of them have contradictory views.

I was thinking that we were in the post-post modernism age or what some call "The Age of Authenticism." In philosophical orientations humans always swing back and forth to the extremes.  I had assumed that that philosophical (logical) synthesis (see Hegel) was over and the pendulum starting to swing back to the other direction.  I thought it had reached its apogee by 1991 when there was an investigation of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.  In the hearing, Anita Hill (work colleague) accused him of saying sexually explicit things to her. He denied ever saying sexual things to her, not one word. I remember a news anchor saying (because it was so confusing) that both were probably telling the truth (synthesis). It is clear one of them were lying, possibly both. But both can't be true. It is a metaphysical impossibility.

But this new generation was born in that world of thinking so it may seem natural, while totally illogical.  I hope that the pendulum starts to loose its momentum and return to the truth that would be obvious to a typical person for most of the past 35,000 years . . . opposites both can't be true at the same time . . . quantum mechanics as the only exception, perhaps.  This age needs to doubt more, both Christian and non-Christian. 

Last Page:  The book I've been working on for 10 years is much nearer completion. I'm working with an outstanding editor who works for Penguin Books and she has helped me to hammer the book into shape (and to shave 3,000 words from the manuscript).  I'm excited to see the light at the end of the very long tunnel.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Back Through The Looking Glass . . . Once Again

This will be of those difficult post, like I use to do. The feelings are as real as any feelings can be, but the words to describe them are allusive.

Us, post-evangelicals, are a lonely bunch.  We fit (speaking for myself) better in non-Christian groups than within evangelical ones . . . but to a point. We also find an impasse with the non-Christians eventually.

I've struggled on how to place my hand. I found comfort within a mainline church but out in the periphery.  There is constant calling for those needing warm bodies for all the programs for me to become more involved. But to do so would eventually mean a nasty conflict of cultures.  I choose my involvement carefully, mostly where the exchange of ideas would be limited, such as manual labor or work projects.

My wife and I made the decision to become part of a small group.  We knew we needed a platform on which to nurture relationships better.  It was a real "small" group with only five of us at max. Then one of the other individuals dropped out leaving it as two couples.  We enjoyed the group very much.  Of course we didn't see eye-to-eye with everything as no two people do. The other couple were thinkers and had been around LAbri. The major disagreement (which was almost never an issue) is that the other man considered himself an intellectual-charismatic.  So, when I hear the word "charismatic" I get a cold chill up my spine as I've been there, done that and it was ugly in my experience.  But, he never made an issue of it or even spoke in tongues during our group time.

Then our group was combined with a much larger group of about 15 people.  Suddenly, like boarding a time machine, I'm plucked back to my early evangelical days.

Here is where wording is difficult.  I hate this new group.  I do like the people and I think they are fine people, but when they are put together, like putting nuclear fuel rods together, an energy is created that is ugly (in my humble opinion).  I mean, standing in the kitchen eating cake and talking one on one is great. Like I said, they are fine people . .  probably much better people that I am. But when they enter the living room and take up their Bibles something dramatic happens and they warp into someone totally different.

I will try to describe what I feel but I know I will get it wrong.  In the Bible study a couple of verses are read then people start to share about that verse.  I sense I'm at a puppet show where the characters on stage are not real but the real operators are behind the curtain.  First of all, the speaker shares a short speech and then another shares a short speech. Several of the group are big talkers. But the 'speeches" are so stereotypical evangelical that I know exactly the words the person is going to say before their mouths open.  It appears to me that each person (working the puppet) is trying to give the illusion that God is great but what they are really want to communicate is that they, the person behind the curtain, is great.  Each one seems to be desperate to unveil their great spiritual attributes. I also sense a desperate effort to conform to evangelical mores of speech, which of course is trying to say that God is great. No one can argue with that so that seals the deal on the comment.  This is exactly why a ISIL fighter screams "God is Great" when he fires a mortar into a school.  Who can argue with him about his moral actions. Of course we can but not his peers because he punctuates his actions with the undeniable statement.

So here is an example.  A verse is read that says that there should be no immoral deeds among you and then there is a pause.

The first person tells a story about how people around them at work were cursing and using God's name in vain and how that grieved them so much because they (the speaker) have such heart for God. But then, over time, that person (who was "swearing") saw how the (speaker) was reacting to difficulties, by praying and not cursing God so they eventually stopped swearing.  They even invited that swearer to church.

Then the next person adds another long story along the same lines that communicates that they were a saint and the nasty non-Christians around them were bad people. But they always smile and then say at the end, "God is great isn't he?"  Which of course the whole group smiles and gives them positive reinforcement that what they just said was wonderful. Then there is the constant suggestion of supernatural miracles around them . . . puny stuff . . . not real miracles, as if we need miracles.

I, at that time, feel like my head is about to cave in from lack of content.

Again, these are good people but are only following the norms of evangelical "Bible study."

I finally spoke up when I kept hearing that we Christians have our act together because, unlike the evil non-Christians, we study the Bible, which purifies us.  I said that this concept of "godliness" is a myth because we, in my old days, studied the Bible non-stop and thought we were the most godly people on the planet . . . but then did awful things to one another, hateful things.  My comment was met with stares.  I forgot to end it with a big smile and say, "God is great isn't he?"

So, I don't know what we are going to do.  If there was a silver lining to this, it was on the way home in the car.  My wife, who previously wouldn't have seen a problem with such a "discussion" commented that the discussion made her feel physically ill and totally unsatisfying. I think I've rubbed off on her over these years.

But I'm not sure where this leaves us. Do we sit week after week tolerating the "God did this miracle and that miracle and I'm such a good Christian" talk just so we can have friends?  Is the trade off worth it?  My thoughts are trying to create a new small group.  I just don't know how many people I could find in the Church (a very good church in comparison) that has not drank from the Kool Aid bowl.  I just don't know. Being a Christian who is no longer an evangelical is a lonely place without an address.