All Too Human

22 June 2016

So the truth slowly emerges in bits and pieces: Omar Mateen was not a one-dimensional caricature. He was not just “the Orlando nightclub shooter.” He was a real human being with complex motives he may not have fully understood himself. He felt used by others and was deeply wounded as a result. He was filled with pain and self-loathing. He sought salvation in jihadi martyrdom. At least these three things seem to be true, and there may be many other angles as well. 
It is comforting to say he is other than we are: perhaps you are not homosexual, or not Muslim, let alone jihadi Muslim. It is comforting, but it is also false. “Nothing human is foreign to me,” or in the biblical idiom, “Every temptation that has overtaken you is common to mankind” — as true for him as it is for me, or you.Which of us has never hated ourselves for things that we find ourselves unable to change? Which of us has never lashed out at someone else for exhibiting the traits we most dislike in ourselves? Which of us has never acted with total disregard for others because at that moment, we were so involved in our own pain that we had no room for loving anyone else? Which of us has not sought to hurt someone back, to give as good as we got? To be sure, most of us use words and petty slights, not bullets, but that’s a difference of degree, not of kind. 
The tragedy is not that Omar Mateen was so unlike us. The tragedy is that he was exactly like us. The tragedy is that there is an answer, and we didn’t reach him with it in time.

Sacramental Causality

30 October 2015

Language and the is/is not of metaphor are both fundamental to the nature of ultimate reality. If you’ve seen Jesus (the Word), you’ve seen the Father…and yet the Word is not the Father. The creation is metaphor come to life, the infinite glory of God rendered by the spoken Word in finite matter. Like much great art, it is impossible in principle, believable only as a fait accompli.
We can interact with the creation through natural causality, the sort of thing the scientists deal with, or we can interact with the creation through word and metaphor. Blessings and sacraments operate by word and metaphor, respectively. When I pronounce a blessing on someone, there is nothing about vibrations in the air that causes their life to improve — no physical causality. That which I speak becomes real because it was spoken. When I eat the bread and drink the wine of the Lord’s Table, it’s just bread and wine — run any materials analysis you want. And then again, it’s not. Christ is really present to me in the elements, and we are the Body of Christ in the world because we are what we eat.

Magic is an attempt to hijack the spoken and sacramental nature of reality. Casting a spell operates on the same principle as blessing: that which I speak becomes real. A voodoo doll operates on the same principle as the Lord’s Table: enacted metaphor changes the world. Perversions, to be sure, but they operate on the same principles.

The modern-day magicians’ error is in thinking that the principles are the ultimate reality — that there are “laws of magic.” But that is an attempt to reduce the world to impersonal principles, and the word-and-metaphor structure of reality is irreducibly relational. I can encounter the risen Christ as I eat the bread and drink the cup because He promises that it is His body and blood. There is a promise of God that undergirds the action, and it works because God is trustworthy.

No such promise of God applies to making a voodoo doll. But then, God is not the only agent with whom one could develop a relationship. The difference between a modern “laws of magic” practitioner and a traditional witch doctor is that the witch doctor understands that all reality is personal. If a witch doctor is able to extract a promise from an unclean spirit, and if the spirit keeps that promise, then the voodoo doll works. This is the principle of the witch doctor: he makes an agreement with powerful spirits that will do certain things in exchange for sacrifices and favors. They will even sometimes exorcise less powerful spirits. The “laws of magic” practitioner does not understand that he’s doing the same thing, and certain unclean spirits are happy to help him maintain his self-deception.

But does natural causality actually work any differently than sacramental causality, or is the atheistic scientist simply making the same mistake as the “laws of magic” practitioner? 

Let’s think it through. When you drop a plate of salad, why does it fall down instead of up? Because of gravity, right? But “because gravity” is not an explanation. You’re just slapping a noun on the phenomenon, applying a label. Great, you call it “gravity.” But why does it do that? 

Well, because objects attract one another in direct proportion to the square of their masses and inversely proportional to the distance between them. That’s a little better as an explanation — it’s a general statement of the principle that covers the movement of planets as well as the movement of a dropped plate of salad. But it’s still just a precise description of what happens. Same question: Why does it do that?

You can translate that natural-language description to the artificial language of mathematics and write it out as an equation, but that still doesn’t answer the question of why it happens that way. In the end, you believe that it is just there, or you believe that God decreed it to be so — which is to say, there is a promise of God undergirding it.  (If you go with “just there,” then you are stuck with no reason to believe that gravity will work tomorrow — the problem of induction as aptly stated by David Hume — but that’s a topic for another day.)

So the real difference between sacrament and natural law is that sacraments expose the nature of things as they really are. With natural law, you have to drill down through layers of mechanisms before you get to the point where you find yourself face to face with the divine decree. In the sacraments, the decree of God is right on the surface, reminding you with Whom you’re dealing — in all your dealings.

Freak Fall: A Preliminary Review

30 September 2015

 I plan to review Freak Fall in more depth  in a few weeks, but I want to start with a spoiler-free basic review. Stay tuned for more discussion later, but in the meantime, get over to Amazon and pick up your copy today.

 When teacher Mark Hanson heads to his family’s cabin in the Colorado Rockies for an uneventful spring break of snowshoeing, reading, and craft beer, he has no idea that his life is about to be altered forever. Twenty-four hours later, Mark has become the sole witness to a terrorist attack — one of a coordinated series all over the globe — and the unlikely companion to that attack’s sole survivor, a man who comes to be known as Freak.

The Freak believes he was miraculously delivered from certain death to deliver a divine message to the world. Mark isn’t so sure. Is the Freak a miracle, or is he just lucky and deluded? Decide for yourself….

Through Mark’s very fallible eyes, we see a story unfold that could come from tomorrow’s headlines. A page-turner from end to end, Freak Fall delivers compelling characters caught up in an unpredictable story. Whether it’s a supernatural thriller about the end of the world or a psychological study of survivor’s guilt and deep delusion, it will be worth your time. Pick it up — you won’t put it down.

An Introduction to Spiritual Disciplines

17 September 2015

I had occasion to address Mosaic Church on the subject of spiritual disciplines. In this sermon, I don’t present a bunch of options so much as I aim for the heart of what makes a life of spiritual discipline that moves us closer to God instead of just building a better Pharisee. I hope you find it helpful.

Present for Blessing

3 September 2015

I preached last weekend at Mosaic Church in Englewood on how God is present with, in, and through us for the blessing of the world. Here it is:

Firm Foundations

24 August 2015

This post is part of the August 2015 Synchroblog on “What it means to be pro-life.” The writing prompt included the following quote from Sister Joan Chittister, OSB: “I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”

“I say, old chap, you don’t look very balanced.”

Opposing abortion but turning a blind eye to the child once he’s born is not a balanced way to love your neighbor. That said, the imbalance on display is the same kind of imbalance you see in a sailor leaning off the high side of the boat for all he’s worth, trying to keep it from going over. The legal slaughter of a couple thousand children every day is the sort of thing that might send you off-center, if you think about it. Molech never had it so good; for Yahweh-fearing vertebrates, single-issue voting is an astonishingly mild response. What would Phineas do?

But a bunch of us want to talk about subsidized school lunches, early reading programs, and clean water in the third world — not so much because we are pro-life all the way through as because we’re tired of being uncool. [EDIT: The notable lack of participation in this month’s Synchroblog is a case in point. Compare it to August last year, or the ‘cooler’ topics — it’s painfully obvious that a bunch of us just found this one too hot to touch.] All the cool kids still think it’s better to keep the slaughter legal, and we’re tired of sitting at the nerds’ table. And the thing is, we don’t even have to give up our private pro-life convictions to change seats — all we have to do is not talk about it. Talk about Head Start, STEM education for girls, ethical coffee farming — anything but abortion.

Why? Because we are winning the war of definition. It used to be impossible to say that abortion is killing a baby without my hardcore pro-choice friends going off like Mount Vesuvius, but not anymore. I can say so out loud and in public and get away with it — as a man, yet! That was definitely not true even ten years ago. Even at the cool kids’ table, you can win that argument. You might struggle to get anyone to engage in the conversation, but if you have any spine at all, you’re not going to lose.

We. Are. Winning.

So as we engage the broader conversation of what it means to be pro-life, we need to build on the very effective and clear foundation that we have laid. We need to be masters of good and necessary consequence. We should take every opportunity to drive Sister Chittister’s reasoning to its conclusions. If we are in favor of saving that baby in utero, then we can’t balk at feeding the kid, or teaching him to read. We’re pro-life. And on the other hand, if you’re such a big fan of WIC that you’re willing to send IRS agents armed with home liens to collect the funding, then how in the world could you have been okay with flushing the kid just months before? Or put the other way round, if you were fine with killing him in utero, then why in the world do you care if we flush him now, at age 5, when it’s clear that he isn’t keeping up with the pack? Back then we were only guessing that he’d get left behind; now we know….

We should be sharpening the antithesis at every turn. The merchants of death who suddenly get religion about caring for children once they pass through the birth canal must be called to follow their visceral convictions about the value of newborns to the necessary conclusion. (Which, in case you missed it, is that Jesus is King and He built us to know the value of every life, including the ones who aren’t born yet.)

It is equally vital that the broader conversation focus on actual results, not just good intentions. We’re more than willing to hold the pro-life movement to this standard.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” they say, “of course we love children after they’re born.”

“Sure,” we reply, “but what are you going to do about it?”

And if all their money goes into fighting abortion at the opportunity cost of early literacy programs, if their intentions for the young children are professedly good but the results just aren’t there, then we will call them hypocrites — as Sister Chittister did.

But that leverage needs to get applied on the other side of the fence as well, and Sister Chittister’s statement sparkles with irony coming, as it does, from a Roman Catholic nun. She surely knows that privately funded programs (like the ones the Church runs all over the world) produce much better results than the expensive and ineffective tax-funded programs she wants us all to endorse. I am not quite prepared to believe that I can’t really be pro-life unless I’m willing to sign off on an extensive set of interventions administered by the same set of jokers that brought us the DMV.

Yes, yes, the intentions are good. We all feel ourselves very virtuous voting a bunch of public funding into something for the children. But remember, we are building on the foundation of the abortion conversation, and one of the key lessons is that results matter more than intentions. The mother may believe the hype about a lump of tissue, and have no intention of killing a baby. But if she goes through with the abortion, the baby is just as dead as if she’d given birth and then smothered it with a pillow. The actual results are what matter, and that doesn’t change after the child passes through the birth canal. So let’s not be idiots. Intentions don’t feed a kid or teach him to read — and neither does voting.

So I work with a community church that hosts a weekly food bank — not just dry goods, but fruit, vegetables, meat, and dairy, too. Beyond that, we have a drop-in youth center 3 days a week (we want to do every day, but we don’t have the volunteer base for it yet), and we have a little “coffee shop” area that’s open anytime we’re in the building. Come calling anytime, and if someone’s there, you’re welcome to come in out of the weather, have a seat, and get a cup of cold water or hot coffee, as the whim takes you.

Our friends at the church two blocks down host a small medical clinic (and a food bank, too). Our friends at the church across the street have a day care and preschool for low-income families. And we do it all for you-wouldn’t-believe-how-little money. Because we are pro-life.

Is it working? Some of it, yes. The youth center is going gangbusters. The day care is great. The medical clinic catches problems that would become ER cases left untreated, and treats them while they’re easy and cheap to treat. That saves our local homeless population an incalculable amount of human suffering. The food banks, though….

You can’t starve in this town if you get sick and can’t go to work. The food banks furnish a safety net to folks who hit a run of bad luck, and that’s great. Some of our clients have taken advantage of the safety net when they needed it, and then gotten back up on their feet. Some others, instead of being empowered and encouraged, have become permanently dependent on us. That was never the goal, and we need to do better by them. Human dignity thrives when we are able to be generous, not when we are continually dependent on the generosity of others. We have a population that we have failed to empower to give; we are robbing them of their dignity in order to feed them. I don’t know what the answer is — if I had a better solution, I’d be pushing for it. I pray that God will give us one.

Until the New Jerusalem comes in for a landing and heaven has officially come to earth, there will be room for improvement. Let’s seek all the improvement that God will give us.


You might also enjoy the other posts in this month’s synchroblog:


Imago Dei: Loving the Different

21 July 2015

This post is part of the July Synchroblog on gay marriage. 

Once upon a time — if time is an appropriate word — there was nothing. Not infinite empty space, just…nothing. Nothing but the triune God, dancing alone, complete and content. And then again, not alone, because there were three Persons together, each one distinct and quite different from the others, each one loving the other two. (If two other people love you, you’re hardly alone, right?) Lacking nothing and needing nothing, secure in the love of each Person for the others, God danced like nobody was watching.

There was nobody to watch, until out of the overflow of each Person’s love for the others, God made the heavens and the earth.

The Breath of God brooded over the primordial waters like a hen on a nest, until the Father spoke a Word.

“Be light!” And there was light. Having commanded the light into existence, He divided it from its contrasting element, the darkness, and gave them each a name: Day and Night. The Three gazed on what He had made. Seeing that it reflected the aspects of the Three that He wished it to display, He pronounced it good.

Then evening came, and morning, and God began to create again. For six days, the Three enriched the creation like a painter working on a canvas, pausing each evening and beginning work again the next day, and it was all good. He made the sky, separating the waters above from the waters below. He gathered the waters below the sky into one place, and brought up dry land out of the water. In the middle of the third day, the Three stopped naming things, but He kept creating. He populated the land with plants and set lights in the sky to give signs and seasons, to measure out days and years. He made great swarms of creatures to populate the water and the air. He populated the land with domestic animals, wild beasts, and an abundance of creepy-crawlies of every description. He seemed to have a great fondness for beetles.

All this reflected aspects of the Three, but when it came time to sign the canvas, God wanted to do something special, to put a particular representation of Himself on His creation. So the Three took counsel together: “Let’s make humanity in Our image, like Us, and let’s give them rule over the whole earth and all its creatures.” And God began to sculpt. He formed a man from the dust, and breathed life into his nostrils, and man became a living being named Dirt. Then God did something He had never done before. The Three Persons looked at the sculpture, which was just one person, and said, “That’s not good. Something is missing. I will make a helper comparable to him.”

God brought animals out of the ground and brought them to Dirt, and whatever he named them, that was their name — but while they all had mates, there was no comparable mate for Dirt. So God caused him to fall asleep, and pulled a rib out of his side, and from that rib, He made a woman. Different — so different from Dirt — and yet comparable to him, his match.

God woke him, and brought her to him. Dirt had never seen anything like her before, but he knew her for what she was: bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh. The woman was him, she was part of him and one with him…but distinct from him, and quite different. God gave them to each other, and marriage was born. And He blessed them: “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth, and rule over it — over all its creatures.”

God had signed His canvas, and He saw that it was good. And on the seventh day, God rested.

(Of course, it didn’t take us long to mess it up, but in Christ God is re-forming a new humanity that will one day inherit the earth, and once again be His perfected signature on the canvas of creation.)

That is the real story of how you came to be, and you are heir to all the considerable dignity that it implies. It is true of all people — all ethnicities, all creeds, all sexual orientations, all genders. As Paul would later summarize the story, “He made from one blood every nation under heaven.”

In the church, we have the nasty habit of treating certain people as if they don’t belong. Not just as if they don’t belong in the church — which would be bad enough —  but as if they don’t belong anywhere at all. Which distinguishing traits we decide to ostracize varies from culture to culture, from church to church, but churches that swear off this sin, and truly welcome whoever God brings them? Those churches are still quite rare.

We of all people should know better. The church is a hospital, not a country club. There’s no such thing as being too sick to go to the hospital. If you are here, then you were handcrafted in your mother’s womb for a purpose, and if you are still using the communal oxygen, then God hasn’t given up on you. Why should we?

Unfortunately, homosexuals are one of the groups that the church has too often given up on. We have preferred to ignore them, to pretend that they didn’t exist, to treat them as ‘other,’ rather than as part of us — people created by God with dignity and purpose. It was more comfortable to simply pass them by. But God is far less interested in our comfort than he is in leading us to fulfill our purpose: to be His signature on the canvas of creation. To that end, He has provided the Church in the USA with a situation that forces us to engage. Gay marriage promises to be quite a mess in the Church, and that is great news! The Church gets a lot of mileage out of messes — look at the Christological controversies or the Reformation.

The challenge before us is to mirror the Trinity as God has called us to do by showing honor to all people, by loving all sinners as Christ loved all sinners, by loving those who are different from us, by welcoming all who come as a hospital welcomes all who come. The challenge is to do all this faithfully, not out of sentimentality but because we are faithful to the word of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ, who called us to be like Him.

This means that a gay couple who walks into one of our churches must be deeply loved, no matter how uncomfortable that might make some of the people in the church. We walk by faith, not by sentiment. It does not mean, however, that we should be performing their marriage ceremony. The exegesis is not in any way unclear here: the same story that tells me a gay man is part of me and has dignity and purpose just like I do, also tells me that marriage is a man and a woman given to one another by God. The rest of the biblical revelation repeatedly reinforces this (including some pointed instructions on divorce that most evangelicals have seen fit to ignore), and repeatedly says that same-sex unions are sin. We may struggle with why that would be the case (and I would suggest that the answers are in that same story, above), but again, we walk by faith, not by sentiment. If you are attempting to submit yourself to the word of God, there are some complicated interpretive problems that you will have difficulty untangling — but this isn’t one of them.

The practical question posed by the legal possibility of gay marriage is likewise pretty simple. “Same-sex marriage” is a contradiction on the order of “four-sided triangles,” and it won’t do for Christ’s people to dignify the sin with a four-sided triangle celebration ceremony. If we do that, we become a hospital that sides with the cancer rather than the patient.

This issue is not hard for us because the text is unclear. It is hard for us because the demands of faith clash with the demands of sentiment. Some folks’ sentiment is that all things gay are icky, and they want to pretend the whole thing doesn’t exist, and make the “icky” people unwelcome in the church. Other folks’ sentiment is to be welcoming, but offer no call to repentance. The demands of faith cut against both these impulses, and require of us a response that is loving and welcoming while presenting God’s call to mirror His nature on earth. Doing that well — that is going to take a miracle. Let’s pray that God will work that miracle in us.


You may also enjoy the other posts in July’s Synchroblog: