Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Many Meetings of Stephen Crane

Many know the power of Stephen Crane's prose, through The Red Badge of Courage or perhaps Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.  But few have read his even more remarkable prose-poems.  They ask questions and leaves you hanging, considering, thinking about our troubled world and our relationship to it.

Here are some quotes to get you started:

I saw a man pursuing the horizon;
Round and round they sped.
I was disturbed at this;
I accosted the man.
"It is futile," I said,
"You can never--"
"You lie," he cried,
And ran on.

I met a seer
He held in his hands
The book of wisdom.
"Sir," I addressed him,
"Let me read."
"Child--" he began.
"Sir," I said,
Think not that I am a child,
For already I know much
Of that which you hold.
Aye, much."
He smiled.
Then he opened the book
And held it before me.--
Strange that I should have grown so suddenly blind.

"Think as I think," said a man,
"Or you are abominably wicked;
You are a toad."
And after I had thought of it,
I said, "I will, then, be a toad."

A learned man came to me once.
He said, "I know the way,-- come."
And I was overjoyed at this.
Together we hastened.
Soon, too soon, were we
Where my eyes were useless,
And I knew not the ways of my feet.
I clung to the hand of my friend;
But at last he cried, "I am lost."

Upon the road of my life,
Passed by me many fair creatures,
Clothed all in white, and radiant.
To one, finally, I made speech:
"Who art thou?"
But she, like the others,
Kept cowled her face,
And answered in hate, anxiously,
"I am Good Deep, forsooth;
You have often seen me."
"Not uncowled," I made reply.
And with rash and strong hand,
Though she resisted,
I drew away the veil
And gazed at the features of Vanity.
She, shamefaced, went on;
And after I had mused a time,
I said of myself, 

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Is Punishment Right?

Josh Coles asks: 
"Punishment" is frowned on in most psychological, pedagogical, and parental circles these days.  This is usually because it is claimed that punishment is not remedial to the transgressor.

Should we be quick to disavow punishment in favor of other terms?  Or is there a valid application of punishment? 

"Punishment" is a broad term that could refer to an activity that is either remedial or karmic.  Let's say that someone is addicted to heroin and so they rob from people's houses.  A judge determines that the thief should go to a year long in house treatment so they can stop the drug, thus no longer stealing.  That is a remedial purpose, but treatment is still a punishment.  The person is separated from friends and family, and will often have to leave behind many friends.  There is at least a thirty day black out period.  We could call all that discipline, but because the treatment is forced (or at least chosen instead of years in prison) it is a punishment.

There is a kind of punishment that is beneficial to society, but not beneficial to the one being punished, which would be separation.  If someone refuses to acknowledge their wrong doing as problematic for others, they should be separated.  This is the idea of a "time-out" and it is the best reason for prisons.  This safeguards those who might be harmed by anti-social behavior.

The other reason for punishment is karmic justice.  Some say that karmic justice reduces wrong-doing by helping people realize that their crime has a consequence.  That assumes rationality in those doing the crime.  Many crimes are done by compulsion, such as crimes done in rage or under an addictive drive.  Those crimes aren't done rationally and so karmic justice doesn't prevent a single one of those.  Many feel that it is just simple justice, "eye for eye".  

However, I find that karmic justice is rarely just when accomplished by human beings. Humans often overpunish or do not know enough details of a crime to give just punishment.  Thus, I see that there is a place for remedial punishment and some protective punishment, karmic punishment should be left to God.  Only God knows what punishment is truly just and will give what is just to all. 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Small Graces

Woke up this morning feeling sad and lonely.

We all get that way sometimes, and there's no real reason for it.  We can gaze at our lives in many different ways.  We could look at our successes, we could look at our failures, we could see how rewarding our relationships are or we could recognize that our relationships are really meaningless.  We could see how our work has done something important, or note that no one really appreciates the work we've done.

The funny thing is how our mood so often colors our lives.

I wonder how God feels about His life, His work.

Does He wake up some mornings and say, "No one really cares about me.  For all the praise I get, almost none of them really care about me outside of being in a group of worshipers.  Few are grateful, and for those who are, they often thank me for things I didn't do, and ignore the hard work I did put into their lives.  Believers fight tooth and nail over doctrine I never taught and ignore the basic principles I want them to live by."

I'll bet most of the time, he avoids such depressing thoughts because they really aren't helpful. Such thoughts make us depressed or angry, but I'll bet God recognizes that it's best to focus on the small good instead of the large, ignorant populations that disrespect Him though apathy or carelessness.

Perhaps that's why Jesus likes to look at the small things that change reality.  The things that seems so insignificant to sweeps of history, but are so full of God's grace.

The sisters whose brother had died.
The boy who returns to his father.
The servant who obeys his master.
The woman with non-stop bleeding.
The embezzler who impresses his boss.
The woman who lost a coin.
The man who finds treasure in a field.
The woman whose son died.

Small people.  In the scheme of world events, pretty unimportant.  But these are the small things God wants us to notice.  Not the everyday negativity, not the horrors of the world.  But the small graces that make all the differences.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

What Are Words?

Today I've had two discussions about semantics.

One was a discussion of the term "anarchist" by an anarchist friend of mine who complains that the term is used "wrongly" by those who use it as a popular term for those opposing any government.  Of course, that is one meaning of the word, and a more common one than his preferred use of the word "anarchist", which is a political theory where a government does not use force, but is instead replaced by a voluntary cooperative society.  

In a forum about theology, I had a discussion about the word "Christian" and if it means a "real" disciple of Jesus or just someone who goes to church.  Some claimed that since the Bible three times uses the word "Christian" for disciple, that they mean the same thing.

I think that both of these folks are supporting a fallacy about words: that they are static, have one primary meaning and that primary meaning is the "real" meaning and other uses of the word are "wrong."  What we need to recognize that besides homophones, words generally do not have a single, concrete meaning, but a range of meanings, which linguists call "semantic categories."  A word is not a sign, which will remain in one place, never changing, but rather a pool ball, bouncing around within a limited context.  The meaning in any sentence depends on the other pool balls, and we need to see where it lands.

This is the problem of having a certain set of words which are "bad".  No word is "bad" in and of itself, but it is a context it is used in which it is "bad" or inappropriate.  "Shit" isn't a bad word when you're talking about stuff in a toilet.  "Fuck" isn't bad when speaking of a sexual act privately, or when feeling aghast at a situation when speaking to certain people.  But if I'm in church or on television, I just shouldn't use those words, because the context is inappropriate.  Some would say that these words shouldn't make an appearance on a blog by a pastor.  Interesting thought...

Even so, to speak of "anarchists" negatively isn't wrong, it is just using the word in one of the appropriate meanings.  Those who classify themselves as "anarchists" politically might want to think about using a new term unless they want someone to assume something different than they intend.

In this way, I do not use the word "Christian" as if that is what saves someone.  No matter how it is used in the Bible, "Christian" is more commonly known as someone who associates oneself to the social world of Christianity, not necessarily a committed, faithful disciple.  So I'd rather use the term Christian for how it is meant in the majority of the world-- a social label.  And for those who recognize that Jesus is Lord, I'd rather say "follower of Christ."  I don't have a problem with people using "Christian" in a narrow sense.  I think it's just less confusing in most contexts not to use it that way.

If you are interested in reading about ranges of meaning for words, here are a couple articles:

The Living Word by Peter Ludlow
Word Senses and Taxonomies 

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Opportunities for Spiritual Retreats

Honestly, I'm a terrible one for getting rest.  I'm so busy because I have so much to do and it HAS to be done, and I can't wait and I can't stop because there's always something else to do.  I bet you understand that.

But if you think about it, the one who had the most to do was Jesus.  He knew he had about three years to do all his work.  He was in a hurry, and he knew it.  But he still took time to rest, and after a year he took his disciples away from the ministry so they could rest as well.  What a cool boss.  But even more than that, it shows how important Jesus considered rest.  The guy with the most important mission in the world-- EVER-- took times of retreat, times where he could get alone with God and not do ministry.

Well, if it was so important to Jesus, it must be just as important to us.

I've tried to take time to rest.  Honestly, most structured retreats don't do much for me because they have me spending so much time with other people, and as an introvert the last thing I need is to be with people.  God, yes, more chatter, no.  So where can we go to get a retreat?  If you are in the Portland, OR area, here are a couple options:

1. Sanctuary Prayer House
In the urban area of Portland/Gresham, there is a local place to have a short prayer retreat from one to three days.  It is a quiet house, with a full kitchen, a bedroom, and a dedicated prayer room.  There is a small spiritual library for use in the house.  It is pretty bare, frankly.  It is meant for prayer and it is used exclusively for that.  If you would like to have a short prayer retreat, you can reserve this house for up to three nights.

It is located on the Sanctuary property, run by the Pacific Northwest Mennonites, at 195th and NE Glisan.  If you'd like to reserve a time, call Steve at 503-888-4453.

2. The Grotto
If you are looking for a place to pray and be at peace for just a morning or an afternoon, without a reservation, the best local place to do this I know is the top of the Grotto.  You have to pay a few dollars to get a coin for the elevator, listen to the recording on the way up, but once you step out, the gardens and art and centers are restful, guiding one to the peace of God.  There are 62 acres of both indoor and outdoor places to pray or to just be silent.  Although it is internationally known, the upper level is never crowded and always ready to spend time with God.

It is located at 8840 NE Skidmore St  Portland, OR 97220.  The upper level is open from 10am to 5pm daily.

2. Lafayette Trappist Monastery
Lafayette is a small town outside of Newburg, but it contains one of the spiritual secrets of Oregon: a guest house for spiritual retreats.  The monastery, like most Trappist abbies, have worship five times a day, chanting the Psalms and honoring the Lord.  They also have guest rooms, which can be reserved for spiritual retreats from one to five days.  With the room comes meals and use of the compound.  There is a spiritual library, silent rooms, a gorgeous pond, spiritual art and hiking trails.  (Bring the map the provide for the trails, though-- you don't want to get lost like I did.)

There is a fifty dollar deposit to reserve a room, and the balance of your stay is a recommended donation of fifty dollars more for each subsequent night.  There is no wi-fi, and no real cell phone coverage.  Just ample opportunities for worship and silence before God.

Call for a reservation: 503-852-0107.  The address is: 9200 NE Abbey Rd  Carlton, OR 97111

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Ecclesiastical Side of the Moon

A friend of mine just listened to Dark Side of the Moon for the second time.

I know, right?  How can anyone listen to it just twice?  But that's what he did and he declared it "not for me".  He said that he can see some good things, but he just can't put the "out of this world" music with the lyrics that are trapped on this earth.  He specifically pointed out the lyric, "Home/home again/ I like to be here when I can/ when I come home cold and tired/ it's good to warm my bones beside the fire."  He can't see how that lyric fits with the mystical music. 

This is my response to him:

I am a Pink Floyd fan but I cannot tell you to like what you obviously don't.  Tastes differ.  ;(

But I will say that the tension between the spacey music and the solid, sometimes harsh lyrics really works for me.  In fact, I didn't care for the album either, first time I heard it, until I got into the themes and realized that they all worked together.

The theme of the album is, in proper Floyd fashion, "That which makes one go mad."  So the lyrics speak directly about social pressures and nihilism and lost expectations and war... while the music speaks of the inner state of the mind.  The album goes back and forth between being TOO involved in reality (On the Run, Great Gig in the Sky, Money, Time) and music that speaks of a growing disconnect from reality (Breathe-- a search for peace not found in this world; Us and Them, Brain Damage). 

The keystone of the album, to me, is Great Gig in the Sky, which is on the surface about religion with the gospel voices moaning in ecstasy which moves slowly to screaming agony and then back down again to acceptance.  This is almost orgiastic, speaking possibly of the sexual connection of religious fervor.  But it also speaks to the movement of the mind that is the heart of the album.  The mind realizes the tension it is under until it finally screams under the suffering and agony of reality.  Finally, it just breaks, suddenly, and achieves the peace it had been longing for from the beginning.  But it could only achieve this peace by no longer being associated with reality at all.

So you might see why this album is so powerful to me.  

Ecclesiastes and Dark Side of the Moon:

I said of laughter, "It is madness," and of pleasure, "What does it accomplish?" (Ecc 2:2)

"I've always been mad, I know I've been mad, like the 
most of us...very hard to explain why you're mad, even if you're not mad..." 

Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after wind and there was no profit under the sun. (Ecc 2:11)

Run, rabbit run. 
Dig that hole, forget the sun, 
And when at last the work is done 
Don't sit down it's time to dig another one. 

 All things are wearisome; Man is not able to tell it. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, Nor is the ear filled with hearing. That which has been is that which will be, And that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun.
 (Ecc 1:8-9)

The sun is the same in a relative way but you're older, 
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death. 

The wise man's eyes are in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I know that one fate befalls them both.  Then I said to myself, "As is the fate of the fool, it will also befall me. Why then have I been extremely wise?" So I said to myself, "This too is vanity."
 (Ecc 2:14-15)

Long you live and high you fly 
And smiles you'll give and tears you'll cry 
And all you touch and all you see 
Is all your life will ever be. 

For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity. All go to the same place. All came from the dust and all return to the dust. Who knows that the breath of man ascends upward and the breath of the beast descends downward to the earth?
 (Ecc 3:19-21)

Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain. 
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today. 
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you. 
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun. 
So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it's sinking 
Racing around to come up behind you again. 

He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves abundance with its income. This too is vanity. When good things increase, those who consume them increase.
 (Ecc 5:10-11)

Money, it's a crime.
Share it fairly but don't take a slice of my pie.
Money, so they say
Is the root of all evil today.
But if you ask for a raise it's no surprise that they're 
giving none away.

A time to search and a time to give up as lost; A time to keep and a time to throw away. A time to tear apart and a time to sew together; A time to be silent and a time to speak. A time to love and a time to hate; A time for war and a time for peace.
 (Ecc 3:6-8)

All that you slight 
And everyone you fight. 
All that is now 
All that is gone 
All that's to come 

and everything under the sun is in tune 
but the sun is eclipsed by the moon. 

I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after wind. (Ecc 1:14)

Monday, July 08, 2013

Two Quotes That Have Little To Do With Each Other

But I was inspired by them both today:

“We thank you, O God, for the good things we enjoy in our lives but lament that our abundance has brought destitution to sisters and brothers throughout the Earth.”
-The Mennonite Worker

"The church exists for nothing else but to draw people into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became man for no other purpose. It is even doubtful, you know, whether the whole universe was created for any other purpose." -C.S. Lewis

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Trapped by Hatred

Jesus told us to love our enemies, so if we are followers of Jesus, that’s pretty basic.  But even as followers of Jesus we can create an enemy in our minds so insidious, so horrible that whatever measures we use against that enemy is justified.  This is called hatred or rage or bitterness. It could be against an ex-spouse, against a political party, against a group who hurt us, against a corporation or against an ideology.

Signs We Are In Attack Mode

 It is a state of mind, like falling in love, in which all of our life experiences are colored by this experience, and we don’t know how much it affects us.  And if someone mentions it, we will often deny that we are in a state of hatred.  So how can we know?  Here are some signs:

1.       We find ourselves thinking about these same wrongs done by our opponent when our minds are at ease.

2.       We will re-direct conversations (especially on the internet) to the wrongs done, even when the connection in the conversation is tenuous at best.

3.       Our friends stop conversing with us, for fear we will bring up this subject again.

4.       We ignore our close friends’ recommendations that we have gone over the deep end in this subject.

5.       We excuse our actions and obsessions by saying, “But they deserve it!” which gives us an excuse to list their sins again.

6.       We pursue any opportunity to list the sins of our opponent, and we think that this is the best way to gather supporters against them.

7.       We cannot see what good our opponent does, everything they do is black, with no shades of gray.

8.       Those who see some good they do, or who question some of our propositions must be absolutely convinced of our opponent’s evil.

9.       If it comes, we rejoice in our opponent’s downfall.

10.   We find ourselves participating in groups that express hatred in open terms with which we are uncomfortable, but we think our cause allows for that.

What can we do?

If we find ourselves in such a state, we might be both a little embarrassed but also assured that we are right.  In some ways we might very well be right.  It is easy to find wrongdoers, but harder to change the situation into right.  Jesus does not want us to spew hatred against our enemies, but to love them, to convert them to doing right through Him.  How can we do that?

1.       Change ourselves.
If we want to change those around us, or part of the world, we must first change ourselves.  We must be the change we see in others.  If we want to be listened to, we must first listen.  If we want to be forgiven, we must first forgive.  If we want justice, we must first enact justice.  If we want our opponent to change, we must enact the change in our lives, in our communities, and show how it works better.

2.       Release bitterness.
Our listing of other’s sins and perpetual angry speech isn’t hurting our opponent, it is only hurting ourselves by making us bitter people.   We need to recognize that we are making others uncomfortable with us by creating an enemy.  Even if they have attacked us first, we are the ones perpetuating the war.  For our own sakes, we need to release this bitterness.  But if our minds are so focused on this, how can we possibly overcome it?

-Take a fast of judging speech.  Don’t post anything angry about anyone on your FB page, don’t blog about it, don’t talk to your spouse about it for as long as you feel necessary.  A month is a good, round number, and the sins of our opponent will still be there when we are done with the fast.

-Don’t allow ourselves to think about it when our minds our quiet.  We can’t actually stop thinking about something, but we can distract ourselves with things that are positive—books, movies, music that focuses us on what is good, honorable and noble.

-Make a list of what positive things our opponent has done.  Every person, group and organization has done something good.  If we can’t see it, it is because we are blinded by our own anger.  If we really want our opponents to change, we must admit what good they have done, even if the good is only positive motivation—that they tried to do something good, even if they failed.  This is a hard step, but unless we can do this, our own healing is on hold.

3.       Use your anger for good
Bald anger only produces more anger.  We can use our anger to be wise, to see good be done. Instead of speaking against someone, we need to figure out ways to positively stop the evil being done.  To “win” is not to cause our opponent to fail, for that only leaves a void for another person/organization to step in and cause evil again.  Rather, we need to produce good that will replace the evil.  This requires imagination and ingenuity.  But if we have the energy to be angry, we have the energy to turn that anger to produce good out of it.  And in whatever action you do against your opponent, be able to say to them honestly “I love you (opponent), and so I want to see (positive action) happen.”

4.       For every negative comment, make two positive ones

There is a time for anger.  There is a time to talk about wrongs done.  But if that’s all we are talking about, we are only bringing more anger into the world.  Vow to not only talk about wrongs done on the internet or in conversation, but to focus on the good.  Be funny.  Post beauty.  Encourage someone.  In this way your life will have a better balance.  

"Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry."  James 1:19

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Top 5 Music Artists for My Writing

I have not done this. Yet.
My writing habit is to find a place where no one will disturb me-- like a Starbucks or fast food restaurant-- plug in some music to drown the noise out and get going.  This means I need a music that is loud enough to do the job, but not so distracting that I focus on the music instead of my writing.  Musicals are out, because they always tempt me to break out in song, which isn't often welcome at Starbucks, but also distracts me from my writing.  A general list of my favorite songs also have the same problem.  I don't usually listen to 70's or Classic Rock, because each song demands my attention.

I do make playlists for my writing times, but more often than not I play through an artist that gives me the focus I need.  These artists aren't boring, but they have a flow and they assist me in focusing, as well as giving me a mood as a background to my writing.

Red Mountain Church
This is a worship group that plays a soothing Americana to old hymns with lost music.  Powerful, deep and interesting vocal talent.  Good for writing about Jesus.

Red House Painters
What is it about bands with "Red" in the name?  These folks are even more soothing, playing your basic acoustic guitar and piano.  Their songs tend to run long, which is good, and they play covers which are unrecognizable from the original, but good in their own right. Good for writing in general.

I have to qualify that my Radiohead collection is pretty unique in that I don't have some of their more stand out songs, which I consider irritating.  I still have a number of albums worth of songs, and they are perfect for writing, especially if I am really intense or angry.

Black Heart Procession
I have loved these guys since I first heard them in a local coffee shop.  They have a spooky quality, almost like you were listing to the soundtrack to a horror film about children with squeaky swings and low tones.  The funny thing is, they are not dark, but teasing around the darkness, which makes them perfect for when I feel snarky.

Again with the Americana.  Catchy songs, but folksy and just wonderful.  I suppose someday I'll get tired of them, but they are just what I need right now.

As far as I'm concerned, these bands, plus Peter Gabriel, Sam Phillips, John Michel Talbot and others are the sponsors of my writing.  They have made my life richer.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

My Top Ten Muppets

When people think "muppets" often they limit themselves to The Muppet Show or movies.  And that show was a lot of fun, but we need to remember that muppets got their break on Sesame Street, and they made important appearances in other films.  My list will be more comprehensive:

Yoda: Always wise, trying to reach a balance between waiting and action, he's a great creation and voiced by regular muppet-master Frank Oz.

Grover: Not too bright, but always ready to help and full of energy.

Animal: Hyper, wild, not-so-articulate, but always there to speak up.  Loudly.

Cookie Monster: The most adorable addict ever.

Ludo: Sensitive, helpful, but also really, really strong, he's my favorite character from Labyrinth.  

Gonzo: The most unique of the muppets.  He looks different, thinks different and... does unique things.

Herry Monster: A muppet who is not often considered, but his gentle ways have always charmed me.

Count von Count: Whenever I have to count to a number less than ten, I always want to end it: Ah hahahaha!  And sometimes do.  I am often disappointed that there is no thunderclap.

Beeker:  Always anxious, and always having reason to, he can never say more than "meep".

Prarie Dawn: Very girlie, a good leader and sometimes very pushy. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

My Personal Facebook Rules

1.       Make peace, encourage love, seek God, stir up thinking on Facebook.  Repost whatever fits those categories.

2.       Don’t post if I am too tired, cranky, or depressed.

3.       Don’t try to offend people, but if I do, don’t sweat it

4.       FB is public: If my post isn’t appropriate to share from a pulpit, it’s not appropriate to post. No personal information, no insults, no personal rants (unless it’s funny), no passive aggressive posts, nothing crude (lightly crude is okay). Look at a post again.  Is it really appropriate?  If I have doubts, either check with my wife or take it off.

5.       I am responsible for the content on my timeline.  If someone posts slander or an insult on my timeline, then I am responsible to take it off.

6.       Occasionally try to initiate discussion.  Ask questions, seek input.  It’s more fun if more people are involved.

7.       Don’t get into long, pointless arguments.  Once either I or the other are no longer listening, or we repeat ourselves, it’s time to stop.

8.       Don’t be so serious. Post heavy stuff, but also exchange it with some funny.  If I laugh at something, I like or share it

9.   Always try to say "Happy birthday" to my friends.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Modern Medicine

Four weeks ago, Mike-- our handyman at Anawim and good friend-- fell and hit his head on a sidewalk near our house.  He happened to fall in front of the police, who saw he wasn't getting up, so they picked him up and took him to the hospital. It turned out he had blood on his brain, which caused a severe memory lapse. Health-wise, he wasn't doing well, so the kept him in ICU.

Mike also drank daily, and being without alcohol put him into shock.  They sedated him in the hospital, but his body wasn't really equipped to deal with such a sudden change.  Complications arose, and his heart stopped, with no oxygen going to his brain for a short period of time.  He remained sedated for a week, and when he came out, he didn't respond to anyone.  He is alive, but he isn't there.  Today they will take out his ventilator tube and he will die.

I thought I was prepared for this, but I'm really not.

If he had just dropped dead, or not woken up one day, I was ready for that.  But death doesn't seem to work that way anymore.  I've had dozens of my friends die, but usually it is sudden, or they make choices to (basically) end their lives by their actions.  Mike wasn't like that, neither was Rick who was in my house last year.  And death isn't sudden, but a long, drawn out process.  When we have hope and very, very gradually, that hope is dashed until we realize that they will linger, as different people, and just fade away, as completely different people than who they were the rest of their lives.

Not only that, but I find myself (as a pastor of people who are often estranged from their family) making life and death choices that family should be doing.  I'm not complaining about this so much as realizing that I am not emotionally prepared to deal with this.  Almost all of us have to make these kinds of choices for our parents as they grow older, but to have this long-term grief, and anger, and being "wise" (or at least boldly faking it) for many people is too difficult for anyone.

I remember a few years ago wishing that family didn't have as much power over people they didn't really know.  I've had family call me and tell me that they were glad that their homeless family member was dead.  I've had family call me and blame me for their deaths because I didn't force them to make better choices.   Family like that shouldn't really be making life and death decisions.  On the other hand, the burden of making these choices, and not knowing if one has the right to make these decisions, as well as wondering if I'm smart enough or wise enough or worthy to make such choices.

Especially when I am struggling deeply with the ethical issues that our increased medicine gives us.  More and more often choices have to be made for people who are mentally incapacitated.  We-- family members or otherwise-- are asked "what would they chose in this situation?", and there is, of course, no answer, unless they have a living will.   They haven't been in this situation before.  And hardly anyone talks to their friends about what they would want if they were going to live their lives in a lower mental capacity for the rest of their lives.  It's all guesswork.

Mike's daughter was found.  It turns out that she hadn't seen him for fifteen years, even though he claimed to have seen her every couple months.  He has two grandsons he had never seen.  Sarah, his daughter, last saw him when she was learning how to drive at 16.  Now she sees him, unconscious, almost dead.  She never learned who her father was, really.  Now she is the one to decide whether he will live or die.  I feel horrible for her.  It must be terrible to be responsible for someone you loved but didn't really know.  It must be so hard to know that you will never get to know your own father, even though he is right there, in front of you.

Things are much more complicated than they used to be.  Years ago, Mike might have just died.  Or we would have taken him home, made sure he had his beers, and he would still be alive, if a bit impaired.  We would have made the life and death decisions, who have lived with him and loved him for the last seven years.  Sarah still would be ignorant of what happened.  I'm not saying the old system is better.  But I think I could process all this better the old way.

Honestly, I'm not upset at anything that happened along the way.  I'm just processing.  Long death is so difficult.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

C.S. Lewis on Why We Need Modern Translations

There has been some controversy about why we should have modern translations of the Bible.  "After all, if the King James English was good enough for the Apostle Paul, it's good enough for me."  Well, C.S. Lewis disagreed with that sort of thinking, and here is his introduction to J.B. Philips modern translation of the New Testament:

"It is possible that the reader who opens this volume on the counter of a bookshop may ask himself why we need a new translation of any part of the Bible, and, if of any, why of the Epistles. ‘Do we not already possess’, it may be said, ‘in the Authorised Version the most beautiful rendering which any language can boast?’ Some people whom I have met go further and feel that a modern translation is not only unnecessary but even offensive. They cannot bear to see the time-honoured words altered; it seems to them irreverent.

There are several answers to such people. In the first place the kind of objection which they feel to a new translation is very like the objection which was once felt to any English translation at all. Dozens of sincerely pious people in the sixteenth century shuddered at the idea of turning the time-honoured Latin of the Vulgate into our common and (as they thought) ‘barbarous’ English. A sacred truth seemed to them to have lost its sanctity when it was stripped of the polysyllabic Latin, long heard at Mass and at Hours, and put into ‘language such as men do use’ — language steeped in all the commonplace associations of the nursery, the inn, the stable, and the street. The answer then was the same as the answer now.

The only kind of sanctity which Scripture can lose (or, at least, New Testament scripture) by being modernized is an accidental kind which it never had for its writers or its earliest readers. The New Testament in the original Greek is not a work of literary art: it is not written in a solemn, ecclesiastical language, it is written in the sort of Greek which was spoken over the Eastern Mediterranean after Greek had become an international language and therefore lost its real beauty and subtlety. In it we see Greek used by people who have no real feeling for Greek words because Greek words are not the words they spoke when they were children. It is sort of ‘basic’ Greek; a language without roots in the soil, a utilitarian, commercial and administrative language.

Does this shock us? It ought not to, except as the Incarnation itself ought to shock us. The same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby at a peasant-woman’s breast, and later an arrested field preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that He should be preached in a vulgar, prosaic and unliterary language. If you can stomach the one, you can stomach the other. The Incarnation is in that sense, an incurably irreverent doctrine: Christianity, in that sense, an incurably irreverent religion. When we expect that it should have come before the World in all the beauty that we now feel in the Authorised Version we are as wide of the mark as the Jews were in expecting that the Messiah would come as a great earthly King. The real sanctity, the real beauty and sublimity of the New Testament (as of Christ’s life) are of a different sort: miles deeper or further in.

In the second place, the Authorised Version has ceased to be a good (that is, a clear) translation. It is no longer modern English: the meanings of words have changed. The same antique glamour which has made it (in the superficial sense) so ‘beautiful’, so ’sacred’, so ‘comforting’, and so ‘inspiring’, has also made it in many place unintelligible. Thus where St Paul says ‘I know nothing against myself,’ it translates ‘I know nothing by myself.’ That was a good translation (though even then rather old-fashioned) in the sixteenth century: to the modern reader it means either nothing, or something quite different from what St Paul said. The truth is that if we are to have translation at all we must have periodical re-translation. There is no such thing as translating a book into another language once for all, for a language is a changing thing. If your son is to have clothes it is no good buying him a suit once for all: he will grow out of it and have to be re-clothed.

And finally, though it may seem a sour paradox — we must sometimes get away from the Authorised Version, if for no other reason, simply because it is so beautiful and so solemn. Beauty exalts, but beauty so lulls. Early associations endear but they also confuse. Through that beautiful solemnity the transporting or horrifying realities of which the Book tells may come to us blunted and disarmed and we may only sigh with tranquil veneration when we ought to be burning with shame or struck dumb with terror or carried out of ourselves by ravishing hopes and adorations. Does the word ’scourged’ really come home to us like ‘flogged’? Does ‘mocked him’ sting like ‘jeered at him’?

We ought therefore to welcome all new translations (when they are made by sound scholars) and most certainly those who are approaching the Bible for the first time will be wise not to begin with the Authorised Version — except perhaps for the historical books of the Old Testament where its anachronisms suit the saga-like material well enough. … It would have saved me a great deal of labour if this book had come into my hands when I first seriously began to try to discover what Christianity was."

Friday, March 15, 2013

God's Path to Happiness

Jesus wants us to be happy
God created us with the capacity to be happy.  We are so often discontent with our lives, we forget the happiness we have been given.  We are made to feel pleasure, to enjoy life, to have joy, to be satisfied with what we have.  God’s purpose for us all is for us to be happy in Him, to live lives of deep joy and contentment.  This doesn’t mean that we won’t suffer, nor does it mean that we won’t also feel deep sorrow.  But the overall purpose of our existence is not to mourn, but to rejoice.  For some of us, the long-lasting joy will have to wait until eternity.  But we can all experience satisfaction and happiness now.

Happiness comes from lifestyle choices
Studies have shown that our genetic make up—whether we are generally a melancholy or bubbly person— only accounts for 10 percent of our level of happiness.  And our experiences—whether someone insults us or we win the lottery—only accounts for 30 percent of whether we are generally happy or not.  What really makes us happy or not is in our control. 

This doesn’t mean that we should pursue happiness or positive thinking.  Just thinking happy thoughts actually just means that we try to suppress negative thoughts and that doesn’t work. Rather the way to be happy is to develop habits which make us satisfied in the long term.  Happiness isn’t the same as pleasure—we must pursue long-term solutions, not short-term excitements.

Basic Needs
Money doesn’t make us happy.  Studies have shown that money can make us happy, if we are desperate to have our needs fulfilled, and money makes us satisfy those needs.  But it isn’t the money that makes us happy, but the meeting of our basic needs.  After one’s basic needs are met, then money has nothing to do with happiness.  To be happy, we need to make sure we have what our bodies need: good food, water, rest, health, and connection to other people.
“Give me neither poverty nor riches, give me the food I need.” Proverbs 30:8

New Experiences
So often we think that if we had this item, we would be happy.  The new television, the better computer, the bigger house, the collection of stuff we’d wanted for so long.  But stuff only makes us happy for a moment because we are ultimately no different than the child we were who would be overjoyed at the gift we longed for, and then seek the next item as soon as the last was opened.  Studies have shown that instead of trying to grab more stuff, we should seek experiences.  We should go out on dates with our spouses, take walks in beautiful neighborhoods, cook and enjoy a particularly good meal.  Things don’t give us memories, good, unique experiences do.

In order to be happy, we need to be thankful for what good we have.  It is easy for some of us to focus on complaining on what we don’t have or on how our lives fall short of our ideal.  If we want to be happy, we need to make a regular habit of looking at the good in our lives and being grateful for it.  My family gathers once a week to thank God for what good has happened that week.  In the worst weeks, we thank God we are alive and breathing.  But almost every week, each of us has something specific that we are grateful for.
“Every good and perfect gift is from above.” James 1:17  “In everything give thanks.” I Thessalonians 5:18

We always have parts of our lives that aren’t going the way we want.  Sometimes it seems that there is nothing in our lives that is going right.  Everything seems negative or hopeless.  We could complain, but that doesn’t help our attitude.  We could get angry, but that only deepens our frustration with life.  When we are tempted to complain, we don’t need to put on a false attitude of happiness, but we can look at our lives and say, “I can live with this.”  Our lives may not be what we want, but we can teach ourselves to be content with what we have, especially if we can’t change it.
“I have learned to be content in all circumstances.” Philippians 4:11

There are times in our lives in which we deeply suffer.  Some of us live in deep poverty.  Some of us are attacked or caused real pain. At some point we lose someone we have deeply loved. Others of us have chronic health conditions.  Some of us deal with pain on a regular basis. Some of us suffer because of our own poor choices—overwork, sin, additions, pain in relationships.  These conditions certainly effect our happiness, and no amount of “happy thinking” will change that.  However, in every kind of suffering we endure, there is a benefit we can obtain from it.  We cannot just expect good will come out of suffering, but we have to seek it.  If our suffering comes from sin, we can seek repentance and forgiveness.  If our suffering comes from illness, we can seek health.  If our suffering comes from being attacked, we can seek God’s redemption.  The funny thing is, when we return to our “normal” state after suffering, we are happier than we were before.  Enduring through suffering and seeking help actually makes us happy, and more content with our lives.
“We exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation leads to endurance, endurance to proven character, and proven character to hope.”  Romans 5:3-4

Contemplative Silence
Our world is more hectic than ever, and our own busyness is often our own worst enemy.  We all can reach a point when we are so active that we become ineffective in the very actions we pursue, and this leads to frustration and hopelessness.  To reduce this frustration, we all need times of silence and focus.  This doesn’t mean that we just tell everyone to shut up, but we get away from others and their expectations and from all the work we need to do and we just stay quiet before God.  We listen to Him and to what He wants to say.  Perhaps He will say nothing.  Perhaps we can just enjoy the rest.  But in order for us to remain content, we must have time with God, focusing on Him alone.
“Early in the morning, when it was still dark, Jesus got up, left everyone, went to a secluded place and prayed.” Mark 1:35

Positive relationships
Our relationships with others deeply affect our attitudes toward life in general.  Our unhappiness increases as we are isolated or lonely.  No matter how irritating or frustrating other people can be, they still are the ones who will grant us the greatest source of happiness in our lives.  The fact is, though, people can be—inevitably WILL be—irritating and frustrating, no matter how much we care about them.  And it is rare for a person to be so bad that they will always be a source of pain and not joy.  The habit we need to develop with others is to seek the positive and avoid the negative.  Not to get rid of negative people, but to find the positive in all people.  The worst person has a good habit or intentions—seek that, develop that in your interactions with the person.  You can’t make them better, but you can encourage what you love about them when they are with you.
“Love one another” John 13:34

Serve others
So many people think that happiness is created by focusing on oneself, and one’s own pleasures or contentment.  But one of the greatest tools of our own happiness is acting on our compassion for others.  The happiest people in the world are those who regularly serve others, to no benefit for themselves.  God made us to be content only when we are taking part of our lives to serve others.  Seek a regular opportunity to serve those in need.  Volunteer at a local organization or church that helps the poor.  Keep socks or breakfast bars to give to the homeless when they have a sign.  One of the best feelings you will have is after you hear “thank you” from another person.
“Sell your possessions and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven.” Luke 12:33

Thanks to those who have studied the psychology of happiness over the past couple decades.  This article was inspired by their studies and many of the points drawn from their conclusions.