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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Every Heathen's Dream

Ad for a book seen recently - "Learn the secrets of effective prayer! Read this book, and be assured that God will hear and respond to your prayers!"

Oh, Lordy, I hope not. That would be the worst news I think we could ever get.

Everyone, even the most committed atheists, would love for their pryaers to be heard. But if you could really learn how to pray effectively, to make sure God heard you, it would mean one thing:

That we have a "little g god". It would reduce got to the status of a favor-dispensing genie, an idol whom we have only to approach with the correct incantations to get what we want.

Every heathen's dream - a clockwork god that works! We found the secret, the key! Quick, sacrifice some more virgins to keep it happy!

Modern Christianity, in the Americas in the early 21st century, already approaches that. We use quite a bit of mumbo-jumbo, without really knowing what we're doing.

Take "speaking in tongues". Even though I don't hold with it myself, I can accept that some people have their own "prayer language". All well and good, but when a preacher begins using his prayer language from the pulpit, it gets scary. Not because it sounds like gibberish...well, yes, because it does sound like gibberish, and it's being used in exactly the same way that a witch doctor might chant to the crocodile god. It's not scary because I think "bad things may happen"; it's scary because people actually think that this is the way to reach God.

Another bit of mumbo-jumbo is the use of language consistent with that used in the King James Bible. No one would deny its beauty and spare elegance; likewise, no one would use this language in a business meeting. It's only used in church.

When it's used in the church of Jesus Christ, it goes directly against what Jesus said - "Say what you mean". If speaking plainly is what Our Savor told us to do, why are we using language that we would never use in public, and over which we don't have full control?

If you're thinking, hey, English is English...I have control over that, here's a simple test. If this sentence correct?

"I lift my eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh Thy help."

If you said yes, you're in the vast majority, and you're also quite wrong. "Whence" means "from where". The "where" is redundant.

I believe that we have a God who wants us to talk to him, and who has gone to some pretty great lengths - including letting His own Son go through some painful experiences - to get our attention.

He tore the veil.

Don't you dare put it back up.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Easy Targets


It's fun to throw rocks at people. It's even more fun when they can't throw rocks back at you.

The picture is a comic that's been making the Facebook rounds recently. It's one of several that is used to make the point that women are far tougher than men; that men will take to their beds and demand service at the slightest sign of the sniffles, while a woman will still be shopping, cooking for the family, and walking the dog while wearing a full-body cast.

Maybe that's true; childbirth, after all, is supposed to be the most painful thing a human being can experience, and it's reserved for women - some of whom endure it without drugs, for their babies' sake.

And certainly women have been treated poorly by our male-dominated society. For centuries they were little better than chattel, and even today no one will seriously debate the continued existence of the glass ceiling.

Unfortunately, Christianity has been used to enforce this arrangement; Paul said that women should be sure to dress modestly and not speak in church. A lot of preachers have tried to weasel out of those words, and re-interpret them. But they're there. Some other religions are much worse; some, like Buddhism, are rather better, in this regard.

So maybe there is a right to throw rocks, using comics like this one. But what makes this case a bit singular is the use of breast cancer as the defining condition for the woman. It's a woman's disease, and to say, "Hey, that's really not fair" puts one in the position of being unsympathetic to those who suffer from the disease.

So...I guess I'll go back out tomorrow, keep working, and make sure you don't see the blood I've been vomiting, from the illness that's tearing through my guts. After all, I'm only a guy.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Yeah, Right.

I know a number of people who are proud of their use of sarcasm.

I wonder why.'

Sarcasm is the mean brother of irony. Where irony points out incongruities in a situation, sarcasm inflates them and then pricks them with a pin to watch the intended target jump - or wince - at the explosion.

And sarcasm always needs a target - or, perhaps more accurately, victim. It's a sneak attack that is at its most effective when it hammers something the victim holds dear. The greater the hurt, the greater the effect.

In the long term, it has a corrosive effect on character, because it seems to be kind of addictive. The more "zingers" a sarcastic person can throw out there, the more he wants to throw. It becomes a part of his habitual speech pattern, and eventually a part of how he looks at the world. The sarcastic person becomes the embodiment of the jaded, world-weary soul, fed up with mankinds excesses.

Too bad it's a pose. There are excesses to oppose, certainly, but taking refuge in this kind of humor does nothing to fight them. It merely makes the speaker look wise and detatched, or so he hopes.

At its heart, sarcasm is also dishonest - the words used gain their impact as their distance from the truth is increased. Which, for those of you who care, put it rather at odds with the Bible, in a formal sense.

In an informal sense, it's on the other side of the river from Jesus. It's not "saying yes when you mean yes, and no when you mean no". And it's not turning the other cheek, or doing unto others as you'd have them do unto you.

Like the old T-shirt slogan from the 60s said..."Do unto others, then split".

That may be the best advice for dealing with a sarcastic person.


Monday, January 28, 2013

Genocide Is Where You Find It

Over the past few years I've butted heads with several people (pastors included) in several churches over the appropriateness of using Saul's incomplete eradication of the Amalakytes as a demonstration of the consequences of disobedience to God.

(For those who may not remember, the prophet Samuel told Saul that he was to kill all of the Amalakytes, and their livestock. Saul spared the best of the animals, as well as King Agag and his queen. Samuel was not pleased, and killed Agag himself. Saul lost his kingdom, and 500 years later Agag's descendant Haman tried to wipe out the Jews living in exile in Persia.)

This is a difficult story on many levels, because, baldly, it's divinely-ordained genocide. The Amalakytes are to be wiped out - completely. No survivors. This is completely at odds with our modern sensibilities; a president who would have deliberately targeted Osama bin Laden's entire family would have found himself on the receiving end of a lot of criticism, not to mention possible legal sanctions.

But if you look at it in an historical context, the picture's a bit different. Bronze-Age war was unimaginably brutal, and genocide was considered a valid aim.

The heart of the problem with teaching this story is that we are not living in the Bronze Age; indeed, most people would be hard-pressed to identify what the Bronze Age was, let alone its time frame or characteristics.

We therefore have almost no idea of what the order Samuel passed on to Saul actually meant. It's easy to sit in a comfortable auditorium-style seat and nod while the preacher says that Saul was rightly punished for disobedience.

But what you're nodding about is the killing of a large number of captives, men, women, and children. They will likely have been tied with ropes so they can't escape or fight back.

They will be "put to the sword". Clean words that describe a messy death. Messy, and painful. Two methods were typically used - decapitation, and stabbing under the ribs.

Decapitation, done properly, is quick and probably as merciful as any killing with a blade can be. However, given a limited number of executioners and a large number of "customers", fatigue would make the stroke less powerful and exact as time went on, leading to incomplete decapitation. I leave the horror of this to your imagination.

Stabbing, or "running through", puts the blade through several large organs, major blood vessels, and the nerve bundle called the solar plexus. It's incredibly painful, and death comes through bleeding out. It's quick, if the aorta is severed, but nowhere near quick enough.

This is difficult enough, but consider those who are waiting, bound, to be killed. Consider what they see, hear, and smell.

Do you see the problem? Nodding in satisfied agreement recognizes none of the realities of the operation. Put it this way - could you have done this, as one of Saul's soldiers? Certainly not the "you" sitting in church...at least, I hope not.

The end of Saul's reign, as the price of disobedience, is a story that simply can't be taught. We don't have the slightest means to understand the actions that are at its heart.

And for that we should be grateful.

(I've heard a lot of justification for the extermination of the Alamakytes...from the chilling "they were like a cancer" to the somewhat goofy "the Holy Spirit was only in the world part-time", whatever that may have meant. An apologist on the Internet wrote that being killed by the sword was actually a "good death", which is hogwash. Another suggestion was that this is a morality tale, and never actually happened. Whatever. Probably the most logical argument, providing justification and admitting historicity, is that this is the way wars were fought at the time. Deal with it.)

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Raising Good Kids

Take away their cell phones. Turn off their computers. Kick 'em out in the woods. DOn't let them back in the house for a few hours.

When did childhood suddenly become an indoor activity? Drive through any "family neighborhood" on a Saturday and you'll be struck by one thing - the absence of children. They're all inside, playing with their xBoxes and Playstaions, and texting one another.

These are the children of the first generation of people whose childhood gave access to the Internet. It was a crude and somewhat clunky Internet back then, just a few years after Al Gore invented it (remember that one...oh, sorry, shouldn't have reminded you...).

The Internet, and digital "devices", have become all that was dreamed and more, and now the swingsets and slides, the forts in the woods and creek banks, sit silently under the lonely summer sun. The kids are gone, lured inside by the Brave New World that places all the world's knowledge, and much of its technological capability, in their hands.

The defense is that growing up this way is better preparation for the world in which they'll live. Undoubtedly true, but also a cheap and sneaky selfishness. They'll be better prepared to help maintain the world in which we live, through the beginnings of their careers...and we don't have to put the energy into teaching them the outdoor skills we may never have learned.

But something is lost when a child does not know how to whittle.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Swimsuit Issue

It's almost time for that yearly rite of passage...the Sports Illustrated "Swimsuit Issue".

It's a rite of passage because it's the traditional first step for young men into the world of pronography. (The Swimsuit Issue had a more prominent role before the Day of the Internet...now it's not nearly so much a defining object, but until something replaces the glossy, dog-eared, loose-paged magazine-in-use, it'll still be something of a cultural icon.)

Yes, pornography. The pictures in question are specifically designed and posed to encourage sexual excitement in young (and not-so-young) men.

The swimsuits themselves are designed to enhance and reinforce the imagination by emphasizing that which they don't expicitly show. This is an effective "hook", in that it follows the old show-business dictum, "leave 'em wanting more".

At this point there's still a balance in many boys. They're titillated, but there's a sense of right and wrong still operating. They want more, but deep down they recognize that "more" is a Rubicon they find themselves hesitant to cross. Most cross, though, egged on by their hormones, or their peers.

And where will they find more? The next step used to be the soft-core pornographic magazines like Playboy. Appetite whetted, hook set, and the next step to a magazine kept in a rack behind the cashier's counter was easier to take.

Today, for many young men, the next step is the Internet...but for those whose access isn't as free as they might like, the magazines are still there.

From there, the road descends further and further. What are the limits of low? I don't know, and I don't want to.

The result of this path, whose first few feet are set before our sons' feet by a "reputable" magazine, is disappointment in relationships, and marriages that could have been a lot stronger than they are. Pornographic images stay with the male mind for a long time, and how demeaning is it for a wife to feel the hidden blade of comparison, the comparison with a woman whose only existence for the viewer is in print, or digital.

Boys will be boys, you might say.

Yes. And one day they'll be husbands.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Marriage...Get What You Can, Give What You Must?

Negotiation is a great way to avoid wars, get back hostages, and deal with business issues.

But what is its place in a marriage?

At its simplest, the functionality of negotiation is "If you'll do this for me, I'll do this for you."

Something like, "I'll go to the tractor pull with you if you'll come see The Barber Of Seville with me. And I'll even enjoy it (or pretend to)."

I guess the question is, is anything worth putting your spouse into the position of being an unwilling participant (or spectator)? Can you really enjoy the tractor pull, knowing your wife would rather be cleaning the kids' bathroom, or doing anything else?

Oh, sorry. Yes, I know, it was the wife who wanted to go to the tractor pull. I stand corrected.

Is this really what you want in your closest relationship? Trying to get what you want in exchange for doing something you'd prefer to avoid?

Is this what St. Paul was saying, when he said we should put our spouses' interests first?

And, if it comes down to enduring The Barber of Seville, counting all tribulation as joy? Are you counting it as joy if you're waiting for it to end, so you can change the tux for a greasy ballcap and whack the love of your life on the rump while yelling "YEE-HA" over the sound of an unmuffled V-8?

Or are you just keeping score? I did this much, and got this much back?

And when you're looking death in the face, are you going to count up what you 'got', or what you freely gave, without expectation of a reward?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Uphill Fight

Recently a prominent televangelist had a guest on his program who claimed an "anointed prophetic vision" for 2013.

He promised visible miracles, wealth, and favor.

And he said this would all be available for those who sent a 'love gift' of $300. He could see a businessman picking up the phone to make an investment in his business, and a woman making the call to save her health.

The amount was divinely inspired...the '3' is a holy number, and the hundreds stood for...well, something. Perhaps the number of Spartans who died at Thermopylae, for all I know.

This sort of thing is so far from Jesus Christ that it beggars the imagination. Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus get paid; indeed, He tells His disciples, at one pint, to get out on the road without anything but the clothes on their backs.

He tells a rich young man to sell everything he owns and give it to the poor before following Him.

And what does He promise? Earthly persecution, and eternal life. Not a better bottom line.

With pious phonies like that running their mouths in public, it's no wonder that a large proportion of the population are mistrustful of Christians. They claim to be anointed by God - and they subvert everything Jesus said. And for the most part, they've got the microphone.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Part Of Love We Hate

"Pick up your Cross, and follow Me."

There are a lot of people who want to believe that they'd do just that, or that they're doing just that, except for one very small little tiny problem.

The forgiveness thing.

It's like, "Nail me to a Cross, torture me with whips and spears and crowns of thorns, humiliate me...but do you know what my brother said to me?"

Or it can be sneakier. "Well, she did that but it's okay, I've just written her off...I don't let it bother me any more."

"After all, he/she hasn't asked for forgiveness, so how am I supposed to forgive?"

How indeed. And it is a superficially valid argument...to rationalize being required to forgive when someone's asked for your forgiveness. After all, if someone says they're thirsty, you give them water. But if they don't, and you give them water anyway, it's kind of pointless, eh?

Trouble is, the analogy's flawed. Badly. Because we're all in need of forgiveness, and very few of us will honestly own up to it. We'll pay it lip service, sure..."Oh, Jesus, forgive my sins...". But most people, when they look in the moral mirror, think they look pretty good.

And the clincher is that inconvenient scene on the Cross. "Father, forgive them, because they don't know what they're doing."

And that means that someone who would call him- or herself a Christian, a follower of Christ, has to forgive. Regardless. Nothing held back. (And no taking the road that forgiveness mostly benefits the forgiver, by lowering internal stress, getting rid of negative energy, la-de-da. It doesn't matter what effect forgiveness has on you. You're just supposed to do it. Even if it kills you.)

If you don't, you're faking it. And you may be fooling your neighbor, but you're not fooling God.

(Just to be clear on two things...I don't call myself a Christian because I do have trouble with this. I believe Christ is the Son of God, was raised from the dead, died as a ransom to all...but to say I'm following Him would be a lie. I wish it were otherwise, and maybe one day it will be.)

(The second point is that forgiveness is not a Hallmark card. If you were molested as a child, you don't have to pretend it never happened, and invite the molester back into your life. You have the right to spend time and share space with people of your choice.)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Sunshine Award

Well, I've been tagged by my best friend, Jennifer Major, as a nominee for The Sunshine Award. The rules are to answer Jennifer's eight questions, and to tag eight fellow bloggers with the nomination.

Here are the questions, and the answers...

  1. What's your favorite TV show? - I don't watch TV except to have it on as soothing background for the Inside Dogs. If I can choose an HBO miniseries that I have on disc, it would be Band of Brothers
  2. Have you ever read a book on a friend's recommendation? If so, what was the title, and did you like it? - Yes - The Book of Mormon. I liked it a lot, and gave serious thought to joining the Church of Latter-Day Saints. I ultimately didn't join, because of the "social organization and protocols" that I thought then (and still do) are antithetical to Christianity. Jesus doesn't care what you wear to church.
  3. Favorite Bible verse  - easy, the beginning of Psalm 144: Blessed be the LORD my strength, which teacheth my hands to war, and my fingers to fight.
  4. Least favorite food - undercooked rat
  5. Favorite professional sports team - The All Blacks (NZ rugby)
  6. Favorite part about blogging - developing the discipline required to write a substantive piece every day
  7. Favorite Christmas song, or any song - Favorite Christmas song is "Mary's Boy Child", especially when sung by Kiri Te Kanawa. Favorite song is "This is War" by Thirty Seconds To Mars. I also like some of AC/DC's repertoire..."Highway To Hell", "Hell's Bells", and "Thunderstruck".
  8. Five favorite books - (why not eight?) This is a hard one..."Nanette", by Edwards Park; "House to House", by David Bellavia; "Hornets Over Kuwait", by Jay Stout; "Call To The Winds", by P.G. Taylor; "Fighter Pilot", by Paul Richey; "The Big Show", by Pierre Closterman; "Low Level Hell", by Hugh Mills; and "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind", by Shunryu Suzuki
I don't know enough people in this world well enough to nominate them - it might be presumptuous of me - but I'll invite anyone who reads this to keep it going!

Sunday, January 20, 2013


Many of you have kids who dream of being SEALS, Recon Marines, or members of some other special operations unit.

Some will try; a few will succeed. The reason those who try and fail don't make it, though, may come as a surprise.

While the physical requirements are high, they're nowhere out of reach for a normally healthy individual. The key to success is mental, a level of discipline that is out of reach to most. Not because it's hard, but because it's different.

Here are some of the qualities needed, and examples of how they can be developed in daily life. They can help your son (or, now, daughter) reach their goal of a very special life, and they can help all of us live better.
  1. God is in the details - in an unforgiving environment, everything can be important, and therefore laziness in attention to detail is unacceptable. And laziness, unfortunately, is a fact of modern life. Get into detail-oriented habits...for example, never let the trash pile up past the top of the bin, and when you take it out, replace the bin liner immediately, and properly. When you bring the full bag to the can outside, replace the lid correctly, not just any old way. And when you take the cans to the kerb, line them up straight and evenly spaced. It may sound silly, talking about the trash...but it's really about building a habit.
  2. Timeliness is important - for obvious reasons, things have to get done on time, and there are no acceptable excuses. Be on time for everything. School, work, church, family gatherings. "Fashionably late" is to be stricken from your vocabulary. Get into the habit of knowing what time it is, and of estimating how much time you need for certain tasks. Set deadlines for yourself beyond those imposed by "real life".
  3. Do it now - A small job left undone can all to easily be a vital job never done. Going back to the trash...when it has to be taken out, take it out now and replace the bin liner now. Not after American Idol. The cans go to the kerb the night before the truck comes, not rushed in the morning - you may miss it.
  4. Don't complain - whining breeds resentment, which breeds rebellion, which breeds failure. If you're reading this on your computer in your home, office, or a library, you have a life that millions of people could only dream of. You don't have anything to complain about. Do your work with good cheer, or at least in respectful silence. Silence is good. Whining is not.
  5. Respect authority - you may disagree with our legally constituted government or its agents, but the right way to address your concerns is through voting, involvement in politics, or expository writing. Sloganeering and clever jokes on bumper stickers, Twitter, and Facebook may be amusing, but they also undermine the fabric of dignity and respect which made our countries the best places on Earth, and in history, in which to live.
  6. You are not special - we generally allow ourselves a lot, from breaking a diet to buying more car than we can afford, because we think we deserve it. Well, that feeling of "specialness" does not extend beyond our own skin. To put it in military terms...a successful operation from which you, the individual, does not return is still a success. (yes, I know, you're loved and special to God. So was His Son. Reflect on that.)
These are some of the things that put the "special" in Special Operations.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Who Did I Marry, Again?

Today my wife called me during her lunch break. The conversation got around to reasons to take off "personal time" allowed by the company, and somehow, we got onto the subject of my death.

Me: "Well, if I die one during the night at least you won't have to take any personal time."

Her: "You mean you'd expect me to go into work?"

Me: "Sure."

Her: "Okay, Mr. Spock."

The last was, of course, a reference to the 2009 Star Trek movie, in which Spock, asked what he needed, emotionally, after seeing his planet destroyed, replied, "I need everyone to continue performing admirably."

We're all wired a bit, or a lot differently. When we marry that is often a plus; after all, opposites attract. But after a few years of living together, the strain of always being around someone who is in many ways extremely alien to you can get wearisome.

When that happens, the normal tendency is to imprint our own reactions onto our spouse. Instead of paying attention to who they are, we blank out the observed differences and fill them in with what we would do, or what we would like to see.

This can actually work pretty well, if we understand and accept what's going on. If your ego is not screaming "Look at ME!", then having your spouse assume what's comfortable to cover up what's not is understandable as a coping mechanism - and can lead to self-examination that may lead to change.

But if you have to be the center of attention, and insist on being accepted, warts and all, then you can run into some pretty big problems. You can't force someone to like everything about you. You can force them, through emotional blackmail, to pretend.

It's not that you should live a lie when your spouse assumes things that aren't true. It's about understanding what's happening, and using that understanding, and your intelligence, to focus on what's important, and let some things pass.

In the end, it's really all about a word that rhymes with marriage.

That word is compromise.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Future Of Friendship

One of the most interesting things about Facebook is that it's made it harder to know the people with whom we choose to stay in touch.

A thousand years ago we communicated by letters and telephone calls...and phone calls outside our area code cost money. Keeping up a relationship to a commitment of resources, both time and treasure.

The result was, in many cases, a gratifying honesty. You could hear joy or tension in a voice, see handwriting that sloped up in enthusiasm, or trailed of in despair.

Facebook, on the other hand...well, a few years back Norman Vincent Peale (he of The Power Of Positive Thinking) suggested that we should live as if all that we do will be placed on a billboard the very next day.

Facebook's done this, except that we have control of what goes up on that billboard. It's not a reflection of what we are, but of what we want to look like.

It's a fashion statement.

It's advertising.

And it's ultimately impersonal, leaving the word "friend" hanging sadly, a forgotten flag hung from a deserted porch.

The saving grace of the whole thing is that there are a few people who eschew the canned posts that can be copied from other websites, and who write from the heart.

Their statements are sometimes awkward and ungrammatical, but in comparison to the smooth "postcards" that infest the site, they crackle with a raw energy that says, I'm real. I have dreams, I have hopes.

And I give hope for the future of friendship.

Lance Armstrong

Surely Lance Armstrong will be grist for the bloggers' mill for...well, until we forget all about him and his misdeeds, which will take moist Americans about 46 seconds. So by the time you read this, he'll be old news.

After years of denials, and posturing to challenge anyone who questioned his veracity, Mr. Armstrong broke down and admitted that he used performance-enhancing drugs to help him build an almost supernatural winning career as a bicycle racer. Almost supernatural? Well, by the strict definition of the word - above natural - it was. Not quite sportsmanlike, though. Simply not cricket.

Mr. Armstrong lied to the sport's regulatory bodies, to the press, and to his fans. He broke faith with those who placed him on a pedestal, as a cancer survivor who came back from metastatic testicular cancer to become a champion. He's been stripped of his titles, lost his endorsements, lost the leadership of his charitable foundation, and will likely be sued for appearance fees paid to him by cycle race organizers, as well as almost everyone else who sees a chance to get some money out of it.

The good he did, the donations and support he gave to cancer-care groups and individual cancer patients, will be utterly forgotten. Memories will be blackened, handshakes and hugs recalled with a tinge of shame.

All richly deserved. But before we pillory him in a wave of mixed revulsion, disdain, and self-righteous glee, we should consider one small thing.

We're looking in a mirror.

Mr. Armstrong lied. So have I. So, I'll bet, have you. He violated the trust of those who took him at his word. I have; I'll warrant that anyone who's been married for more than fifteen minutes has done that. He cheated for financial gain. I don't think I've done that...but when I was a kid I took more candy than was allowed me at a school party, so I guess that counts.

The difference is that my misdeeds affected relatively few people, and that I never would have cheated on the scale Mr. Armstrong exercised. But that's really a cheap argument, because I didn't have the opportunity. Indeed, I have committed similar offenses, and by induction, one may assume that I would have done exactly the same with greater opportunity - and more to gain.

Yes, the punishments are deserved. But so is forgiveness, and, in our hearts, wiping the slate clean.

Because 2000 years ago, that's what was done for us.

(Just out of interest, a race organizer in SOuth Australia is considering suing Mr. Armstrong for millions in appearance fees paid to have him show up for their races...thus increasing their credibility among paying fans and sponsors. They already reaped the rewards of his 'name'; and now would like to be reimbursed for the fact that the name was bogus, after collecting the receipts. There is no little incongruity there.)

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Wave Jesus Goodbye

When I lived in California, I was struck by how many people were writing off Christianity in favor of Buddhism, Taoism, and various New Age beliefs.

It was both puzzling and disheartening to see, but the reasons were pretty straightforward, and may be useful as a warning to Christians, a cautionary tale as to how Christianity is seen by "everyone else".

That was a hint. "Everyone else."

Increasingly, and with the rise of the evangelical movement, Christianity is seen as standing for exclusivity. "We're saved - they're not." The implication that is assumed - not always correctly - is that "we're better".

If the culture of the United States holds one thing dear, it's the concept of fairness, the level playing field. Decades of legislation has tried to make equal access a guiding principle. It's an outgrowth of the English enshrinement of honorable behavior and fair play..."it's not cricket, old chap" is not just a tag line from spoofs of Masterpiece Theatre. It's a very real value, and one that we, thankfully, inherited.

And increasingly, Christianity is seen as "unfair", because only the "elect" are going to Heaven. The people who say that the loudest consider themselves among the elect, which really doesn't help.

And so many people turn to religions that are seen as more tolerant, more open. They see Heaven as a place populated by folks of all beliefs, under the care of a God who loves all equally.

A far cry from the God who will condemn unbelievers to the everlasting fire.

It would all be fine, if the transcendent world operated like chain stores. You can shop at Wal Mart or Target...different experiences, to be sure, but you get the same stuff.

The doctrinaire Christian, however, does not believe this is the way it works. You don't get the same stuff. You get Heaven...or hell.

And you drive people away with the seeming unfairness of it all.

Maybe the solution is to return to "witnessing" on a very personal level. Instead of telling people that hell awaits if they don't believe, tell them that peace, joy, and love can be found in the teachings of a Jewish carpenter.

It's not as fun as standing on a streetcorner and yelling about hellfire and brimstone.

But maybe we should take a hint...the streetcorner harangue is something Jesus didn't do.

The Borders Of Infinity

It was surprising to hear, in an interview with a very prominent preacher, that he'd refused to speak at an interfaith service after 9/11. He was asked to conform to the intended spirit of the occasion, and refused - he felt that he was compelled to preach that being born again was the sole true faith.

And he was proud of himself.

It seems to me that this fellow needed to review the Gospels again. To wit - love God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself...on these depend all the law and the prophets.

That's pretty uncompromising. Loving your neighbor as yourself does not include implying to a grieving crowd that those of their loved ones who died "unsaved" are now in hell. One may believe this, as this unnamed preacher obviously did. But having an opinion, even an opinion that defines the basis of one's faith, does not mean that it has to be aired whenever possible.

Especially not to take hope from the bereaved.

Indeed, his position is not necessarily as tenable as he thinks it is. In Matthew's Gospel, after the meeting with the rich young man and remarking that it woukld be easier for a camel to pass through the Eye of the Needle (the gate in Jerusalem's walls of that name) than for a rich man to enter Heaven, Simon Peter says in some despair, "Who then can be saved?"

With God all things are possible.

All things. ALL.

This includes God rushing to hear the inarticulate, desperate cries of an atheist to something as the walls began to buckle, on that sunny late-summer morning, and showing him a land undreamt-of, where only fears die.

It includes Him putting His Arms around a Muslim, facing to Mecca one last time, and carrying her away to Paradise.

And I hope that includes healing the hearts of the self-righteous, and showing them that His grace is defined and constrained only by its boundlessness.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Faith Of The Weary

It all seems like too much.

"You've got to have a personal relationship with Jesus!"

Yeah? How?

The advice is probably good...but the execution is impossibly hard. I've tried to picture Jesus as present in my life. I've tried to see Him walking with me, watching over me when I sleep. Even going for a run with me.

I've read the Bible, more than anyone who knows me would guess. I lost Him, more than found Him there.

And then, unexpectedly, He turned up. On a particularly hard day, when it took everything I had, and more, to take care of the residents of our Pit Bull sanctuary, when I was vomiting blood into the bushes while walking the guys, I was thinking that so many of the dreams and hopes I had hadn't come true, would never now come true.

But look who's on the end of your leash. You traded your dreams for his life, and the lives of the others whose barking is a happy chorus, the soundtrack of your life.

I suppose, I thought.

When you did it for the least of My creatures, you did it for Me.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Red-Letter Daze

"Some people think the red-letter passages in the Bible are enough. They're not! We need doctrine!"
Uh...can we hold it right here? Thanks.

It might be the time to point out the obvious, that without the red-letter parts of the Bible there would be no need whatsoever for doctrine.

And without doctrine, the red-letter parts of the Bible would stand quite well on their own merits. What St. Paul said in his epistles was quite important, both as one man's experience of faith and as a historical document on how the early church was formed and nurtured...but to put them anywhere near the importance of the Jesus' recorded words rather misses the point.

Doctrine is nice, but it isn't necessary, because we are not in the business of building churches.

We are in the business of being the active hands and feet of God in this world, of showing His love to our fellow creatures through our actions.

Sorry, I think I just kicked another sacred cow. yes, actions.

There is that interesting question He asked..."Did you visit me in prison? Did you care for me when I was sick?"

"When you did this for the least of My people, you did it for Me."

NOT "when you prayed about visiting me...not when you raised your arms up and "gave me your life".


Opera non verba. Deeds not words.

And not doctrine.

Witness Protection

Recently I was asked if I was sure I was going to Heaven. The questioner had enough of a smug, self-righteous air that I was tempted to say "I bet my chances will go WAY up if I pour this cup of coffee over your head."

Instead, I made the mistake of making a noncommittal answer that brought on a further question:"Have you ever stolen anything? Have you ever lied?"

I could see where this was going, so I replied, "No, but I've always had this covetous hankering toward my neighbor's donkey". I was SO tempted to use one of the other terms for "donkey", but being polite, I merely pronounced the work the way Shrek does.

This dipwad would not quit. "Well, did you know that means you've broken ALL of the commandments, and God considers you a...a covetter, uh...and you're going to hell for all eternity?"

"Really." Drawn out drawl.

"Oh, yes!"

"But you love me anyway, right? As a Christian?"

"I sure do! I'm going to Heaven, and I want to help you get there too."

His heart was in the right place, bless him. But his brain wasn't.

"You hate the sin, not the sinner?"

"Umm-hmmm!" Violent head nod.

"Okay, listen up. Christ didn't say that."

"Yes, he did!"

This was getting painful. "No, He didn't What He said was love your neighbor...and hate your OWN sin, and get rid of it before you start bugging your neighbor about his."

Message received. "Uh...oh."

"Look, I appreciate what you're trying to do. I really do. But you're supposed to witness, get it? Not 'interrogate', not 'force-feed', not 'harangue'. Just be a witness for what faith in Christ has done for you, how it's made you happy. Because this other stuff? You could drive Billy Graham out of the church."

"I did come on pretty strong, didn't I?"

"Like a coffee-ground enema."

Friday, January 11, 2013

Baby Christians and Other Irritating Stuff

A few years ago I decided to start attending a different church...it was presented as a wonderful, vibrant place that was afire with the Holy Spirit.

And so it was. The sermons were smart and funny, the music was professional, and the congregation was outgoing and seemed happy.

One day I was talking with some of these folks, and one of them referred to me as a "baby Christian". I'd evidently said something they considered naive - I don't remember what.

For some reason, it really got under my skin - to the point where I ended up looking for reasons not to attend. And if you look for a reason long enough, you'll find one.

It took years to realize what the problem was. It wasn't that I was a misidentified novice - I'd been attending Catholic churches for years, but this was my first real foray into evangelical Protestantism.. I could have overlooked that.

What I subconsciously didn't want to overlook was that the remark, and the term, fly in the face of at least two of Jesus' teachings. First, and obviously, we're supposed to enter the Kingdom of God as children.

Second, it seems to contradict the parable of the workers in the vineyard. The last are paid the same for a day's work as the first to arrive, even though they may have been out in the sun for a quarter of the time. The usual interpretation is that it doesn't matter when you turn to God - he'll take you at the same rank, early or late. But it's not a leap to say that all Christians have something to say, and deserve respect.

I know that the "baby Christian" concept comes from St. Paul, and that it was probably a necessary administrative distinction in the establishment of the early church.

But my concern, even though I didn't know it as such at the time, was that evangelical Protestantism seemed to be more of a Pauline faith rather than a Christocentric one. And that's dangerous.

(Another issue is that of "sufficiency of faith"; Christ's Olivet discourse fairly clearly says that those who do as He would have them do, even without "knowing" him, are closer to God than those who claim faith but do little to exercise it. James' epistle also takes this line, and James is traditionally identified as Jesus' half-brother. No less than Martin Luther didn't like James' epistle, and wrote of how inconvenient it was!)

I'm not trying to disrespect evangelicals, or the evangelical movement; please don't misunderstand. But for me, personally, these were deal-breakers. The whole point behind Christianity is Jesus Christ, and what He said and did.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Proof Of Faith

There's a whole lot of digging going on.

Biblical archaeologists are finding new stuff, seemingly every day, that prove that various parts of the Bible are true and accurate.

More power to them. It's nice to see.

But if this is seen as a justification for faith, something's seriously wrong somewhere.

The Bible, taken as a whole, is an incredibly complex and internally consistent document that tells the story of God's relationship with Man, both in the difficult early days of the Old Testament and then when God decided to change the rules by letting everybody play. Talk about clearing the bench.

It's so complex and "accurately intricate", with all of its parts fitting together like a good watch, that, given the very long development period and the state of the writing craft at the time, it's hard to see its origin as anything but Divine.

That said, I'm not so sure how much it matters, what's historical truth and what's allegory. Yes, I know that "God doesn't lie" and therefore everything has to be exactly true...but would you say that a writer who uses allegory lies?

For that matter, did Jesus lie when he used parables to illustrate a point?

Richard Bach once wrote that fictional characters can be more real than people with bodies and heartbeats. In the same way, a story that tells us about who we are can be more true than a reporting of the facts about what some other people did.

I'd love to see them dig up the Holy Grail.

Oh, sorry...I forgot. Indiana Jones already found it.

And I still believe.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Strengthening Faith

No matter what religion we follow, it's a sure bet that most of us have our moments of doubt. They can come from misfortune, when we feel abandoned by God, or from too rich a 'secular humanist' diet, too much listening to the quick-witted and charmingly articulate spokesmen for the death cult of Humanism. (Carl Sagan was an excellent example.)

Many authorities would suggest that, at least for a Christian, going back to the Scriptures is the best way to bolster faith. I don't doubt that it works for many people...but it doesn't work for me.

Nothing against the Bible, but I find a lot of it a difficult read. In more ways that the literal. (That's a point I'll address in a future post.)

I've found some other devices which help me, and I am given to understand that they help others, too. Here they are...
  1. Consider the Illogic of a Creation without God - the world around us is complex to the point where we can't even begin to understand just how complex it is. And yet, it all "works". I'm writing this, and as I'm writing...I'm breathing, and the oxygen in the air is being transferred to my blood through a chemical process taking place in my lungs. I have a PhD in engineering, and I cannot seriously believe that all of this is taking place as the result of a long series of biological accidents, selectively producing me. It's not an ego thing, but if it were just biological accidents (caused, perhaps, by cosmic ray mutation), extinction would have been the more likely outcome.
  2. Look Inside - inside all of us is a dichotomy - the desire to do what's wrong and pleasurable versus the knowledge that we should do what's right. Where did the concept of right come from? The herd instinct? last time I checked, 'Man' was not a herd animal, and besides, a lot of what we consider right isn't what one would expect to be better for the herd. Nurturing retarded young does the herd no good at all. It's a waste of resources. And yet, it's right. Why?
  3. Statistics - recorded history is full of encounters with the supernatural, which at least speak to the existence of a plane of life beyond this one. To say that there is no God, all of these experiences would have to be conclusively disproved. Conversely, if even one of these supernatural experiences is true, the existence of the supernatural is proven. Q.E.D.
  4.  Atheists Can Be Rally Silly - Richard Dawkins was quoted as saying that he believed that life on Earth was planted by extraterrestrials, therefore God is a myth. Sure...and where did the ET's come from? Putting in another degree of separation doesn't obviate the question.
Once I've run through these, my faith is up and running again...often, with a chuckle at my own weakness.

What about you? How do you bring your faith back up to speed?

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

How To Be A Vulcan

You don't have to be a Trekkie to realize the immense influence that Star Trek, in all of its variants, has had on our society.

Most of these are benign, and some have been quite beneficial. Many young people looked at the optimistic world of the 23rd century, said "I want that", and embarked on careers in science, engineering, and medicine.

One of the defining symbols of this cultural icon is the redoubtable Mr. Spock, half human and half Vulcan. His coolly logical approach to life and its problems has fascinated us for nearly fifty years. Would that we could have the composure and the inner strength and peace that seem to be a hallmark of the Vulcan race!

But the nice thing is that you, too, can take on the attributes of a Vulcan. And it's not what you think.
  1. Think before you speak, and eliminate what is not vital to say - a lot of what we say can be left unsaid. Think about it - after pruning the obvious "um"'s and such, and disposing of affirmations that we are, indeed, listening to the speaker, there is still quite a bit of speech that can be left unborn. Much of what we say is either a plea for sympathy (talking about illness) or a boast with an unspoken appeal for praise...do you really need these? If you're smart, do you need someone else to reinforce that? If you've got a broken leg, will someone saying "Poor dear!" make it heal faster?
  2. When you speak, speak slowly and distinctly - once you've chosen to say something, make sure that your delivery is clear. Barring an emergency in which time is of the essence, do you really need to rush your words? Will saving five seconds in a sentence make a difference in the importance of what you say? And if you're saying something, it's worth a clear voice. So many of us use 'posed' accents or speech patterns that are imitations of something we've heard, and liked...why not just be yourself?
  3. Reinforce your faith - mysticism is at the heart of the Vulcan soul, and reflecting on the transcendent in everything you do and say will lend gravity and meaning to your words, and will put them in a timeless context. Think about the Divine, and everything you say will become a prayer, and will have its connection with the logic of God's creation
  4. You are not the center - you are a part of creation, not its center. If you put aside the egocentric worship of what you see in the mirror, you'll have a clearer view of reality - that all of us have a vital role to play
  5. Feelings pass - the emotions that move you now will change, in a minute or ten. Recognize them, respect them, but don't put them on your personal billboard...they may not be what you want people to remember
And that's enough for now. Taking on the attributes of Mr. Spock don't mean that you purge every emotion from your heart...quite the contrary. You embrace them, but you keep them in your heart. Instead of giving the world a boiling kettle of your likes and dislikes, sudden enthusiasms and quick boredom, you give a gift of the calm center that you have - yes, you DO - that touches God.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Dead Kids Don't Matter

It's been a month, or less, since the massacre at New Town. Back to business as usual.

The dead are being used as a political football, a talking point to advance the agenda of gun control advocates, and by conservatives to decry the lack of security in schools.

But about the victims and those who grieve for them...no one cares.

Why can I say that? Because we live in a society that systematically victimizes children. We start with a media that feeds them - deliberately - whatever it'll take to coarsen their souls, and demands that right under the banner of Freedom of Speech.

The average age foe a child to be exposed to pornography is eight. EIGHT. This is freedom of speech? This is what our best and brightest died to protect?

We make explicit sex and violence available on network TV, and prime-time commercials are rife with innuendo that would not have appeared in an R-rated movie in the 60s. We make it available, because we watch the shows, and buy the products. Corrupting kids is good business, and we get to see the shows that titillate us. We get to see the skin and the guns.

We allow schools to be underfunded, and preserve the rights of bullies and gang members to intimidate kids who may actually want to learn. We allow this, by voting for candidates who have no real understanding or interest in education. How many teachers are in Congress? And how many lawyers? I think I made my point.

We have "serial child rapists" in our communities. They're supposed to register with the police...and few do. And we tolerate the existence of "serial child rapists".

The speeches will go on for awhile, and pompous politicians will stand in front of photo-montages of terrified children being led from that place of death, trying to introduce legislation that will define their careers.

But...caring about our children?

Yeah, right.

How Not To Flirt

I don't know how to flirt effectively, but I have learned some ways in which it's NOT done.
  • "Hey, you lookin' at me? Huh? You wanna take this outside or what?"
  • "You have beautiful eyes. They remind me of a eyes of a Basset Hound."
  • "I'll bet you're goods at judo...you've got a really low center of gravity."
I've also learned that men don't bat their eyes. This brings comments like, "Wow, that's the worst facial tic I've ever seen!"

It also can bring on unintended attention...from other men. Ooops.

I'd been told that women often appreciate fine art. So, I tried this..."Do you think that J.M.W. Turner's later paintings presaged the rise of the Impressionists, or that he was too drunk to see what he was doing?"

I guess the question would have been okay if the lady I asked had any idea who J.M.W. Turner was.

Music was supposed to be another icebreaker. But "I can hardly wait until the Mother Ship brings back Elvis" only drew a nervous giggle.

She thought I was JOKING!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Christian TV

When I actually watch anything on television, it's usually on one of the Trinity Broadcasting Network channels. Not because I'm a particularly fiery-eyed saved soul - I'm not entirely sure what 'saved' entails - but more by default.

Conventional network television drives me up the wall. The shows are either soaked with gratuitous sex and violence, or descend to a smart-alecky idiocy as they plumb previously unattainable depths of comedy. (For the most part, okay? I know there has been quality programming, I just can't think of any.)

The commercials, consumerism in action, are almost a relief.

PBS used to be a refuge, but lately they've been broadcasting really depressing stuff, narrated in a minor key. Yes, the Outer Banks of the Carolina Coast are beautiful, but when they're described in a funereal tone, they sort of lose their appeal as a potential vacation destination. PBS does have some good music, though.

Which leaves Christian TV (we don't have cable, so ESPN is merely a rumor in this house). Their version of MTV, "JCTV" is pretty good...mostly music, and not all religiously-themed. They play some nice songs and videos by artists that are broadly identified as Christian.

The preaching channels are decidedly mixed. Some of the guys and gals provide good, sound theology and interesting insights into the faith.

These are unfortunately the minority. A large group of preachers are vitally concerned with trying to decipher exactly when the Second Coming will happen...something that even Jesus isn't supposed to know. Seems a bit of a futile course of study, kind of like flat-earth map making.

Another focus is on prosperity...which boils down to, "God loves a cheerful giver, so send us money, and you'll get your 'investment' returned many fold".

It's a useful interpretation of the parable of the sower, but there's one problem...Jesus was talking about God's message, not cash.

Oh, well. At least they give us reruns of Bishop Fulton Sheen, every Saturday morning.

Friday, January 4, 2013


I recently came upon this music video, "Goes Without Saying", by Anchor and Braille.

I'd never heard of the group, and when I watched and listened...I was stunned. It's one of the nicest musical and visual evocations of love and fun that I've ever experienced. For me it has an almost haunting sweetness...I hope it does the same for you.


Thursday, January 3, 2013

Young At Heart

Youth is wasted on the young.

Maybe. But youth is also something we can nurture, and keep with us, and within us. We can't stop the calendar, but we can, meaningfully, minimize its effect.

The payoff is high...if you can keep youth in your life you'll have more energy, more optimism, better health, a better marriage...the list is long.

Here's how.
  • Don't talk 'old - if you have aches and pains, don't say, "I guess I'm just getting old". We are what we think, and we think what we say. If your back hurts and you want to talk about it, just say, "My back hurts". No one's really interested in the analysis anyway. Nor should you be.
  • Avoid 'organ recitals' - in general, talking about your health means you don't have anything else going on...if you're thinking young, you'll have more interesting things to talk about.
  • Stay physically fit - you don't have to be a fanatic, but you do have to make an effort. Even small things help. If you drop something, pick it up...immediately. Make sure you bend all the way to the floor, or work your way to that point. Park further away from the store. Take the stairs, not the elevator.
  • Stay mentally fit - there's new technology coming along, seemingly every week...make a point of learning it. Don't know what a hashtag is? If you're reading this...on the Internet...you can look up a definition for hashtag. The Internet is a research tool beyond our wildest dreams, and there's no excuse for ignorance...except laziness
  • Live healthy - drink in moderation, avoid smoking, and try to be aware of what you're eating. Again, you don't have to be a fanatic. Use this test...if a friend would ask you, "Should I have two Big macs for lunch?", what advice would you give? Treat yourself like your own best friend.
  • Talk timeless - this may be counter intuitive, but don't try to spice up your conversation with current jargon or slang. First, it's not needed, in most cases, and second, if you're over thirty, trying to talk like an 18-year-old makes you look like you're trying too hard to fit in. Use language that anyone can understand.
  • Dress right - fashions change - so change your wardrobe. It's not expensive if you shop at WalMart or target, and your old clothes can go to charity. Knowing what's in style is part of being mentally fit...and it's fun. Yes, even for men!
  • Listen! - listen to current music. You'll hate some of it. You'll be indifferent to most of it. And I guarantee...you'll find some gems.
Staying young isn't about an open shirt, gold chains, and a Ferrari. It isn't about a low-cut cocktail dress and plenty of makeup, with stiletto heels. It's about your smile, the positive tone in your voice, the light in your eyes.

It's about potential, and it's about looking forward, in hope.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

How To Flirt

Darned if I know.

Flirting is supposed to set the stage for romance, a series of signals of interest and availability that move a relationship forward without any overt statement of intent or purpose.

Wow. Saying it that way, I'm surprised we're not all career celibates.

Maybe flirting, at its best, is supposed to be something of a romantic joke, something that keeps us slightly off-balance and keeps the element of surprise in a relationship...

"The element of surprise". That comes from an Army field manual, the chapter on ambushes.

Flirting is the art of the possible.


It simply means that if the circumstances are right, something might grow...and if they aren't right, that that road not taken exists.

If you're single, knowing how to flirt can add texture and fun to your life, and the lives of people you meet.

If you're married, flirting with your spouse is the best way to keep romance alive in your marriage. (And flirting with anyone else is an act of disloyalty, and seriously wrong.)

But don't ask me how, because I haven't a clue!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013


After the passing of two of my dogs last week, someone close to me remarked that I''d become somewhat hard-hearted; that I didn't show much emotion, and simply got on with the job of burial, and switching the 'kennel buddies' of those who had died so they would not be alone.

And got on with life.

Needless to say, a judgement of hard-heartedness was not pleasing to hear. I don't think I'm hard-hearted, either toward animals or people.

And yet...this was someone who knows me well, and has known me for many years. It wasn't a remark that could be lightly dismissed.

After giving it some thought, I arrived at a conclusion that I hope is accurate...and is not merely self-serving.

In this case, composure was mistaken for indifference. Reacting with outward grief served no purpose; it wouldn't change the events, and emotions can tend to feed on themselves, and become somewhat self-perpetuating. This had practical importance; my wife took the events badly; she needed support, as did the remaining dogs (they were very upset at the second, more unexpected, death).

Beyond this, death is simply a part of life, for dogs and humans. It's my belief that these small, gentle souls will precede us to Heaven, there to wait in welcome for us. The parting's only temporary.

And, finally, it seems to me that their memory is better honored with a smile, and gratitude for their presence - though that smile carries a certain wistfulness.

In the end, I guess I just don't know. The rationalizations may be empty, built to hide a hollow heart.

I hope not.