Saturday, January 6, 2018

Discipleship plan

I recently happened upon a plan for discipleship from the United Methodist church in the US. It perfectly demonstrates a big problem with church in the US today. I’m not talking about the bad arguments for god or fundamentalist handbooks telling you to watch out for your children turning gay. I’m talking about churches that want to be active in their communities, working for peace and justice and helping people who need food, shelter and clothing. The kind of things we want non-profit community organizations to be doing. The kind of things that reflect universal human values.

You may already know where things like this go. You could skip to the end. I try to bridge the gap between humanist values and expressions of faith like this. But if you’re not familiar with what goes on in church planning meetings, read on.

The workbook attempted to help leaders find new members and new ways to motivate the congregation to do good things. Like most workbooks of this nature, it wasted a lot of words, but that’s not what was really wrong with it. The problem was, when it finally got to saying what the underlying motivation should be, it didn’t say anything. It addressed this as a potential problem then solved it with Bible verses. It said you can’t just tell people “because god said so”, then it said, “because god said so”. Like this:

 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.  (Matthew 28 NIV)

This is known as The Great Commission. Not really a difficult choice for a passage in a pamphlet about mission statements. And, just to be sure you know the leadership is on board, he cuts and pastes from the 2016 Book of Discipline (the book the Methodists vote on to restate their theology in modern terms) "The mission of the UMC is: To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world."

He focuses here was on the word “go”, saying “Methodists are a going church”. There is some tradition to that, some historical evidence. There are Methodist hospitals. There are community support groups. Their international aid arm functions more like a non-profit than a missionary group. They do actually help people build infrastructure and become self-supported. They were chosen by the Gates Foundation for one of the largest secular/church collaborations ever.So, I’m not saying they don’t do things, but I think it has more to do with them having the resources, not some magic that has roots in the 1st century.

He suggests the “Why, How, What” approach. I was first introduced to this by my sales training from Apple computers. You’re supposed to start with the “why”, but he goes straight to “what”. A couple pages later, he shows the outward growing circle from Simon Sinek’s book “Start with Why”. You would be better off just reading that book.

I can see why he thought this workbook needed to be made. He sees the problem. He shows the numbers. 80% of the people who are Methodists were born into a family of Methodists and raised in the church. It’s hard to get members any other way. The early church offered something new and once it had established a base it helped that a person could travel from Jerusalem to Rome and find that community. But what the church offers can be found in so many other ways now, that is no longer an advantage.

He continues with quotes, this time from the founder of the denomination, John Wesley. It is from his sermon “The Scripture Way of Salvation” that is just as vacuous, but it is responded to by the pamphlet writer as if it is the way the truth the light. I’ll spare you that one.

I can see how he gets the problem he is up against. After a half page about children asking “why” and parent’s responding “because”, he says, “So why is it that when we ask, Why do we make disciples? we often respond, Because Jesus said so? … ultimately it is not a good “why.” But this is exactly what he has been doing, giving you “not good whys”. When he gets to suggestions for how to write your own mission statement, he comes up with an example like this, “A disciple is one who knows Christ, is growing in Christ, serving Christ, and sharing Christ.”

What I can’t tell by reading it is; what did the author of this think? As he was compiling it, I can see how he was motivated. He knows what experiences he has had, but it can be a challenge to translate that motivation into a workbook. At some point, he needed to find Bible verses that describe the feelings of joy in fellowship that he experienced and express them in a way that inspires others. I can relate, because I tried to do that.

When I did, I found there just wasn’t anything there, unless I believed it was there. The feelings I had of community were more due to the people I was in relationship with than my relationship with a text or a worldwide organization or with a holy spirit. This is why you will often hear people talk of their local church when they are defending the idea of church. You might begin by asking them what motivates them, and asking if they believe in what the Pope says or whomever their leaders are. When they realize they are not completely in line with their own denomination’s theology, they will switch to saying that you need to come to their church and experience their community, and then you will see. That’s fine. I understand the sentiment, but it’s true of any organization that is accomplishing anything worthwhile. You don’t need a god to get that.

When I look at things like this, I often wonder what doubts are arising in the people writing it. Are they, as I once did, realizing that it is a struggle to find just what Jesus was talking about? Are they even further along, seeing that he was talking about blood sacrifices and ultimate battles of good vs evil that have not survived modern rational thought and scientific inquiry? Or, do they believe that if 3 wise men followed a star to a virgin birth, then there must be something to all this and it’s not for them to question?

Do they at least believe that a man who spoke of peace, and then acted peacefully, even when given the death penalty, actually caused a significant shift in the history of the world? Do they believe the thoughts of this one man are more important than the few people who wrote them down as well as the thoughts of everyone who has read them and thought about them and built on them and expanded on them and interpreted them? Do they believe that the changes in theology over the ages are explained by God slowly revealing his truth, or is it us discovering the truths of nature and adjusting theology to fit them?

In a sense, the answers to these questions don’t matter, because we can arrive at the same place without answering them. We can all agree that we should educate our children in the history of thought and culture as well as the amazing details of how things work. We all need food and air and water and there is just this one planet where we can get those. We can be in constant battle over those resources or figure out how to cooperate and make them available to more of us. You can address all those questions with universal ideas like “love your neighbor” and a maybe a few more technical details.

In another sense, the answer to whether or not Jesus caused anything matters very much. It changes our focus. If Jesus can affect our lives directly, we should know that. If the fate of our eternal soul is in jeopardy, we should know that. If not, it’s a distraction. It might be a good inspiring story that helps us remember to reach out and touch the sick and bring them into the community, but reading those same stories over and over again takes time away from doing the work.

If, to get people motivated to work with us, we need to frighten them with hell or convince them there is something unseen that has consequences, or promise there are supernatural forces available to them, then maybe the problem is with the work we are asking them to do, not the motivation for doing it. If the work is good, but they are not inspired by the child who’s teeth are straightened or eyes are corrected or who learns a trade and goes on to help another village somewhere, then maybe we need to help them understand how helping others helps all of us.

After 30 pages, he finally gets to a list of actual things to do. Most of them are lifted straight from Matthew 25; feed the hungry, visit the sick. He also lists “works of Piety”, like public worship and fasting and reading God’s word. Brief phrases like this are all the Bible has to offer as far as I can tell.

There isn’t a passage that spells it out in simple terms, but I think the message from the early gospels is that we only have each other. It is a story of people who want to get rid of the temple culture that required constant sacrifices. They were written at a time when leadership was partnering with the ones who had conquered them and were oppressing them. In Mark 2:23-28 Jesus says the Sabbath is made for man, and in Romans 13:8-10 Paul says the new law is the law of love. That’s inspiration enough for me.

New Year 2018

I know some of you might find this surprising coming from me, but looking back over this last year, the world is actually pretty awesome. I know about the bad things, you know I do. I argue for change all the time. I want things to be better. That’s why I speak up. I considered moving to a cabin in the woods a long time ago, but I decided it’s better to stay engaged with the world.

I fight because I can. I have accumulated advantages from previous generations and I paid my dues to show that I return value for what I have. Life isn’t fair so that formula doesn’t work for everyone. As we found out this year, a lot of women didn’t have that choice. If they had spoken up, their careers would have been over and we would have never heard of them. Some of them lived long enough to see justice. They are preceded by many who did not.

I know the word “divided” has come up a lot this year. As if generations were always on the same page before, or North/South and East/West are some never before known demographics that have been discovered. But we don’t fight the same kind of wars over these like we use to. We respect boundaries and cultures. We don’t pillage. We vote. We don’t conquer. Not everywhere in the world of course, but a least in the US that means no matter where you are, you’re going to bump into someone who didn’t vote the way you did. You can argue with them if you want, or you could celebrate that our children are healthy and are getting an education despite those differences. Maybe we should make sure that happens first, then get back to arguing about a policy that only affects people who have more than 10 million dollars in the bank.

This idea that people with slightly different values than us are tearing apart the fabric of society is very old. It used to be that you were sacrificing the wrong things on the wrong altar. More recently it’s about how wealth is distributed and how ownership is claimed. It has become less of an academic exercise and more of a spectacle. As it becomes more of a farce, the easier it is easier for the looters to walk off with whatever they want. It’s not a secret conspiracy, they do it right out in the open.

Meanwhile, we keep making progress. We see farther into space which means seeing back in time. We understand our bodies and minds better. We can read things from thousands of years ago that very few people, even those from the time they were written, have ever read. We see connections between keeping our hair in place and ripping a hole in the protective layer on the edge of space. We take corrective actions before we kill ourselves. Hopefully.

In case you didn’t get the reference:

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy

We all know the verse that Linus recites at the climax of Peanuts Christmas. Charlie Brown is questioning what Christmas is all about. Linus ends his reading with “Peace on earth and goodwill toward men.” That’s great, and by 1965 when that was made, most Christians throughout the world agreed this is the meaning of Christmas. Trouble is, this was written before there was the modern version of Christmas and it originally said, "Peace on earth for those whom God likes." You need to understand a bunch of Greek and Latin to understand that, but simply, you drop one Greek letter and you have to also change the whole subject/object stuff of the sentence and that’s what you get.

I heard this a few times, and it just sort of passed by me. It’s an interesting artifact of history from a time when there were no copy machines. A simple mistake. No real harm done. Except, when you start digging through the various copies throughout history, it was not a mistake at all, it was quite deliberate. This didn’t just happen in the third century and now, with better tools of historiography, we are discovering it. This has been known throughout the history of Christianity by the few people who had control of these books. Just like now, where we have neighbors who are happy to break bread at their ecumenical gatherings and multi-denominational dinners and also fundamentalists who want holy war, there were people who said they wanted peace in the world and others who knew their scripture said only some of them should see that peace. Sometimes it was the same people, saying one thing while knowing the other.

The difference between now and then is the balance of power. For the most part, those who truly believe in tolerance and peace are in power. But every day we see signs that it is still a struggle. Mainstream religion may appear to hold these values, but the facts of these discrepancies in our manuscripts raises some questions. If you accept the expert opinion on this, if you accept that people who spend their days pouring over these fragments of paper and studying the ancient languages actually got it right, then why don’t we change the Bibles? That is, correct them to what they originally were. Even if we don’t change the Bibles, why don’t preachers tell us this is only what modern people believe, not the people who first wrote the words. Those were the people who were closest to the events that inspired the words. If we are saying that we should listen to what they say, that their ancient wisdom has value, why shouldn’t we be listening to what they really said?

There are a few ways to go from here. We could believe that peace should be for only a select group. We can believe that something from outside of the physical universe somehow guided these hands and created these words on paper once, then had another hand erase it or misspell it and somehow that series of changes was slowly revealing this truth to us. We can believe that the original authors had some special vision, maybe divinely inspired or maybe just some special set of circumstances that they observed that helped them tap into this wisdom. Or, we can believe we are creatures with the ability to reflect on the past and future, trying to figure out what to make of our existence on this lonely planet. There may be millions of other planets like ours, but the universe is rather large, and we can calculate the odds of contacting one of those other planets, and they aren’t good. We might want to figure out how to get along with just each other for the time being.

To put it simply, we need to say that whoever wrote the gospel according Luke, was wrong. And when I say “we”, I mean it needs to come from the people who make a living interpreting this book. Those authors were wrong on this account, and they were wrong about some of the other things they said. We have fought wars based on religion. That includes Christians fighting over the meaning of words like these. We have had Kings anointed by gods and we have died for them. We have believed that the world could unite under one set of laws, inspired by some spirit, and experience a thousand years of joy. We were wrong.

We have found that allowing for borders and respecting the sovereignty of others is a way to deal with our differences. We found we have universal values despite theological differences and tried to create international laws, and sometimes we even got it right. Sometimes, nations put aside their differences to keep one nation from getting out of control and imposing its will on weaker people. It’s rarely pretty, but we muddle towards a world where we talk more than fight.

Instead of looking to something that was said hundreds or thousands of years ago, we look to what can be demonstrated by our senses. We extend our senses with tools created by an understanding of basic principles that have been tested over and over again. We know the sun has come up every day regardless of what sacrifices were made, so we don’t make ritual sacrifices anymore. We know the earth compressed the organic material from millions of years ago to give us fuel to light our universities so people can work late into the night curing what was once called a curse. To make that happen, we also know that we need to have some degree of peace with the people who are sitting on a lot of that organic material. The same goes for copper and materials needed to create more sustainable energy infrastructure. What is important is, so far, we just have this one planet.

You can accept what I’m saying or not. You also have the tools to research this yourself. The manuscripts with these words on them have been cataloged, numbered, digitized and are available to you free right now. The 1% of today only have power over us because we don’t do this work. The 1% in the time of Luke had a much easier time of it because they were the only ones who could read at all. The fact that I learned these things is the result of the accumulated knowledge I mentioned above and the cooperation of people across borders. The internet began as a way for scholars to share their work. It has become a way to avoid the lines during the Christmas rush. How it will be used tomorrow is our choice.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

People Suck

I came across this meme the other day while looking for something else. It's from a local Lutheran church. It's a nice church. I have friends there. They do good things. I don't know who put this up or how many of them would just agree to it without thinking. Hopefully not too many.

I couldn't confirm the exact quote, but it does paraphrase a work by Augustine, The Confessions. Augustine was born after Christianity was made legal by Constantine and contributed greatly to the work of trying to figure out what St. Paul meant and what the gospels were trying to say. Things like the Trinity were still being hotly debated at the time. Unfortunately, the people who won the debates were from some of the worst, most extreme forms of Christianity. The ones we would today call The Fundamentalists.

They wouldn't have called themselves fundamentalists, because they had not yet decided on what the fundamentals were. Today we define fundamentalists by those who call the Bible the literal word of God and consider Jesus to have been a real person, the son of God, who actually died and bodily resurrected . Back then, they were still debating which writings belonged in the Bible and if Jesus was a man, fully human and fully God, a spirit, a man who was born then possessed by the holy spirit, or what. The difference then was, people on all sides of those debates had some degree of power and influence. Today, suggesting that Jesus was not a physical human, walking around and talking to people, will get you laughed at in most circles, even outside of church.

So, why am I bringing this up? Sure, it's from 16 centuries ago. But here it is on a modern "wall". It's posted by a church that was founded by a guy who protested against a church that was corrupt. The Catholic Church claims to have it's roots in communities founded by all those writers from the first few centuries that Augustine was debating about. Those communities were protesting the corruption in the Roman Jewish community in their time. Churches today will often claim that they are challenging the world order, that they are uncovering the corruption of power, that they are symbolically turning over the tables of the money lenders in the Temple. And sometimes they do. But they also will tell you that you are not good.

Whatever other traditions churches might have, the legacy of them telling you that you are not good enough for God has endured throughout all of them. When you do that, when you convince people that there is something they don't know, and they need to keep coming back to you to figure out what it is, you can get them to do anything. In the case of the late 4th century Christians, they got people to burn the scripture they didn't like, tear down the churches that didn't teach the right brand of Jesus, and to do the same to people who sat in the wrong place and read the wrong books or said the wrong things.

This is not some alternate history. It is well known. It is the beginning of what came to be known as "The Dark Ages". I'm not blaming the Christians for this. The Romans started their own downfall when they kicked out Aristotle and gave power back to corrupt rulers instead of promoting democracy. Something would have replaced that, and we could have done worse, but we could have done a lot better.

After about a thousand years, we did start doing better. Instead of reading interpretations to people, we taught them to read. We didn't treat people like slaves, we encouraged each other to work for each other. We found out genius and inspiration was everywhere if you just gave it room to grow. Seems pretty obvious now, but it was a struggle to get where we are. People like Susan B Anthohy, Rosa Parks, Ghandi, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali continue that struggle today.

All of them fought using reason. They read, understood and developed philosophy that valued human dignity and human feelings. They didn't try to figure out some logic that explained why a God who claimed to be ultimately good could allow for evil in the world. They acknowledged that there is good and evil and they tried to find ways to deal with it. They didn't provide simple answers. They asked for the right to ask the question. They claimed the right to participate. If someone claimed authority by referring to someone from the 4th century who said they weren't good enough, that they could never measure up to some ultimate authority, they questioned that authority. It's the basis for the world of freedom we have today.

Keep what's good from religion if you can find it, but get rid of stuff like this.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Troubled Times

I found out about this the other day while listening to Laura Erickson’s “For the Birds” on the radio. It has nothing to do with birds, but Laura ventures into philosophy now and again. This is what the internet and modern communication is supposed to do. It connects us to the wisdom from 600 years ago and reminds us of what is important to all human life.

Actually, the fear is not of tomorrow but of the day after, and that is its danger — for the fear of death can keep us from living.
The essay was written in 1951 and begins with a reference to a book written as people were awakening from the nightmare of the Black Death and beginning to experience the Renaissance. It talks about what to do in the face of such destruction and relates it to the fear of the time when it was written, nuclear annihilation. In the 14th century, people hid out in abandoned mines. In the 20th century, they cached weapons and fuel and built compounds in the wilderness in Oregon. For some today, they just stay home and don’t engage with the rest of the world. All of these are choosing death while they are still alive.

If you knew you were to die day after tomorrow, what would you do tomorrow? Only one answer has ever been sensible: Just what I would do if I did not know — go to the office, take the children to the park, go on with the job, get married, buy the house, have a baby.

People still respond by hiding and isolating themselves. If anything, we’ve just expanded what we fear. We fear the modern medicine and modern farming that was supposed to fix the problems of disease and starvation. We fear the government that was created in response to unchecked monarchies. We fear we are being lied to by the institutions that are supposed to offer us access to information so we stop trying to figure what is true. We build virtual walls by shutting out the voices of people not like us and by ignoring our neighbors.

This may all seem like a downer, but DeVoto offers an answer, perhaps “the answer”, an answer that is repeated throughout history in stories and poetry.

The link is to Laura’s blog. It expands on the quotes I’ve put here. It further links to the complete article by Bernard DeVoto.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

How many partners do you need?

When I ask people what we should do when we disagree, most people say we should go find people who do agree with us and work with them. At best they might make some sort nod to inclusivity. This worked fine for most of human history, but then we found out that what we do affects people on the other side of the planet. What we wear and what we eat can cause suffering for children on other continents. What we don’t do can result in death and disease just down the road from us. Even if we want to be selfish, ignoring that suffering will eventually result in problems for us and our loved ones.

There are answers to the question. We have rules of order for running meetings. We have neighborhood groups and community organizations. We have Constitutions and International Law. We have the Rule of Christ if you prefer, Matthew 18:15-20. But very few people know how these systems work and even fewer actually use them or use them wisely. All of them are designed to regulate common decency; take turns speaking, respond to what was said before starting a new topic, when consensus doesn’t exist take a vote, seek facts, agree on how to determine truth then stick to that agreement. Drawing a boundary and keeping some people outside of it is the last resort.

I left the 3rd largest denomination of Christians because they couldn’t agree on how to deal with the issue of homosexuality. The United States moved on and I realized my church was no longer a leader on one of the most important issues of our time. But I didn’t blame all Christians. I blamed half of the people in my church and I blamed the poor system of decision making they all inherited. But I still acknowledge and support those who are fighting that fight from the inside of what I consider a flawed organization.

That’s around 6 million people I consider allies, not enemies. I’m sure I have many differences with many of them. But they have a voice that gets heard in tiny villages all across Africa where they still have the death penalty for loving someone in the wrong way. They have ways and means of building community that I don’t. My facebook post congratulating my friend and his husband doesn’t have that kind of impact.

I just picked this one issue. If you think this post is about advocating for LGBTQ or whatever initials I forgot, you missed the point. Pick your issue; GMOs, Afghanistan, vaccines, big government, big organic, sending food to Kenya, choice, life, free speech, then think about who you can’t talk to because you disagree on those issues. Then pick an issue like breathable air or drinkable water or creating communities where children can grow and discover their place in the world. How many partners do you need to make that happen?

Friday, July 28, 2017

You're own evil demon

I came across this rather interesting use of a very old thought experiment. Descartes was trying to figure out if he existed independently, or if something was controlling him, like an evil demon. He eventually concluded his ability to think proved his independence. The use of this is something I see people doing to themselves or trying to do to others. They try to make people into their own “Cartesian demons”.
You can do it to yourself by thinking you are a failure, then believing it. You can let others do it by allowing them to tell you that you are in some way flawed. You can let them convince you that they are smarter, or that all humans are incapable of understanding some fundamental truth or that none of us know the real way things work. Of course they have the answer, and if you believe them, you give yourself up to them to get it. Or, you just give up to the idea. Either way you’ve let an imaginary “demon” take control.
The extreme case is a cult, but less extreme cases can be seen every day with fake headlines or fake science and claims that reality is fakes. Well established facts become a conspiracy of the elite. Extensive investigations into voter fraud are tossed aside because one paper ballot was counted twice. Always left unmentioned is that the problem was caught and corrected, otherwise, how would we know it ever happened?
People believe we can’t make a difference and that we are being controlled by invisible forces. They fear poison in the water, in our food and even in our medicines. We accept the status quo that there will always be poor despite centuries of solving social problems. There is always some disaster or someone being slighted to prove the point.

The good news, no special powers are required to escape this demon. Just think for yourself. If it’s a claim about science, then find all the research you can and learn how a scientific consensus if formed. If it’s government, get involved. The US just had two polar opposites in the presidency. I’m guessing no one is controlling this. If it’s just that we can’t know everything and we’re just animals, then how do you know that? You would need to know everything to know that we can’t know it. There is nothing to do but learn more. You don’t know what your limits are.