Thursday, September 24, 2009

Doesn't Matter

Remember when Peter Jennings was doing all those reports in Ethiopia? Or was it Catie Couric in Kenya, doesn’t matter. A story I remember from that is of just one of those hungry kids. There was a major famine at the time and somebody decided it was news. Children are always dying somewhere. I don’t mean to be harsh about that, it’s just a fact. It’s unusual when people take note of it. We’ll take days playing out the story of a plane crash, but just as many people die every few minutes of hunger, but that is not news.

This is not a digression, but let’s get back to the one kid.

I don’t remember his name, but somebody did. Some couple, watching those programs sitting in their nice living room in New Jersey or Minnetonka or wherever it was, doesn’t matter, saw one face and got attached to it. They went to great lengths to find that one kid and bring him back to America, so he could grow up healthy. I can remember the video of him arriving at the airport, kind of a stunned look with his jaw hanging down, wondering what all the fuss was about.

For many people that is a heart warming story. For me it’s a little disturbing. For a few it’s just dumb, but we’ll put those people in the “doesn’t matter” bin with the other stuff. It’s disturbing because of the expense of tracking down just one kid. I have spent many hours fighting hunger and I know of one organization in particular, Kids Against Hunger, that can feed people for 25 cents a meal. Just one of the trips that couple made to Africa could have bought a lot of food.

So how do I get something good out of this ridiculous effort that did more to make a couple of suburbanites feel good than it did for a hungry country? The first step is to think of all of the times that someone has said, “If I can help just one person…” and fill in whatever cause that they are working on. This is commonly heard from people who have difficult jobs working with young people who are destroying their own lives and bringing down others with them. It can often seem like you are not making any difference. In those moments of despair saying, “If I can just save the life of one kid, and have them grow up and raise their own healthy children, it will have been worth it.”

Okay, they did that, they saved one kid. The second thing I would love to know, how did their friends and neighbors react? David Sedaris tells a story of two competing suburban families who start giving things to the homeless and bragging about it in their Christmas letters. Eventually they are giving away their own organs just to do their neighbors one better. Among the friends and neighbors of our child saving couple, I imagine the ratios of “didn’t care”, “were inspired”, and “found it disturbing” reflected the general population anywhere.

Is that bad? No. If you are disturbed by it, then you understand the issues, and you are probably involved with something because you know why tracking down one kid doesn’t make sense. If you don’t care, you may be beyond hope, or some other heart warming story will have to cross your path to make any difference. If you were inspired, that’s awesome, I hope you find something to do that does matter.

You know, I wonder what happened to that kid from Ethiopia. I should try to track him down.

Friday, September 18, 2009

September 18th

I wrote this about 8 years ago.

At last, finally, thank God, a gray and dreary day. I drive into nothingness today. I only see a gray line of trees where yesterday there was the green and red and gold of early autumn. At last the day reflects my mood. Finally, the trees appear to cry, dripping with thick morning moisture and I know it's okay to cry. They cry with the millions, who mourn for the thousands, who came from the 80 countries, who worked in the two towers that fell in just a few hours, one week ago.

The days since have mocked me with warm nights, with sun and blue sky, absent of cloud and plane. That blue sky has angered me to cry out, "Don't you see!" and ask, "Where are you God? Won't you do something? Aren't you listening?". When that anger is not relieved, I turn it toward my radio, to the talk show host and the man on the street who want revenge and even closer to my neighbor who talks without knowing and is ready to send my friends to war, and I am ready to bind them and gag them so they can only hear what is inside their own heads when suddenly I realize that that is how it all began, and withdraw into shame. People speak, but I can't quite connect, and I am further withdrawn into the isolation. The isolation that it is to be a human being.

But on this day, I am comforted. Comforted by the gray blanket that covers the road ahead of me as I drive to work. The world is reflecting what I feel inside and it feels like I can hide here for a while. As I come over a hill, the sun filters through. Through a sugar maple in it's golden September glory. The gold dances off the drops in the air, all the way to me and all the way through me and into the fields around me. In the fields, it hits wet webs and they glow like tiny lanterns.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Have You Read It? The Actual Post.

When I’m not writing my own blogs, I often read others and engage in online discussions on similar topics. Julia Sweeney has a forum that grew out of her public discussions of becoming an atheist. Someone in that forum supplied a link that sent me through a wide spectrum of doubt and belief. The link was to another blogger named Greta, defending her anger towards Christians. It made a lot of sense. Her theme was well developed and I could see how even in a non-violent movement, for example the civil rights movement, anger and violence play an important role, such as getting on the national news when your peaceful protest is broken up with night sticks and fire hoses.

She also included an extensive list of what made her angry about Christianity. This included all the killing in the name of God, suppression of birth control, oppression of gays, it was a long list. Then she linked to an earlier list she had created of all the references to hell in the New Testament.

I followed it. I was surprised at its length because I had just read The Gospel of Inclusion by Carlton Pearson, a preacher who suddenly stopped preaching about hellfire and damnation. Greta and I are very different, but we have a similar problem; finding good authors, with good historical, psychological as well as canonical information that are willing to point out the flaws of religion today, without bashing it as a whole. One excellent exception is “Jesus for the Non-Religious” by John Shelby Spong, a retired Bishop.

Having these books in my reading background kept me from being convinced that Jesus wanted me to love him or go to hell, but Greta’s list was strong evidence to the contrary. I had to figure this out for myself. I pulled out my NIV study Bible and started looking them up. I thought I might have to go back to my King James version to match up the language, but no, it was right there, have an evil thought, go to hell. My study Bible is heavily footnoted, so looking there on the first passage in her list, I found the hell in this case was a translation from Gehenna.

Gehenna was a part of Jerusalem in the time of the New Testament. It was what today we would call a bad neighborhood. There was a lot of garbage, sometimes it would catch fire, a lot of thieves hanging around, you get the idea. Just a few generations earlier, that part of Jerusalem had been used to make human sacrifices to Moloch. Moloch was a god who is featured in a story in the book of Isaiah. In other words, this is like a high school football coach today encouraging his players who live in or near the inner city, saying, “work hard, study your playbook, or your going to end up living in the projects the rest of your life.” It may not be the most appropriate motivation, but it certainly is not threatening someone with eternal damnation in a lake of fire.

Continuing on, I started to hit more parables. Some of these seem to say that actual people will be thrown in to actual fires. One of them, the Parable of the Talents, I am very familiar with and have found scholarly articles explaining it and written my own pieces on it. For example, the person who is “cast into the outer darkness” is actually an analogy for a follower of Christ, not an evil person being punished. I did run in to one parable, The Sheep and the Goats, that I could not refute or explain. But there was a time when someone had told me that the Parable of the Talents was about capitalism. It didn’t seem right, so I studied it and can now argue with logic and context and references to authorities that the interpretation is wrong. I can’t say for certain, but I would be willing to bet that I can do the same with the Sheep and the Goats.

I started skipping through the list a little quicker now and then skipped down to the comments. She graciously left commenting open and included her replies. It is an unusually respectful conversation. I was happy to see some very helpful comments. Of course there were others that were the standard, “Jesus is coming, hang in there” response too. In brief, the comments I liked said that you need to watch for “ is as if” or “..the Kingdom of God is like” and other clues to when a story is a parable, not literal.

Finally, at the bottom of the comments was a refutation of the refutations. This started out by simply re-listing some of the same passages that Greta had and claiming those could not be explained by what the commenters had said. It seemed that the discussion had devolved into contradiction instead of debate, but he provided a link to an essay of his own, so I followed it.

The essay represented a tremendous amount of work and I really felt his pain. What is unfortunate is that he did something that Thomas Jefferson had already done when he created what is now known as the Jefferson Bible. Their conclusions however are very different. The author of this essay found some rules that he thought were pretty difficult to follow, and couldn’t let go of the parables that seem to say you will be thrown in to the fire if you don’t follow them.

I still recommend this essay. Especially if you are atheist, or undecided. One of the problems of researching the Bible is, when reading a seemingly scholarly work, every now and then the author inserts something like, “God in all his glory” or “the one and only true Christ” or similar phrases that don’t seem to fit. This essay definitely does not do that. It does break down what Jesus suggested one do with one’s life in to some very concise lists. He does use some subjective language and sometimes I think he misinterprets, but try to ignore that and decide for yourself if the advice seems reasonable. He also concludes that Jesus was an apocalyptic, and many scholars agree, that’s a little harder to work around, but try to defer that judgment until you have done further study.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Have You Read it? Part 4

There are many versions of the Bible available on the Internet. One of them is known as “The Jefferson Bible.” It is named for the man who edited it, one of the founders of the United States of America, Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson was a big supporter of the Unitarian church. He was sure that the world was moving in that direction and that within his lifetime the majority of people in the world would switch to that form of Christian study.

He looked at the Bible, and had a problem with all the miracles. He did not feel that was necessary for modern man. This is particularly troublesome with the New Testament because it is a mix of references to confirmed historical figures, names of cities that still exists, and miracles. So he sat down with the original tools of cutting and pasting and started working on his New Testament. When he was done he found a collection of common sense sayings. In his words, “There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”

I’m sure many would argue with that statement. Perhaps he had not read every code of morals ever written. I don’t see much value in engaging in that argument. Nor do I see any value in taking the opposite step that some do and claiming that the code is so perfect, it proves that Jesus was God. All of that just takes us away from what would be valuable, that is discussing the code itself.

I’m sure there is more to say about this, but for now I just wanted to introduce it so I can finish this multi-part post. I will leave you will Thomas Jefferson’s own words on what I believe is a great way to approach the study of the Christian God.

“Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must approve the homage of reason rather than of blind-folded fear. Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences.... If it end in a belief that there is no god, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise and in the love of others it will procure for you."
--Thomas Jefferson, to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Have You Read It? Part 3

Okay, the “Have You Read It” series is not just a bunch of book reviews, but I will discuss another book in this part.

Actually, the first time I came across the story of Carlton Pearson was on a radio show “This American Life”. It is a weekly program on public radio that has a wide variety of story tellers. Sometimes it’s a ghost story, sometimes it’s a humorous tale of a dysfunctional family, sometimes it’s the inside story of some current event. Usually they break the show up into several stories, but for Carlton Pearson, they did a full hour.

Carlton Pearson is a preacher. He started out poor and rose very high in the structure of the Oral Roberts ministry. Oral Roberts sort of adopted him. Every Sunday he preached to thousands. He travelled the country with his message, even to the White House. Part of his message was that if you don’t accept Christ in your heart, you will burn in hell for an eternity. In fact it was quite central to his preaching. Until one day when it wasn’t.

He was sitting in his nice house, on his nice couch, with his children in his arms, eating his dinner. On the evening news, a story of children starving to death in Ethiopia. He was always thinking about saving souls, so he saw that and immediately wondered how he could save these children. How could he get to them before they died and tell them of the love of Christ? Of course he couldn’t, so he turned to God and asked why.

Why would God allow this suffering to occur? Why create this world where that happens and it is nearly impossible to fix it? Carlton felt that he could talk to God, and God’s answer was, “yeah, why would you allow that?” He, Carlton that is, not God, realized what he had been doing all his life, and almost immediately stopped doing it. His ministry suffered, he lost his church, he lost a lot of friends. It would really be best if you hear him tell it. You can listen for free, or download for a small fee. “This American Life” is very deserving of your support, so please do so.

Click here for This American Life

He has also published a full version of his story. You can read that if you like, but I’m not endorsing his theology. I asked my pastor to read it and he also has some troubles with the details of his theology, but I don’t want to focus on that. What is important to me, is that someone so entrenched in his beliefs, can, in a moment change his mind. And he was smart enough to re-evaluate his own education and re-educate himself on why. He is still a preacher, but he now preaches about inclusiveness, about love and understanding, and that we are all one.

Click here for his book