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Thursday, December 6, 2012

God and Suffering defines suffering as follows, “[to] experience or be subjected to (something bad or unpleasant).” If is right, then suffering is as universal as it is unquestionable. That infamous serpent of long ago slithers through the lives every conscious being, eating dust and spitting out suffering in return. The sigh of a heavy heart and the echoed footsteps of a teenager all alone. The tears of those who mourn for all that they have lost and the child who hides behind the coach because her parents are drunk and fighting. The man who loses his job and sees the hungry faces of his children in his nightmares. The woman who miscarries over and over again. Those homeless on the street who suffer untempered addictions. Those who feel homeless in their own homes. The sting of a splinter or the pangs of a jammed toe. From the towering shrieks of giving birth to the moderate headache behind the eyes. Suffering is so pervasive that it is perhaps better described by what it’s not than by what it is. But even then it’s hard, for even behind smiles and forced laughs one may find a lurking suffering, a depression, a box of untalkables locked away deep in the soul. The serpent deceived us more than we could ever know, “surely, you will not die,” he said. But we would die, and that is not the least of it. “Surely, you will not suffer,” is what he should have said too. Put perhaps suffering was a word not yet even known.

So when asked to reflect upon what suffering means to me, I am left with a sort of anxiety (a sort of suffering, no less). The sort that comes when one is tasked with a job too big to take on all at once. That is because life as I have always known it is infused with suffering, such that to extricate it even intellectually is virtually impossible. Suffering is the air I breathe (in an increasingly more literal sense). Though it’s undeniable too, that suffering makes all the greatest things in my life possible. Love would mean little if I had not suffered the unloving. Compassion would have no force if I knew not pain. Faith would have no dominion if I had not felt the bitter pangs of unbelief. Hope would never surface if I had nothing at all to hope for. Mercy would be impotent if I had not suffered guilt. Forgiveness would still be in the heart of a man that was never born who died upon the beams of a tree that was never cut down. Suffering is infused in every category of my thinking that to even fathom a world without it is something only God can do. Thus, when I hear critics decry Christianity and maintain that suffering is the ultimate proverbial thorn in its side, presenting as they maintain, a decisive proof of Christianity’s falsity. I cannot help but quiver. For nothing could be further from the truth. It’s the nonexistence of suffering that would be the decisive proof of Christianity’s falsity. Christianity has long been a predictive model of suffering, holding as it does, at its redemptive center a crucified God who suffered and died. All so we could be forgiven. Forgiven? Forgiven for what?

Forgiven for all the unwholesome ways we wielded the power of our own freedom. For all the atrocities we enacted and participated. Forgiven for the children we left exposed to die. Forgiven for the rape and slaughter. Forgiven for greed and selfishness. Forgiven for the genocides we petitioned for, participated in, or idly watched. Forgiven for the lies told and the people we hurt. Forgiven for all the suffering that we brought down upon the heads of all people with ruthless and persistent indifference. Suffering is the story of Christianity, from start to finish, culminating as the exiled John proclaims, in newness absent of all that we have ever known.

We’re not the only ones to suffer, either. Creation is in bondage to suffering, as the Apostle Paul proclaimed in Romans. But a reality even more profound is that of God’s suffering. For it was God that created time and even before this ex nihilo creation God knew— knew that his image-bearers would wonder from salvation. God knew that it would be he that would have to die upon a cross through his son, Jesus Christ. We have only known this reality through the slow passage of time while God has borne it for eternity. So perhaps the serpent did not lie after all, for he said, “you will become like God knowing good and evil.” Who knew, though, that suffering was part and parcel of being like God?

Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Reflection on Prayer

In those days the word of the LORD was rare; there were not many visions. 

1 Samuel 3:1b 

In seminary, I had to take a class on prayer and I remember being incredibly scared. Scared, as it were, of the painful reality of God's conspicuous silence. I have often characterized my spiritual life in evolutionary terms – inasmuch as it is not so much marked by sudden and complete changes as it is by slow and gradual processes. So when I first read the syllabus for this class and saw that I was pressed to seriously consider the matter of my own prayer life, I was afraid I would be charged with the arduous task of identifying which change among the thousands of minute ones is most important to me. I was afraid that after all was read, said and done I would have nothing more to say about prayer than I did before. That the God who comes in fire to some, still whispers to others, has yet found a way to speak to me. This silence of God, His utter hiddenness in my life, has never caused me to doubt His existence, or even His love. These things I never fear. I fear most that the God who came upon the clouds and whose voice renders existence from nothingness, does not speak to me at all.

I am not sure I ever thought in the past that prayer could be an expression of life's growing pains. It develops and matures and sometimes painfully so. Prayer in my life has felt a little like the days of Samuel's boyhood, a time where God's words and visions are scarce. Far from portraying myself as a little boy abandoned in a world of silence, I am simply identifying a phenomenon for which I wish I had no share. Is it not also true that the great Mother Theresa experienced a life rife with silence, wrought with darkness? Prayer to me has mostly become an expression of faith. But it is an expression that is gradually becoming richer – daily becoming informed by new experiences.

I used to understand prayer as the time we set aside to both thank God and make requests of God. This understanding is accurate but not nearly exhaustive enough. Prayer is the sum of many meaningful parts – innumerable auxiliary methods. Learning about all the different approaches and understandings of prayer has led me to the conclusion that any single definition of prayer will miss something, but I will try nonetheless.

To me, prayer is the effort we make to glimpse, if only for a moment, the divine. It is the struggle, the very strain of our ears to hear truth in silence. It is the effort of our hearts to form words of meaning without sound. Prayer is formed by our life's experiences, growing and adapting. It is the language that our souls speak and God understands. It is the praise we offer and the requests we make before “amen,” but it is mostly the stuff we say and do afterward. Prayer is in the disappointment of failure and the wounds of unsuccess. Prayer can also grow from the misery of loss and the pangs of guilt. Prayer is in the way we use our hands, or the places we put our feet. It is a lifestyle, a worldview. It is to be awestruck and speechless or afraid and trembling. It is an action, it is a passing thought. Prayer is gradual and instantaneous, borne through process and immediacy. It is scripted and spontaneous, memorized and made up. Prayer is a time alone or a community experience. It is in the surprise of wonder and the abruptness of death. It is the content of our hearts and the direction of our minds. Prayer is the manifestation of our vows, the actualization of our words – yet it is both the vows and words too. A Christian without prayer is like a potter without clay.

I have experienced a great number the aforementioned and the prayer class actually gave me new perspective about what prayer is.Though no one experience has brought me to the very throne room of heaven, many of them have given me glimpses of purpose. Many have helped me realize that prayer is not always easy – it is a struggle – and more importantly, it is a struggle for almost everyone (that, at least, is comforting). For me, prayer is mostly an experience of silence and emptiness where I petition God and praise God in faith – hoping that my prayers are heard. Still other times there is too much noise and racket caused by life’s pressures to focus. But most importantly, sometimes amidst the silence there is not an emptiness, but rather a feeling of presence. That is progress for me. To sit alone and feel as if your words are both heard and meaningful is scary and great – an arabesque of mixed emotions. To think that God is truly hearing my words and studying the innermost parts of my heart is not always comforting, it is an alarming vulnerability.

In effort to experience again such a feeling of presence, I began to experiment with new ways of trying to commune with the divine. At one point, when I was meditating in silence, straining my heart and reigning my thoughts back, trying my best to be attentive to God's presence, I was overwhelmed with peace. It was a peace that went straight to the bedrock of my confidence in God. Without words or whispers, fire or clouds, I simply knew that my efforts were pleasing to God. Merely trying can make God happy.

I will still continue to pray in all the ways I know how, consciously trying to keep God at the forefront of my heart and mind, hoping and praying that God will speak to me and I will hear it. All this so that in the final moments of my life, I will be known not just for my trying, but for succeeding. Maybe someday in the future I can answer my kids or grandkids when they ask, “do you know God?” with a cheerful smile and these words, “O yes, I know God, we have talked on many occasions.”

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Fear shows us who matters...

“The happiest people I have known have been those who gave themselves no concern about their own souls, but did their uttermost to mitigate the miseries of others.”
—Elizabeth Cady Stanton

It was a dark and ominous walk. My friend Pat and I, neighbors at the time, walked side by side home after an evening movie at our local cinema. The night made more ominous by the fact that the movie we had just watched was The Ring. There is nothing more particularly scary than the demon-like antics of a small female child who hides her hideously dead face behind ratty jet-black hair. Needless to say, we were, well, pretty scared on our walk home—though neither of us openly showed it.

We avoided conversation about the movie as that would only increase the inner anxiety of having to walk home in the dark after watching a movie that freaked us both out. At one point along our long trek home we came to a park that we would always cut through because it literally cut the distance we would have to walk in half. The one problem at night, though, was that it had no lights. It was not a welcoming sight. We both paused before the black veil of darkness that lay before us. Then, without words, we both entered into the menacing heaviness of complete darkness. We talked about nothing just to remind each other that we were together—present and okay.

At one point I could see by the pale moonlight a small bridge over an even smaller creek coming up before us. I had the eerie feeling of being watched. I had that goose-bump feeling that, in all this darkness that enshrouded us, we were not alone. Because of this nagging fear I began to say something like, “I’m really glad I have my knife with me.”

Pat, who was clearly caught off guard by this sort of random interjection, said, “What in the world are you talking about?”

“My knife, I’m really glad that I brought it with me. Just in case, you know?” I said.

Again, totally confused, Pat responded, “You didn’t bring a knife, what are you talking about?”

At that point I was a little irritated that he did not pick up on the not-so-subtle hints of the intonation in my voice. We just stepped onto the bridge and I started to say something like, “Dude, I was saying that because I thought…”

And before I could finish my sentence, before I could tell him the truth about my fear, everything beneath us began to quake. A huge and ungodly noise erupted under our feet. It sounded as if some monstrous leviathan sprung out from the water below us. Then there was the scream, that high-pitched, bone-chilling scream that riveted my skull and at the time I knew not from whence it came. Though in retrospect, I think it was actually Pat who was screaming so inhumanly in my ear. It was a fight or flight situation and we both took flight.

We ran with total disregard for each other, Pat could have been dead on the bridge with some swamp monster devouring his insides and salvaging his femur for a weapon to employ on future victims. I knew and cared only about my own safety in that moment. And, as it turned out, Pat was doing the same thing. We still to this day do not have any idea what it was that we ran from.

It is a funny story for us both to reflect on, but it is also a hard reality for me to face. The reality that I am— in moments of crisis where fear is at its pinnacle—wholly selfish. It is a bitter truth to face. I do not want to be a person who, when crisis is averted, looks back at the scattered wake of tragedy and sees the hopeless mess of those who never knew what was to be helped.

Someone once said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that
something else is more important than fear.”

That’s one thing I pray for. That even in the small things, here and now, I’ll learn to sacrifice myself. I want to learn to live without regard for my own selfish wants, so that in moments much larger and in crises more pressing, where fear threatens to consume me and beckons me to abandon my neighbors, others may flee, but as for me, no, I’ll stay, I’ll fight.

Monday, October 8, 2012

When Forgiveness Hurts the Most

The Green River Killer, Gary Ridgway, was responsible for the murder of approximately 90 women and girls. The family members whose loved ones will forever be known as the victims of Ridgway’s murderous infamy were given time to voice the hate that brewed in the deep chasms of their grieving hearts. Hate that comes naturally when we’re confronted with the brute reality of unadulterated human wickedness. 

Now, I don’t think this man should have been forgiven by the state and released without punishment. I also don’t think those angry, hate-filled family members are morally culpable or acting disgracefully. In fact, their reactions are incredibly normal and reflect the deep and abiding scars of an unimaginable tragedy. However, they seek at least a semblance of peace by sinking their roots deep in the embittered soil of hate and vengeance. But hate did not bring peace to those who had been wronged, nor was it strong enough to break the spirit of the one who wronged them. 

In the video, we see the measured tempo of a father who lost his daughter. It was the slow pace of a weary soul, burdened with grief. It was a man who bore a heavy cross that day. Who mastered his hate and did, not the easier thing, or even the normal thing, but instead, Robert Rule, father of a murdered Linda Rule, decided to forgive. The resolve of the wrongdoer was to no avail, for hate he could take, but forgiveness he could not bear. My father once told me that the one way to overcome evil is with the one force that’s stronger. Quite similarly, the one way to overcome hatred is through the one force that’s stronger, forgiveness. 

It’s a tough gospel to swallow and an even harder one to follow. Jesus calls us to love our neighbors and our enemies. Worse yet, He calls us to forgive those who sin against us. Though we’re tempted to hate those who've wronged us and wallow in thoughts of vengeance not our own, the truth will set us free. And the truth is, as often quoted, unforgiveness is the poison we drink hoping someone else will die.

Friday, October 5, 2012

You ought to donate your organs!

New legislation in New York is trying to increase the amount of donors:
New Yorkers getting a new driver's license will have to make a choice about whether to be an organ donor, a measure meant to boost sign-ups.
Quite some years ago, one of my professors drove frantically to Seattle hospital from southern Oregon. He was next in line to receive a heart that just came in. Three years before this visit to the hospital, he was given two years to live. His heart was increasingly less operable every day and, after multiple heart-attacks, bypass surgery and plenty of medication, he was going to die unless he got a new heart.

And he did get a new heart. But it was not until three days after his transplant operation that he found out to whom he owed the gratitude. It was a fourteen year old boy who was playing Middle School football. He died from a brain injury. It was the boy’s parents, in that moment of indescribable grief and undue urgency that made the decision for their son’s organs to be donated. That difficult decision to have your son, the boy you would die for, cut upon and harvested was one that expressed love for others too. It was that decision that saved the lives of five people that day. Nineteen people die every day from waiting, but never receiving, an organ transplant.

In reflecting on this situation, my professor is always struck by the sobering reality that someone had to die in order for him to live. This is not too dissimilar from the Christian story, where Jesus died so that we may live. That is why Christians have a moral obligation to be organ donors. Let even your death be an act of charity, so that when you die, others may find life.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

When God wants you naked

I was in downtown Portland with my wife and a few of our friends when a few stragglers from the annual naked bicycle run made their way down the street nearby. There were two men, fully exposed as one might rightly expect, and one woman, who also pedaled her way past us. Her bare breasts and pubic hair were clearly visible. I saw her in her nakedness just as I saw the men before her. I saw her face red with exhaustion as sweat gathered above her brows—liberation not without difficulty. Her body gave away all her secrets and all those gathered took them in only to whisper about them later.

But was she wrong in that moment? Was I? Was her flagrant display of her naked body an act of lewdness and my witness of it unmitigated lust? What of the men? Shall we chastise them also for the stumbling block they undoubtedly presented to all the unsuspecting female observers?

What about those artists who gaze upon the nudity of their subject, whom, poised in stillness, are captured in that moment on canvas and presented before the scrupulous eyes of instructors, peers and other connoisseurs of art? Shall we condemn the subject for his or her display? Shall we not also condemn the artist who masquerades such nudity under the vague notion of art?

This, I believe, is the problem of nudity. When does a man’s appreciation of a woman’s beauty become lust and a women’s display of it become lewd and sinful (and vice versa)? Is it wrong for a woman or a man to be nude in public and is it wrong for others to observe it when it occurs? What if the man or woman is, well, quite ugly? And what if he or she is attractive?

For me, the issue is relatively clear. It is wrong for me, as a male human being, to look upon another human being, whether male or female, lustfully. This can happen when the subject of my lust is clothed or unclothed. The issue then is one that resides primarily in our hearts and not in any given action itself. It is certainly perfectly fine for me to look upon my wife and desire her, but it is not similarly okay for another man to do so.

But let’s try and unpack this further and you can help inform me when I may have crossed some lines. Before I get too far along, however, let me say that I do think that men and women can use their bodies as instruments to entice others to lust. I can say that some women are exceptionally good at this and are exemplars of Paul's age old warning against being stumbling blocks for others. But my concern here is whether or not the base act of nudity is itself wrong.

Nudity is not wrong per se

That is to say, nudity is not morally wrong in and of itself. All of us can think of circumstances where being naked is not morally wrong and, in some circumstances, quite appropriate. Almost all of my routine physicals were performed by women. I distinctly recall, with no shortage of embarrassment, the stoic face of the female nurse who performed an ultrasound on my nether-boys. These same sorts of circumstances happen with women too, where women are exposed to the prying eyes and instruments of health professionals.

Public bathing has been around for millennia and existed as a firm practice in ancient Rome during the time of Jesus. Jewish scholars were actually forbidden from living in an area were public baths did not exist! Today there are men’s and women’s locker rooms where patrons move around in various stages of undress. So it seems rather safe to say that, at the very least, gender-segregated nudity is fine.

Moreover, I think we can all easily construct some creative moral dilemmas wherein we are actually compelled to be witness to the nudity of either gender. For instance, if you are familiar with the biblical story of the Good Samaritan who aids the naked and bedraggled Jewish man, you know it can be reworked and still be just as compelling. What if a man well on his way to some pressing engagement sees a naked woman on the brink of death? Is he not morally compelled to help? I think so. It’s a troubling thing that fear of sin can cause us to run away from those in most need of our love.

The subjectivity of beauty complicates things

Many elementary school libraries are furnished with playboys, though you may not think so. I can recall the many Natural Geographic magazines that had naked indigenous men and women blazoned upon their pages. Most people recognize this as an aspect of cultural dissimilarity, inasmuch as certain cultures view nudity in different ways. But then WHY is it okay for us in a culture NOT LIKE THEIRS to view it in magazines like Natural Geographic? When our magazines are laden with naked women, we usually call it indecent, or worse, pornography. It is, I am convinced, a form of racism to say it is okay for us to view their men and women as naked but not ours.

This inevitably leads to the question of beauty. That is to say, is the act of looking at a naked person made less wrong if we are not attracted to them? I know that national geographic women aren't typically my cup of tea and seeing images of them does not leave me with a rotting knot of guilt in my stomach. But we cannot go around telling doctors to only help ugly people and artists to sculpt and paint only the most unpleasant of us. We certainly cannot go around making laws and rules that regulate nudity based on one’s appearance. For one, it would be an incredible case of discrimination. And for seconds, beauty is often different among individual observers, sometimes drastically. I’m reminded of the time my wife and I were driving to the Oregon coast and we passed a deforested, mountainous lot of land that was desolate, grey and sort of bleak. I found this to be incredibly beautiful—a sort of sad beauty. My wife totally and utterly disagreed. To her, it was nothing but ugly. Beauty cannot be legally or objectively regulated—it’s simply not possible.

But the larger issue is the fact that we often tacitly admit that there is nothing wrong with seeing a person naked who we are not attracted to. That is why we segregate locker rooms by gender, because, by and large, men are not attracted to other men. Of course, with the increase of gay rights and awareness and other gender related issues, this once fine line is increasingly skewed. Is a gay man sinning if he sees another man naked in the locker-room? No more than any other straight man, I would say. It would be wrong if the man allowed himself to dwell on some extremely strong sexual desire (or, as we call it, lust).

But this sort of strong sexual desire is not unique to some specific environment or set of circumstances. Thus this must equally apply to circumstances where nudity is deemed as appropriate. For instance, when a doctor sees his or her patient in the nude, this could become wrong if the doctor dwells on some strong sexual desire. This, unfortunately, is not unheard of.

Of course, it must be rightfully admitted that it is easier to lust after someone you are attracted to. And that seems to really be what is at stake. Can men and women alike learn to bridle their hearts and keep themselves from dwelling upon strong sexual desires? If the other is not actually trying to entice you to lust, I actually don't find it to be very hard at all. The naked bicycle riding woman, for instance, was not trying to entice anyone to lust, though many could. But then again, many could even if she were clothed!

The Bible and Nudity

It may be noted with some sadness that Jesus was, in reality, naked as soldiers cast lots for his garments. Jesus bore the jeers of those who mocked him as he, naked as the day he was born, was flogged and ultimately crucified in the public sphere. There are also instances where God commanded public nudity of his servants:

In Isaiah 20, it references God’s command for Isaiah to travel for three years in the nude. It also references that this was a sign of what the King of Assyria should do:

So shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptian captives and the Cushite exiles, both the young and the old, naked and barefoot, with buttocks uncovered, the nakedness of Egypt.
This sort of mass public nudity seemingly includes all the exiles, both male and female, without deference to any sort of gender segregation.  In 1 Samuel 19, Saul is said to have stripped off his clothes and prophesied in the nude: 
And he too stripped off his clothes, and he too prophesied before Samuel and lay naked all that day and all that night. Thus it is said, “Is Saul also among the prophets?”
In the New Testament, we have the account of Peter fishing naked in John 21:
That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
It seems that there is nothing inherently wrong with nudity. In fact, when you do a bible search for the word “naked,” you’ll see that it is most commonly in reference to the shame associated with being exposed publicly  Just remember that original Eden scene where Adam and Eve were naked and “they were not ashamed.” As a product of the fall, men and women became ashamed of their nudity and on what level has Christ allowed us to be redeemed from that shame, if at all? 

I’m not certain. But I do know that those protesters who took to the streets in the nude actually possessed a lot of courage to overcome our natural proclivity to fear the exposure of our bodies. I can also say their public display of nudity was nothing that prophets of God did not do thousands of years before them. I also know that the true source of the problem is within our own hearts. To combat human lust we build walls and barriers around what we perceive to be the problem. We could follow in the footsteps of the other religious group, who ensure that their women are clothed to the point where even exposing their lascivious eyes may be too much of a stumbling block for men! How is it that we conveniently ignore those cultures where men and women can walk around in virtually total undress with no observable differences in lust? The problem is not our bodies, it's our hearts.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Three beliefs that will change the world...

I frequent a debate website known as While perusing its pages for mind food, I saw a forum post wherein someone was sharing a thought experiment. In this experiment, the user asked this: if we had the opportunity to state three and only three sentences that everyone in the world accepted as true and unquestionable, what would they be? Further, he asked how these beliefs would lead to vast improvements.

Now, do not let me fool you into thinking that I have the best three sentences. I would like to think, however, that the three sentences I will suggest here are at least better than most.
1. Christianity is true
2. Ecumenism is incredibly healthy and important
3. Violence is not an option
As for the second aspect of this thought experiment, let me briefly explain why I think this would lead to improvements and what the immediate and long term ramifications might be.

1. Christianity is True

I did not simply choose Christianity because I think it represents the best way to live and the most accurate worldview. First, I think that an entire group united under a single, unquestionable ideology would lead to far less dissension, grumbling and political unrest. Now, some may rightly point out that the United States is (though it is statistically declining) a Christian nation and it still has no shortage of all the worst things in humanity. Hate, violence, dissension and all manners of unrest are not placated by Christianity. But I think this is largely due to the fact that any notion of the US being a Christian nation is a farce. Most Americans are Christian in name only. Most of these Christians, then, do not really operate under an unquestionable belief that Christianity is true. If they did, the world would look differently.

Moreover, I chose Christianity to represent this ideology because I also value truth, and, as it happens, I believe very strongly that Christianity is true. It would not sit right with me to propose three false sentences for people to embrace as true, no matter their positive outcomes.

2. Ecumenism is incredibly healthy and important

Disagreement, however, is part of being human. Thus, as my second unquestionable dictum, I chose ecumenism.

One of the definitions of Ecumenical from Merriam-Websters is:
[P]romoting or tending toward worldwide Christian unity or cooperation
If we learn to expect, respect and value these differences we have even within our united ideology, there will be far less room for the incumbent dangers of disunity. I do not like to worship in a Catholic church, but I can respect that there are those who identify more with it and feel more strongly in favor of some of their doctrines. I do not have to agree with every detail to embrace them as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

3. Violence is not an option

Lastly, for safe measures, I included the dictum that violence is not an option. If unity under a single ideology and the embrace of individual differences is not enough to prevent malevolence, hatred and the decadence of a human heart bent towards the rapine of the helpless, then hopefully the explicit and unquestionable belief that violence is never an option will.

I think world peace would be the short term ramification and a global, prosperous community wherein all are well fed and clothed and enjoy the love of one another is the long term ramification. It will be then that God can look upon the earth and say once more, "it is good."

What sentences would you offer?