Thursday, October 24, 2019

Revival Without Pastors

Those who know me know that I am a big fan of the movement of Methodism.  I have come to believe that the decline and issues facing the United Methodist Church currently are rooted in forgetting or de-centering a core Methodist identity.  Elsewhere I have written about a catholic spirit being central to Methodism, which is clearly missing nowadays, but also central to the spirit of the movement are spiritual growth accountability through class groups, the consistent use and practice of the means of grace/spiritual disciplines, the three general rules (Do no harm, Do good, Attend to the ordinances of God), and evangelism.  Theologically speaking, free grace and Christian perfection/sanctifying grace were central.  All of these were aimed at reviving Christianity and Christians generally.  You can be holy as promised by Jesus; you can know and be God's love; you can be filled with the Holy Spirit; you can spread God's love.  The revival worked: people were slain in the Spirit, the movement grew.  It is my passionate belief that the same revival can happen again, that the people called Methodist and our special purpose to spread scriptural holiness across every land and across denominations can again live and thrive.  It is also my belief that, aside from the obviously spiritual practices and concentrations necessary, we can return to reviving with one simple practical solution: increase lay responsibility, potentially and probably without pastors.

First I want to call to mind Randy Maddox's apt description of John Wesley's theological and practical system: responsible grace.  Maddox rightly and well centers all of Wesley's theological program, which drove the Methodist movement, into those two simple words.  We humans are responsible for responding to God's free, infinite, powerful, and loving grace.  God's grace will save us, but without our responding, God will not save us, and it is by grace itself that we are even able to respond.  And by 'save,' Wesley means that not only will God's grace justify/forgive us for a life in heaven but also, and possibly primarily, God's grace will transform us into the people we are created to be, full of God's love and spirit here and now.  The essential point, though, is that each person must take up the responsibility of responding to and with grace.   Each and every one of God's children is called into relationship with God; each and every one of God's children is called into discipleship with Jesus.  God's grace is not merely free, and therefore cheap, but also places responsibility upon us.

The beginning of the Methodist movement clearly exhibits how that responsible grace frames a person's and community's life.  To join a Methodist society (partly because Methodists were not at first their own denomination, people did not join a Methodist church, per se, but a society), a person had to agree to abide by the three general rules, listed above.  Each general rule had its own specific guiding principles and actions, including drunkenness and uncharitable conversation under the first rule; feeding the hungry and visiting the sick and imprisoned under the second rule; prayer and fasting under the third rule.  Then, a person was expected to be held accountable to that spiritual striving, to "continue to evidence their desire of salvation," by attending a class meeting at least once a week--if not also attending a band meeting, or group confession, once a week--to answer the question, "How is it with your soul?" and how the person is doing regarding the three rules.  By no means were these class meetings intended to be enforcement of rules.  Rather, the class meetings were intended to prayerfully support each person in attaining to the promises of Christ.  Indeed, each person could become perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect, we can partake of the divine nature, we can have the mind that was in Christ, as God's Word tells us.  This is not a perfection that rules out mistakes, but Christian perfection: having the same love of God and neighbor that Jesus had and has.  Methodists believed that those promises of Christ were and are attainable through grace, and so responsibly joined together to mutually strive. 

All of the above functioned without clergy present.  A society didn't need a clergy person to respond to God's grace.  One of the actions listed under "do good" is to exhort to any we encounter, so even evangelism and teaching occurred without a pastor.  Local preachers from each church were licensed, sometimes up to a dozen, so that preaching would still be powerful without the pastor present.  The pastor, clergy, was only seen once a month, or less frequently, to address any major issues the society may have and to administer the sacraments.  When the pastor was around, he would certainly preach, often to the non-Methodists, but such preaching was already frequently happening.  Without the ordained pastor playing a major role in the church, each person took up the responsibility of living into and spreading the good news, of ordering the life of the church, creating and performing and leading the church's ministries, and supporting one another through prayer, visitation, and accountability. 

With each person taking up responsibility of living into a revived faith, taking the assurances and promises of Jesus seriously, the revival movement of Methodism grew at a startling rate even while it challenged society's status quo, attacking the evil of slavery and laying up treasure on earth, both explicitly listed in the general rules. 

It must be said that the greatest role ordained pastors played in the growth of the movement was in evangelism.  Spreading the good news was done by every Methodist, surely, but pastors were instrumental.  Methodists were at the heart of the original evangelical movement--spreading the good news of Christ Jesus.  For Methodists and all the original evangelicals, that meant addressing temporal, societal reforms that might benefit people in hearing the good news.  Pastors were pivotal in leading the charge against slavery, forming schools for the poor and women and African-Americans, and advocating for equality.  Pastors were also mainly crucial in spreading a revived form of Christianity, called Methodism.  Methodist societies cropped up because pastors preached in new lands.  We could say that pastors at the beginning of the movement were forming what we now call 'new church starts.'  Stories abound of Methodist pastors entering a community full of dead or non-Christians and forming Methodist societies and classes.  There are also plenty of stories of Methodist pastors having to re-evangelize Methodist societies as they were falling back into their old status quo, of wanting peace and security while laying up treasure on earth and owning slaves. 

There can be no doubt that ordained pastors were critical in the growth of Methodism, but foundational to pastors' role was the ability and expectation to be itinerant, to move around.  If pastors were not itinerant, they could not form new societies.  More than that, if pastors were not itinerant, they could not have the same authority in re-evangelizing and reviving already formed societies.  Any pastor can tell you that when their church needs to hear some hard words, it's best to bring in a consultant, someone from outside.  An outsider is better positioned to tell a church that they need to shape up and reform.  Itinerating Methodist pastors had a circuit, so you'd likely see the same clergy a few times within a year, but you couldn't rely on that pastor being present for long.  Additionally, pastors' circuits were often changed after a couple of years.  Essentially, then, Methodist pastors remained outsiders, and so could more easily maintain an authority of accountability to the reviving of responsible grace.

Today, the United Methodist Church has retained much of the original language of having local licensed preachers, lay servants, and the like, but much has changed.  We live in a church that has drawn its ancestry from a later date than the thriving, reviving days of our beginning.  Our family tree now dates back to when Methodists compromised themselves, allowing slaveholding, seeking treasure on earth, seeking peace and security, seeking establishment.  Once we were established, we wanted our own pastors for our own church, and we wanted them to stay for longer than a year or two.  It was then we began to see class meeting attendance, licenses for local preachers, and overall responsibility of lay persons all drop.  No longer were individual Christians responsible for the functioning of the church, its ministries and evangelism, and indeed no longer were individual Christians responsible for their own living into the good news.  The pastor became mostly responsible.  Once the pastor becomes responsible for the functioning of the church, its ministries and evangelism, the person in the pews need then only profess faith.  The general rules, spiritual disciplines, pastoral ministry, preaching and exhorting, evangelizing, and being held accountable and supported in any of that now all fits under the category of 'bonus.'  This is our ancestry.

Unfortunately, the necessary consequence of placing responsibility for responding to grace on the pastor is that revival becomes replaced by survival.  We become more concerned that our church grows and builds fancy buildings.  Whether parents are bringing their kids to Sunday School is the main concern.  When in trouble a church asks how it can avoid closing.  Revival, on the other hand, concerns itself with people's hearts in and out of the church, and whether the love of God is blossoming.  The danger of having a pastor should be clear.

How do we reverse our ancestral trend and return to the business of reviving?  First, we need to re-discover our purpose and core identity as Methodists.  We have been called up by God to spread and live into scriptural holiness, the promises of Christ.  That should be our primary goal.  Then, in the process, a practical solution should make itself obvious: to re-orient our pastors' relationship to the church, and our relationship to our pastors.  We should not lay claim to or rely on our pastors.

Let me say clearly that we should not rearrange pastoral appointments just for the sake of doing so and thereby hope that growth will follow.  No.  Rearranging and re-orienting our pastors' relationship to the church and our relationship to our pastors is meant to again place responsibility for responding to God's grace on each and every disciple of Christ.  With or without a pastor we should be capable of striving together and living into the promises of Jesus and running our church fellowship.  We should be, and are, capable because God's grace is available to all and God has given us the means and model by which we can mutually fulfill the call of discipleship.  It is therefore good and right for any church, regardless of denominational affiliation, to put their relationship to the pastor in proper perspective.  Revival occurs when a church does not lay claim to or rely on a clergy person.  At the very least the doors to revival can swing wide when each individual in the church takes up their responsibility.

For the sake of revival, I am therefore convinced that the UMC should change how it appoints pastors so that our churches can stop laying claim to and relying on its pastors.  We should do so before such a change may become practically necessary.  In all things we should be driven by reviving the spirits of our brothers and sisters.  However, my proposal would also save churches money that can then, hopefully, be used in revitalizing ministry.

I propose that ordained or provisionally ordained pastors be again appointed to circuits of eight to ten churches, with a parsonage in a central location if possible.  The cost of the pastor and parsonage would then be split eight to ten ways.  Any church within the circuit that previously owned a parsonage that is not chosen as the central parsonage could then sell the house and invest in radical, long-term ministry. 

Every week, the pastor would focus on one of the churches, to address issues, attend meetings, and preach and lead worship and administer the sacraments.  Ideally, the pastor would use the same sermon, as long as it applies, throughout each pass of the circuit so that, during the week, the pastor can also be engaged in the wider community.  I would then encourage a couple of weeks be taken after each pass of the circuit to address other duties: planning and writing the next sermon, forming new pockets of Methodism within the bounds of the circuit (same as engaging in the wider community of the churches, but a week concentrating on doing so), and any other administrative or district/conference duties. 

For my idea to work, each church would not only need to take up what are now considered pastoral responsibilities, like worship, visitation, and leadership, but also would need to raise up a local preacher or two or three.  These local preachers would ideally come from the congregation itself.  If not, the local preacher could move to or close to the congregation in order to be part of the church society.  The church could pay the local preacher/s a small dividend, equivalent perhaps to a 1/4 time pastor.  That way, on the whole churches are still paying far less for their preacher and pastor than they do now for a pastor, and our local preachers would fit the original model that maintains church-wide and individual responsibility and revitalization. 

Of course, ideally class (and band) meetings would naturally arise again, as well.  Since there would no longer be a pastor able to visit and check in with folks on spiritual and physical needs, members of the church would have to do that work.  It is not reasonable to put all of that burden on one or two leaders, so it would be best to have class meetings where everyone in the group can check in how folks within the group are doing spiritually and what guidance they may need, and the class leaders would visit anyone within the group in the hospital.  These class meetings could then be the seed of new ministry or evangelism projects.

From personal experience, I can say that something like this model is already what most revitalizes a church.  The ministries and work of a church that bear the most fruit and engender the most passion, the visits that carry the most meaning, are those brainstormed, led, and performed by lay members with little to no involvement from the current pastor.  Whether my proposal ever latches on anywhere or not, it is therefore my hope and prayer that Methodists and Methodist churches realize the need to re-orient our pastors' relationship to the church, and our relationship to our pastors.  Personal and collective revival can be on the horizon if we again find some useful model and means of being similar to the one I propose.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Realistic Christianity

As a colleague recently joked, we either live in a small world or clergy don't have enough friends, because recently I re-connected with a man who made a large impact in my life during my college days.  Apparently, this man is great friends with an UMC pastor who was appointed close to me a few months ago.  Who knew?  This man's name is Matthew Works (you can read about him and his mission here: Huff Post Article). 

Anyway, during my lunch conversation with Matthew, we were talking about some of his frustrations that his life and message hadn't yet led to any substantial change.  Why were churches not doing more to open themselves, literally and through communal life and ministry, to those who are homeless and/or in dire poverty?  Why do churches pride themselves more on offering hospitality to a homeless guest than on actually welcoming that person into the community?  While I reminded him that, indeed, his message had made substantial change in many people's lives, including my own, in how they disciple Jesus Christ, I did understand and relate to his frustrations.  As a preacher, I am often confused by the resistance many Christians have to the life and message of Christ.  Did Jesus himself not invite and call and command us to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and liberate the oppressed?  And did he not also say that those who did not follow this call as if the homeless, hungry, and oppressed are Jesus himself will find themselves rejected by the Lord in the life to come?  A long and fruitful conversation between us had begun as I recalled that, when I invited Matthew to speak at my alma mater, St. Michael's College, a professor welcomed his talk in one of his classes but then, afterwards, rather than comment on the meaning of a church's and society's need to open its doors, questioned Matthew's character.  I have never recovered from the shock I felt.  What, then, is the resistance all about?

Before I return to the fruit of the conversation I had with Matthew, it bears sharing a reflection on what we call evangelical Christianity I recently heard from a colleague.  After about a year of listening to Christian radio stations daily for an hour or more, he realized that he had never heard anyone quote the words of Jesus, except for self-referential statements--I am the Way, Son of God, etc.  I realize that I, too, have never heard Jesus's words quoted or spoken of on Christian radio stations.  Scripture most often quoted concern the peace that comes from faith, how to be saved, proverbs about working hard or being wise or putting trust in God, and the like.  My friend came to the right conclusion, I believe, in reflecting that evangelical Christianity shies away from discipleship, the type of radical life that our faith in Christ as disciples is supposed to lead to.  "Faith without works is dead."  Faith alone justifies us through Christ, but that faith should lead more and more to living the life Christ called us to.  To not speak about that life and what Jesus said about it means that we are purposely cutting off part, if not most, of one's faith life.  Perhaps it is because many are afraid of being as hospitable, inclusive, and justice-oriented as Jesus is, and we'd rather just say, "I'm saved, let's move on."

Or, perhaps, we ignore Jesus's statements on living out our faith through grace because we believe such calls are unrealistic.  That was my attempt at understanding in my conversation with Matthew, anyway.  How often so-called liberal Christians hear warnings that their demands and actions are unrealistic.  Even and maybe especially Martin Luther King, Jr. heard such warnings.  MLK's argument against white Christians' insistence on moderate, realistic change is one of the most powerful passages I've ever read.  Likewise, it must be plainly unrealistic to many Christians to open our churches to those without shelter, to be a constant refuge, to engage in ministries that fight for and enact systemic, meaningful change in and for people's lives rather than occasional alleviation.  'The way things are' simply make Jesus's "sell all your possessions" and other calls on our lives unrealistic, so why bother including any of that in our understanding of what it means to be a disciple?

Then Matthew's ready response floored me.  Referencing Peter's speech in Acts 3, Matthew commented that what Peter is really saying to those staring in unbelief and anger at the miracle Peter and John performed is, "Why do you wonder at what seems unrealistic?  Jesus the Christ, who claimed to be the ideal, was and is real after all, and it is through him that we heal."  Jesus the Christ, who claimed to be the ideal, and because of his claims was despised and later crucified, was and is real.  Now, there is nothing particularly startling in that observation.  Anyone who professes faith in Jesus as Son of God probably agrees.  But I suppose many, of which I was one before this conversation, may not have thought of Matthew's conclusion: therefore, a Christianity that is idealistic is also realistic; and a Christianity that is not idealistic is not realistic.  By urging gradual change, less radical policies, calling others to 'be realistic' because the ideal is impossible and won't work, by definition denies what is real--Jesus Christ himself who, according to Colossians, is the foundation of all that exists, all that is real.  Jesus Christ, the ideal, is the real, and is the foundation of all that is real.  To deny the ideal is thus to deny all that is real.

There is then no way out for us.  We cannot say, "that idea or way of living would be great, but it's too ideal."  The second we do, we deny Jesus, who was and is both ideal and the real.  We have to actually shelter the homeless, actually liberate the oppressed, actually bring good news to the poor, actually feed the hungry.  Whether we're talking about racial equality, income equality, gender and sex equality, housing equality, any number of other equalities, healthcare, pacifism, and on and one, the ideal must become the only goal for disciples of Christ because that is the only way to ensure a realistic Christianity.

I can hear a familiar refrained response rattling around in my head: "But there are some things that are just impossible."  The most common example I hear is that Jesus was Jesus and we can't be like Jesus, that's impossible.  I can imagine any number of other related arguments: it's impossible not to engage in war from time to time, and on and on.  Well, the funny thing about this familiar refrain is that Jesus preemptively destroyed its power.  "Be ye perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect."  "The student will do greater things than the teacher."  "Abide in me, and I'll abide in you."  "Go, and do likewise."  For those who ignore Jesus's non-self-referential statements, it is easy to dismiss these as impossible, but then we are explicitly denying Jesus as real or otherwise and removing any meaning from our now defunct faith.  Jesus called us to be like him and more and then promised to grant us the Holy Spirit, his own peace, his grace, in order to fulfill the call.  To believe in Jesus as the Way, the Truth, the Life, the Son of God, is to necessarily also believe that he would not call us to what is impossible and instead make the impossible possible.  "How can this be?" Mary asked.  "With God, all things are possible."  (By the way, I wrote a book along these lines: Created Human Divinity: long subtitle.  Check it out)  When in 2 Peter we read that we have been given God's great promises in order to be "partakers of the divine nature," we must then understand ourselves to indeed be partakers--in other words, cooperative, also having. 

Perhaps we are afraid of what seems impossible and unrealistic.  Or perhaps even we feel weak and powerless and inferior in the face of the impossible and unrealistic.  Powerlessness and inferiority are not our friends, that's for sure.  Yet, God's promise is to make the impossible possible through his majestic grace, by pouring out His Holy Spirit upon us, to make us like Jesus, partakers of the divine nature even, to fulfill the call and model Jesus set out for us.  We must, then, in our personal lives, in our church lives, in our politics and in our advocacy, faithfully strive for and live into the radically unrealistic, the ideal.  We must counter resistance with the words and life of Jesus, the ideal, the real, and we must never give up or lose hope.  Only then is our faith at all real or realistic.

Monday, September 9, 2019

What is Education For?

It's hard not to reflect on the meaning of life cycles and transitions when you are experiencing them, personally or through your parents or kids.  So in the past couple of years I've been reflecting on why we have, and why we should have (if we have), kids, in the year or so since my second son's birth.  Now, with my oldest off to pre-school, I can't help but reflect on the meaning of education.

In the last few months I've read a number of articles on education, and seen a number of others that I haven't read, and what it's all about.  A former professor of mine is, rightly, an advocate for liberal arts education, so whenever I stroll onto Facebook I have a good chance to see another article.  Just today, on my own, I saw and read this one: Student Debt is Transforming the American Family.  That article is specifically about a book exploring the role and response to student debt that parents and students take on in search for the American dream, but it also hints that the students and others are questioning why anyone needs a higher education.  Indeed, usually the arguments around education concern specifically higher education, or at least use higher education as a magnifying glass.  Then the arguments usually proceed like this: to get a good job (credential), to be a well-rounded, thoughtful person (liberal arts), to be properly trained (STEM programs or technical), college is useless (price not worth the reward).

Generally I agree with the argument for a liberal arts higher education, but the cost is rather high, and even so the missing piece in much of the debate is what K-12 education--and pre-K, for that matter-- should look like.  If the student debt debate leads to lower college attendance rates, then what we've spent decades arguing about will certainly trickle down into our high schools.  Actually, that has already happened: technical schools for freshman to senior are no longer strange alternatives and some high schools, including my alma mater, have already placed a greater emphasis on STEM training.  Some of that, perhaps, is an attempt to prepare students planning on attending STEM-based universities rather than preparing them for the job-market as STEM-trained, but the result is the same.  Whether we've realized it or not, many schools are already adjusting and we need to reflect on whether they, and we, are adjusting appropriately. 

Before I continue, I want to make clear that what I mean by STEM-training is not simply knowledge in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, but advanced knowledge that could lead to an engineering occupation, for instance.

What I most think is missing from the our reflection is a theological and/or spiritual component.  Who are we?  And who are we meant to be?  I'd love to answer those questions in full but at the moment I'll resign myself to pointing us to our creation stories, at least those in the Judaeo-Christian-Muslim tradition.  In the second creation story, found in Genesis 2-3, God tells Adam and Eve not to partake of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  At the moment they do, paradise falls apart.  Not for a second should we think that there is something inherently evil about knowledge.  The story does not at all argue that we are not supposed to have knowledge.  The meaning of the creation story is complex, but without question we should at least partly understand the story to mean that knowledge does not make us fully human as we were created to be.  We can think, too, of the story of Job, at the end of which God comes out of the whirlwind and gives Job a pop quiz about creation and how all of creation works: "Tell me these things, if you have understanding.  Surely you know!"  Of course Job does not know.  None of us do.  So not only is knowledge not the goal of our created being but it simply can't be.

Instead, who we are and who we're meant to be must be understood in relation to the God who walks the Garden with us, and whose power and knowledge as found in creation must be left as a mystery.  At some point, we must leave the accumulation of knowledge to God; or accept that no accumulation of knowledge can bring us to God.  Faust knows all and loses his soul.

Who are we then?  What is life about?  And what should education be about if not the accumulation of knowledge?  We are a people created to appreciate the mystery of beauty and the beauty of mystery, to share in the joy of divine life, and to work with our gifts toward restoring God's creation to its intended brilliance.  If that is who we are as a people, then our education cannot be about preparing us to toil for a salary for the rest of our lives for no reason other than surviving.  That isn't who we're meant to be.  If we are to prepare our students for anything, it should be to appreciate the beauty and mystery of life and to find their vocation--what their spiritual selves are built for--for a life of meaningful social and personal work as far from pure toil as the sun is from the moon.  Indeed, when God cursed Adam with toilsome work, it was in fact a curse.  The opposite of toilsome work will bring us back to paradise, to heaven on earth, to the kingdom of God.

Education, then, aside from teaching the basics of mathematics, science, reading, history and the like, should focus on a prototypical liberal arts education from start to finish.  Not just drawing but art history and trips to art museums; not just biology but plenty of time spent outside in the woods, watching the birds and animals; not just math but looking at sunflowers that bloom with a strange mathematical sequence, the Fibonacci sequence; not just the arbitrary study of poetry but the listening to it, the writing of poetry, the living of poetry; and et cetera.  Planting flowers, service to the community, singing, exploring the universe physically and metaphysically, asking questions about the world and one another, meditation and soul-searching, team-building.  These should be the hallmarks of education K-12.  Many educators may say that these elements are already included, and usually that is true, but including these elements is different than highlighting them.  Any personal and social meaning and well-being activity, lesson, or exploration should be highlighted from the start, to know how to be healthy personally and in community.  Plus, I don't meant that we should apply knowledge.  It's not all about application.  The point is application to being.

We may say that such a radical change to our educational curriculum is impossible, too radical, and a detriment.  The latter concern, that changing our educational program in the way I suggest would be a detriment, I hear and understand.  There is no doubt that my vision for what education is for would result in less-educated students in the way we define the term "educated."  On the national stage our concern is often that we are falling behind other countries in general and advanced knowledge.  My plan would probably accelerate that process across the board.  Fewer students would have a functional understanding of calculus, without question.  But when I was a math student and a math tutor, the question I most heard was, "When am I ever going to use this?"  Too often the truthful answer is, "never... unless you plan on studying or going into a field requiring mathematics."  Usually my students would then grudgingly look at me as if to say, "I plan on studying theater, so..."  Why teach our students advanced knowledge that they do not need?  Why worry about overall educational attainment, as in knowledge, if eighty percent of it goes to waste?  Let our kids focus on what will be used, on themselves, and ignore what won't be.  If they want to study calculus, there is plenty of time for that and they can choose to do so, but we don't need to require students to take it simply because it is the next math class in the queue.

There are some pieces of knowledge that should be taught vigorously.  Local history, to have an understanding of our neighbors and how not to repeat oppressive and unfortunate acts (in conjunction with how to be a good neighbor and how to build a good neighborhood), and an early introduction to languages, religion, and philosophy, to have an understanding of how many different ways there are to make sense of the world.  That way, fitting into my program, kids would early on know there isn't only one way for them to explore personal and social meaning.

Besides, it is possible that my vision for education would actually increase advanced knowledge.  If students are given a greater opportunity to explore themselves and their place in the community and world, then there is a chance that, in doing so, the student would indeed know their vocation at a much earlier age than eighteen.  Then, rather than waiting for college to focus on a major, the student could focus on that area of study for years beforehand while still engaging mostly in personal and social development.  Finding one's vocation means finding joy in work, rather than toil, and finding joy in work means that learning any necessary advanced knowledge will be easier.  Changing our educational system towards vocational educational fulfillment rather than general educational fulfillment, which prepares students for any and all jobs, most of which will be toilsome, then allows for more meaningful and healthy work lives.

To address the concerns of the change being impossible or too radical, well, those are true.  Not for a second do I believe anyone will read this and think we should seriously outline a strategic plan for instituting my educational program.  Nor do I want anyone to.  Another problem, too, is that shifting toward a vocational educational fulfillment system is not realistic when transitioned into the job market.  When engaging the economy as it stands is necessary for our financial survival, and the economy as it stands is not geared for personal fulfillment, then our students would be in for a rude awakening given my educational vision.

What then am I writing this for?  My hope is to convince parents to take a more active role in educating their children in ways they should be educated: to care for their soul, to explore the physical and metaphysical world, to read fascinating books, learn about one's neighbors, pray and meditate, et cetera.  I don't necessarily mean that everyone should start homeschooling, though that is an option.  I simply mean that we shouldn't leave all the educating to our schools because, again, what is more important?  That our kids finish with a 4.0 GPA and go to the best college possible to receive an accredited degree for a high-paying job?  Or that our kids grow up to love God, themselves, and all others in a meaningful, powerful way?  If we could have both, then great, but if we have to choose, I think the latter is better. 

Two stories to end this piece.  When my oldest, Sebastian, was about ten months old, he had an activity cube with four 3-D shapes with their own holes in the side of the activity cube.  He learned how to put the sphere in the right hole and I was quite proud.  Then I realized he didn't learn much.  He kept trying to push the other shapes into the sphere's hole and was frustrated when it didn't work.  The shape is not what he learned.  What he learned was only that shapes could fit into that hole.  When I realized that, I turned to my wife and said, "I don't think he's very smart."  My wife reminded me how unfair that statement was--Sebastian was only ten months old, after all.  Then I realized that it was unfair for another reason: what do I care if he's a genius?  In fact, as a parent, I'd rather he first learn from me how to love the people he shares this planet with than some shapes.

As a pastor, leading aging congregations, I often hear the lament of how and why children of active members don't also attend church.  Those children went to Sunday School, they participated in worship, they were active in youth group, how did they end up deciding church isn't important?  My insensitive but insightful response usually is to ask whether those children also saw their parents living a spiritual life.  Did they worship privately as a family?  Did they visibly thank God in good moments and pray for guidance in hard moments?  Did they bring their kids along to mission and service projects?  For the most part, parents keep their own faith isolated from children.  What then happens is that the kids need to go to church to learn about God but are simultaneously learning that God has no import in one's own life, since they don't see in their parents.  So then why would they go to church if it's only something interesting to have learned about?

Ultimately, as parents, we need to be the teachers of our kids.  We need to teach our kids what is important and not leave it to schools or church or anything else.  Professional educators, in my experience, are wonderfully caring, intelligent, and good at what they do.  Unfortunately, though, professional educators are no substitute for instilling in our children what education is truly for.  Part of the reason is that our educational system has been developed for the national good, or at least the national good has had a hand in crafting the system, rather than the personal good.  Someone, then, needs to be worried about the personal good.  I know we parents are worried about that for our kids, so let us take into our own hands, with the right vision, how to properly educate our kids.  Education should be for the student, for his or her personal good, in relationship to God, creation, and all of God's creatures.  Living a fulfilled life in and with God is what life is about, anyway.  Let's make that happen.

Monday, September 2, 2019

The Loving, Inherent Risk in Having Kids

Scroll down a few posts and you'll find another essay on kids and why we have them.  For the past year and a half I've been preoccupied with that question.  Hopefully in doing so I'm creating a foundation for my own sanity as well as yours, because here's another question parents surely wrestle with often, especially when fears are realized: what happens if my kid turns out to be awful? 

Imagine the suffering the parents of mass murderers undergo when they learn that their kid just killed a bunch of people, often for either no good reason or hatred.  No doubt the parents ask self-reflective questions about where they went wrong.  Especially if there are other kids in the family that are in the running for peace prizes, the parents must be at a loss.  "Didn't we raise them the same?  What went wrong?"  I bet that usually nothing went wrong.  Every child has free-will and can, without warning, choose to commit a heinous act that nothing in our parenting, nothing in their childhood, and nothing they've ever been exposed to, could possibly have predicted.  Yet the suffering of the parent is real.  While I pray that parents are not driving themselves crazy worrying that their child may turn into a mass murderer, we almost certainly still have concerns about the child being awful, albeit with a lesser definition of 'awful.'  So how do we parents deal with the suffering associated with such legitimate concern, and how do we do so theologically?

While I do not agree with much of Jurgen Moltmann's theological project, he does provide a fascinating understanding of the Trinity that unites the concepts 'God is love' and 'God suffers.'  His The Trinity and the Kingdom contain most of these ideas, based in mystical Judaism's understanding of God's Shekinah being separated from God Himself in order to be present in God's creation. 

Taking the assumption that God is love, we then say that love is "the voluntary laying oneself open to another and allowing oneself to be intimately affected by him; that is to say, the suffering of passionate love," and, further, "Love humiliates itself for the sake of the freedom of its counterpart."  We can even say that "the sole omnipotence which God possesses is the almighty power of suffering love."  God has suffering within God's self because God loves.  Yet love cannot survive on its own, "Love has to give, for it is only in the act of giving that it truly possesses, and finds bliss."  Here, then, is the kicker: "if God is already in eternity and in his very nature love, suffering love and self-sacrifice, then evil must already have come into existence with God himself, not merely with creation, let alone with the Fall of man."  God then cannot possibly have created a world absent of suffering.  To perhaps quote C.S. Lewis without having the quotation in front of me: to say something is possible that is actually impossible is to have said nothing at all.  If God loves, God suffers in longing and desire for the other, and therefore God can only create a world with suffering. 

As a summary: God is love, and because He loves God contains suffering within Himself.  So, then, when God creates, there is inherent risk of continued suffering in the freedom of the creation. 

Why is this important theologically?  Moltmann has found a way to answer the question, "Why is there evil and suffering in the world?" without attributing the source either in a character flaw of God's or in one of God's creations.  Usually the answer to the problem of pain, as C.S. Lewis puts it, rests either in indifference (God created and didn't care), in Satan/Devil (whom God created), or in humanity's free-will (whom God created).  The first answer seems incompatible with a God of love and can therefore be rejected.  The second two, however, raise more questions than answers.  If Satan/Devil is the source of evil and suffering, why did God create an evil being?  Whether God created this evil being or not, blaming Satan/Devil then sets up a near heretical battle between good and evil in which God seems unable to conquer.  How many thousands of years have humans lived on this planet and God has yet to conquer?  That answer seems a reject, too.  If humanity's free-will is to blame, then again we have questions.  Couldn't God intervene more often?  Why does God allow so much suffering?  What about natural disasters?  While our free will is a common answer to the problem it is not without its own problems.  Instead, Moltmann cleverly skirts all these issues and answers that suffering exists precisely because God does not want suffering.  God loves, though, and so God suffers; and it is in that suffering love that creation happened.  It is not that God created evil and suffering or allows them, but evil and suffering entered the world naturally in the act of creation by a God who loves.  Creation does not exist without suffering and vice versa.  Thinking this way then easily explains the Trinity: God created and part of God lived in the world taking on the suffering, and in the suffering almost becomes distant to the Creator God, enough, certainly, to explain distinctive 'persons.'  Love is shown not in the absence of suffering but in part of God's self, the Son, glorifying the suffering.

There is then an inherent risk in creating, especially if the creating act is done out of love.  Here is where Moltmann's understanding of love and creation become important for us: it is because we love that we continue the creative act begun by God.  If we did not love, then surely we'd say that the world is too dark and horrible to create life.  How could we not?  Yet we love, and so we create.  It is with the same love of God, though perhaps to a smaller degree, that we bring new life into the world.  Love must give, love must share, love cannot live alone.  When given the opportunity, then, love creates.  Yet doing so brings inherent risk because love contains suffering.

Even so, I cannot imagine God sitting around before time thinking, "Should I create?  If I do, there will be suffering.  Not because I want it, not because I'll create suffering, but because I create, there will be.  Should I create anyway?"  Not to detract from God's own freedom (as Moltmann would, and therefore I think he's wrong), but if indeed God is love then the answer to God's own hypothetical-surely-didn't-happen question is that of course God should create anyway, risk and all.  Yes, God knew that one of his creatures would soon brutally murder his own brother, or at least God knew that it was a possibility.  Still, God created.  Yes, God knew, or at least knew the possibility, that very soon eleven of his creatures would throw their brother into a pit and later sell him into slavery.  Yes, God knew, or at least he knew the possibility, that His chosen righteous people would suffer many generations in slavery.  Still and still, God created.  Knowing His own self, God could have said, "I don't want my creatures to experience suffering as I do in my love," but God could not hold back from sharing love and its consequent peace and joy.  Knowing the risk, the divine host still sang songs of praise at creation.

We, too, as parents or prospective parents, must know there is inherent risk in creating because of our love which in itself brings suffering into the world.  Conceiving new life itself brings suffering into the world.  There's nothing we can do about it.  Thankfully, this means that we should let ourselves off the hook.  Our lives and parenting will an affect on how our kids 'turn out' but who we are and how we raise them won't be the end of the story.  We can steer our kids away from all violence and they still become violence; we can steer our kids away from having dreams and they still become an Olympic athlete.  Who knows?  I surely don't know how it works.  As God says to Job in the whirlwind, "Do you know all these things?  Tell me.  Surely you do."  And Job must remain silent.  We do not know how to maximize joy in the lives of our kids except to love them, and in that love there may then be unexplained suffering and pain.  None of it is necessarily our fault.  We can't keep our kids from all suffering nor can we prevent them from causing suffering in others.  That suffering exists by nature because we created in love.  We can stop worrying about whether our kids turns out awful or not or experiences a lot of suffering.  Instead we can focus on our relationship and the presence of love.

But just as God was bold enough to take the risk in order to share love, so, too, should we be bold enough.  The greater the love, the greater the risk.  God's suffering present in the risk led to God's suffering on the cross.  Our love will bolster us to undergo suffering for our love, too, to maximize joy in the loves of those we create out of love in order to share love. 

Most of all, though, whatever happens in your relationship with your child, God gets it.  The very nature of God, the Trinity, understands.  You will suffer as a parent, you will suffer for your child, and hopefully you will praise in great joy with your child.  Whatever happens, God is right there with you, because God who is love created.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Christians and the Future with Global Climate Change

Throughout Christian history, official theologians--whatever I mean by that--as well as the common person have often reasoned using a "God of the gaps" logical method.  As in, "We can't explain or imagine how this could be, unless God..."  William Paley's 'Clock Maker' analogy to counter the then growing momentum of evolutionary theory is the classic example: eyes and other parts of animal bodily function are simply too complex to imagine developing without a maker, like a clock is simply too complex to imagine without a clock maker.  Paley, accidentally, proved the follies of backward and unimaginative thinking, especially for religious persons.  When a "God of the gaps" is debunked, as it regularly has been, religious persons who hold such theology are put in the awkward position of either rejecting their God or rejecting reality (both of which, as far as I'm concerned, are the same).  Yet despite the routine defeat of the "God of the gaps," of backward and unimaginative thinking, Christians and perhaps persons of other religions still, on the whole, haven't learned the lesson.  We still reason, discern, decide and act based only on what we know and not on what is unknown but could be.

I'll get around to the environment and global climate change, but I think this is a grand opportunity to bring up a pet thought experiment of mine: what if there are aliens?  What will Christians do then?  After centuries of claiming that God created our world and we humans specially, if people from some faraway galaxy who don't look at all like us show up, then I imagine that most people will choose one of three options: 1) the world is ending because the aliens are going to attack us and it will look like Revelation; 2) the Bible must be wrong, so God must be wrong; 3) rapidly scramble to invent some other theology and look, rightfully, terribly silly to the rest of the world.  None of those options are great.  It would be better to instead create a theology now that incorporates the possibility of other intelligent lifeforms in the universe.  Otherwise we'd be left with a classic no-good-terrible choice.  If developing a theology that thinks ahead to incorporate the possibility of aliens sounds like a compromise, well, it's certainly not as much a compromise as rapidly scrambling if an alien were to greet us.  So as not to risk the rejection of God or the rejection of reality, we shouldn't reason, discern, decide and act only on what we know now but should instead reason, discern, decide and act in ways that also incorporate the unknown and what could be.

 This brings us to the inimitable problem of global climate change.  Of course, there are those who still deny the severity of the problem or even that it exists.  Doing so is, logically and frankly, silly.  If we're concerned about jobs, then combating the problem will simply transfer jobs from one set of industries to another set; and the risk of not combating the problem is great.  If the danger is as great as scientists say, then my three and one-year olds are entirely screwed.  If the scientists are right, it is the greatest problem and threat to human existence.  Why not look ahead to the problem now?  Indeed, why didn't we look ahead to possible damage of the environment generations ago?

As Christians it seems we have taught the world that what is, is good and will last forever, and what is not, is bad and won't ever come.  If those are the conditions under which we reason, discern, decide and act, then we needn't ever plan for harmful consequences.  We can roll out new technologies with great expectations for increased production and luxury but without worry about any possible footprint.  Carson's The Silent Spring and the so-called revolution it sprang don't seem to have dented prevailing modes of thought.  Yet because of Carson's work and the now unanimous scientific record on global climate change, we know that we should have known better.  Any time we introduce into nature a chemical or gas that is unnatural, non-native, or in higher quantities than nature typically produces, we should stop and think far longer than we ever have.  To you and me that probably seems commonsense now but it wasn't before.  Still, though, we should have known better.  Of course, we didn't know better, because we were and are operating under a false mode of reasoning, discerning, deciding and acting.  The weight of Christian theology and living for the past two thousand years has convinced us that it's impossible to know better except in hindsight.  Because we've hidden behind bad theology and reasoning, we're now in a dreadful state.  "We should have known better" can't help us now. 

Regardless, I have hope.  The reason for my hope may sound rather pessimistic to you, however, so prepare yourself.  I have hope because of a clever story by Isaac Asimov, "Night."  Asimov's story is of a people who have never experienced night because of their three suns but now, for the first time in hundreds and hundreds of years, all three suns will set at the same time and there will be night.  It's the end of the world!... or so the people think.  Thus, naturally, most people descend into chaos.  One scientist, however, has been doing his research and discovers that, actually, this is not the first time a developed civilization on that spot has experienced a night.  That previous civilization--and perhaps there were more than one--also descended into chaos thinking that the world was ending.  The scientist's discovery, of course, proves that night is not the end of the world and the people should instead plan for ways to endure the night and come out the other side intact.  Like with most other things he wrote, Asimov's story is brilliant.  It's also relevant.  There are people out there, myself included, who believe, with some supporting evidence, that developed civilization appeared prior to the last ice age.  The Sphinx in Egypt, for instance, could date to many years prior.  Unfortunately, we are too obsessed with one of two story lines to accept such a dating: either we believe that humans have progressed over time and that we, right now, are the height of human progress, and therefore everything before now must have been worse, making the Sphinx and other similar buildings and sites a great mystery; or we mostly agree with the first argument but can't deny the existence of certain structures and, therefore, there must have been aliens.  Both are ridiculous.  Humans have always been humans and thus capable of great things. 

All of this is important, while possibly sounding crazy to some, because whether the alternative history of the Sphinx and human civilization is correct--that, because humans are wonderful creatures, we could have developed civilizations in an advanced way with advanced knowledge well before our history books, which deny human greatness, tell us, possibly even prior to the last ice age--we are on the brink of destroying ourselves again.  If you've ever seen the movie, The Day After Tomorrow, you should know that the science present in that movie is accurate.  Indeed it is possible that the climate change so much, particularly if our oceans warm, that certain climate functions simply cease and the Earth responds with a massive counterattack.  As the movie hints at, there is evidence that is how the last ice age began, suddenly and ferociously.  Suddenly and ferociously enough that most signs of civilization would disappear.  Again, whether any of this is correct or not, we are on the brink of destroying ourselves and we are ignoring the danger.  Whether an ice age suddenly destroys us or if we gradually come to be living in a desert, but only realize it at the last second, it seems to me that we won't have much time to react before our night begins.  Yet part of the reason I've come to believe in an alternative history of humanity that respects our potential as creatures is that we can then use Asimov's story as a source of hope: yes, we will destroy ourselves, but we can leave notes and traces behind so that future scientists can discover what we've done and experienced and do better the next time around; to analyze what went wrong and develop technology and 'progress' harmoniously with our environment.  Our night is not far away, we are not responding quickly enough, but we can start preparing for the future beyond.

I thank shows like Ancient Aliens and other related 'alternative' history programs for reminding us of the type of technology that past civilizations have used.  Obviously, we could all do without the assumption that humans are and were not capable of advanced knowledge and techniques, including a spiritual and intellectual connection to nature to discover the places with strange phenomenon.  We need not assume that aliens must have created a star gate in those places or handed down knowledge because we humans are amazing and spiritual beings.  Instead we can simply admire in awe what we've done and try hard to learn from our past accomplishments. 

Learning from our past accomplishments, rather than merely gawking at them as unsolvable mysteries or the work of aliens, would teach us that the Egyptians and other civilizations hardly ever built anything grand and awesome, from the pyramids around the world to Stonehenge to the Sphinx to Pumapunku, without some nod to deep natural knowledge.  Spirituality often also plays a major role at these places, thus tying together nature and spirit, the body and soul.  There also exists evidence that many ancient structures and techniques were intended either to produce zero impact energy or connect us to or remind us of the natural electronic and life-giving energy present on our amazing planet.  Whether any ancient structures or techniques were ever able to harness natural energy or not almost doesn't matter.  What matters is the clear intention to use what already exists rather than producing anew.  What matters is the clear intention to preserve and enhance our relationship with the environment that gives us life. 

Let's say that we have progressed in knowledge as well as technology since the ancients.  If that is the case, then obviously what might have been out of reach for ancient Egyptians, of actually harnessing real energy from the planet without damaging it at the same time, should now be within reach.  At the very least, we can promise future civilizations, after our planet has reset and we humans are hopefully still alive but in a reduced state and can discover our notes and traces, that indeed they can and will develop technology capable of producing energy without harming the environment.  Of course, past humans may have tried the same, if I'm right about things, and future humans may not care what we have to say to them.  I can imagine our future selves saying, "Well, no worries, we can use coal-powered factory plants because we'll do so in moderation and not destroy the planet," a hundred years before things get well out of hand.  Still, if our future selves are able to put human history in perspective by looking back at us, then waiting a couple of hundred years before using energy-producing technology or chemicals of any kind might not be that big of a deal.  They might be convinced to wait in order to ensure longevity rather than short-term gain.

No one can predict what someone else will do, obviously, especially given a different background, but leaving behind notes and traces of what we've done and what should be done to avoid our fate would at least give our future selves a chance.  If we are unable to protect ourselves, as looks more and more likely, by living in greater harmony with our planet and our spiritual nature, then we at least need to help future civilizations make that a fixture of society.  Civilization cannot long continue ignoring our human spirituality or our natural connection to our environment.

Where do Christians come back into the story?  Well, let's first acknowledge that faith in Christ may not survive the destruction of our planet because that destruction will be associated with Christianity.  Our way of doing theology has been so poor that it has led us to believing that God created the world for us that we might use it however we want no matter what.  We have long misinterpreted the "dominion" and "subdue" in our creation story.  Those words, as well as the general tone and meaning of Genesis 1-3, actually command that we care for the earth as it was created, that we take on the role of co-creators with God to maintain and sustain the beauty and abundance of our world rather than plunder it for our own gain.  Hence, while many complain that the Hollywood movie Noah, with Russell Crowe, is not biblically correct, it actually is in many ways that we have since forgotten (not to mention that it follows the Book of Enoch rather closely). 

Having acknowledged our theological and practical wrongdoing, Christians must begin doing theology a new way and be the voice of Creation reasoning.  Simultaneously we must incorporate the unknown and mysterious into how we reason, discern, decide and act, acknowledging that our God Three-in-one is a mystery and has always asked us to be okay with mystery (think of Job, especially, but also the creation story itself), as well as use that theological grounding to strongly teach, remind, and encourage our fellow journeyers that we humans and the world around us are capable of great things--and capable of great destruction. 

Christians are perhaps best poised to fill this role of modeling and encouraging harmonious environmental living that is spiritual and life-giving in every way.  When we don't misinterpret our creation story, we see that God's creation plays a central role in our relationship with God throughout the Bible.  Sinful acts have consequences for nature as well, often with the earth crying out; on the other hand, the earth participates in salvation as well.  We believe that what God created was created so that we might have a divine space in and on which we could walk with God.  Our faith is not the only one that calls for a bond between human and earth but it is the only one, as far as I know, that suggests the bond should be central to who we are and how we relate to the divine as well as encouraging a striving with the divine.  Whereas Buddhism, and other faiths, does teach living harmoniously with the environment, it does not also teach that our inclination to strive forward is good.  Buddhism instead teaches an emptying.  Christianity could learn a lot from Buddhism, and indeed the two faiths are more similar at their core than many adherents realize, but Christianity acknowledges that at the core of our soul is a desire to strive.  What our faith intends to do is channel that desire into holiness and away from mere ambition.  That channeling becomes critical in our relationship to energy and the planet: ambition focuses on extraction and production, while holy striving focuses on growing in tandem.

Unfortunately there is little hope for us in the next hundred or so years, but we hold out hope and faith that it is possible to grow in tandem with the world created for and around us and with one another.  Christians are well poised, if we change how we reason, discern, decide and act, to be the people that lead the way.  We can, in a far off future that we must start planning for, encourage technological progress but with greater reflection and a different focus.  And if we Christians are unable to be that people, then I hope and pray that the majority of people will remember, through collective memory and any notes and traces we leave behind, that future civilizations live and act more reflectively, spiritually, and with the unknown constantly in mind.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Why Have Kids?

Even before my second son, Soren, was born, I questioned whether I'd have the mental fortitude to survive another infancy.  Worrying about my wife undergoing labor again, and having to watch it, made her growing belly a nightmare.  Then, when Soren was born, I almost instantly experienced post-partum depression and didn't let go for about six months.  Yes, men can also experience post-partum depression.  The only escape for me came in the form of a question, "Why did I have this child?"  By asking the question I learned a lot.

I learned a lot about myself, of course, but I also learned that each and every prospective parent should ask themselves, "Why do I want to have kids?" before seriously considering having one.  On the flip side, every person who doesn't want kids should ask themselves the opposite question before making an almost equally irreversible decision.  Our answers to the questions will invariably vary but, I wager, each will point to our understanding of what life is about.

That is, as long as we don't answer, "I've always wanted kids," or, "I think I'll be a good parent."  While these may be serious and relevant answers they cannot be the entire story.  I think I'd make a good professional cyclist, but would I have been willing, and am I now willing, to put in the constant over-exerting work necessary to become an endurance athlete?  Doubtful.  As is true about being a professional cyclist, there is much more to being a parent than idealistic perspectives of ourselves.  Parenting is not about the parent but about the kid/s.  Our answer to the question, "Why do I want to have kids?" should be rooted in the yet conceived child's life.  If the answer is instead rooted in ourselves, then moments of difficulty parenting will also turn back on ourselves and our energy and patience will be sapped; if parenting is about ourselves, then we'll want to give up when it's no longer convenient, but if parenting is about the kid, then we'll be more likely to keep going when they're trouble. 

When we think about our kids in asking why we want to have kids, it's unlikely that the reason will be, "So I can love them," because, again, that has more to do with you.  Reasons like this tend to reveal your own issues rather than any meaningful foundation for parenting.  If you need someone to love, or someone to love you, then that should be worked out prior to conception.  Asking, expecting, hoping, or demanding a child to be an object or giver of love severely limits the life and purpose of the child.  Therefore, again, bringing a new life into this world should not focus on you or the lives that already exist.  Our reasons for giving life should focus on the new life and what may be in store for the child.

Unfortunately, too often it seems that many decide to have kids without reflecting on why or having a proper, child-centered reason.  I count myself in that category.  In that situation, the parent has no foundation on which to raise the child and endure the hardships other than pure determination.  "I am a good parent, I will do this," become the mantras but without any 'because' or 'for the sake of' to replenish the energy bucket.  For many, determination and willpower are enough.  For some, however, determination and willpower are not nearly enough, and what happens then?  For me and my youngest, I couldn't stand being around him for a long time, and yet I had to be the one to put him to sleep and I came to resent holding him for bedtime.  To some extent, I still do resent holding him, almost a year after I recovered from my depression.  If my spouse weren't as strong as she is and if I hadn't gone to therapy, I wonder what might have happened.  I wonder what would now happen.  I wonder if we might have ended up where some other families do, with parents' shutting down and losing interest or divorcing, or worse.

Now, there are a great many reasons why parents struggle and develop post-partum depression, including the simple but intense unavoidable chemical reason, that asking and reflecting on the question why we want to have kids won't fix.  The question and process of answering is not a cure-all.   But if we seriously ask and reflect on the question why we want to have kids, and root the answer in the prospective child's life, then the answer will almost certainly provide us a lasting foundation on which to return and replenish our reserves when parenting.  Our answer to the question will provide a dream, a meaning, toward which we can constantly strive on the child's behalf.  The answer will also help us relax in moments of crisis because we can put things in proper perspective.  Not only will our answer to why we want to have kids provide a foundation, a meaning, and means to peace, but it will almost certainly also reveal our understanding of what life is about.

For instance, my answer, six months after child two was born, came to be, "To share the good gift of life that God has given us to enjoy and share with God in His divine presence."  If you're not religious, this probably won't be your answer, but in my answer you can see that I understand the purpose of life to be enjoying the life God has given us.  In that sense, your answer probably won't be all that different.  You, too, will probably mention a desire for your kids to share in the joys of life or very similar reason.  Given such a foundation, when the child is a total wreck and all you want to do is run away from your kids, you can remember that the child isn't around for your benefit in the first place but because you wanted to share the goodness of life with another.  Then, you don't need to make the child's problems go away, you don't need to ratchet up your anxiety with every meltdown, but instead you can simply do your best to teach the child how to see what is good, how to laugh, how to play well, and et cetera.  If the child still chooses not to listen, you as parent can step back and differentiate some because your reason for having the child was to give the child a chance to enjoy life.  Ultimately that is the child's choice. 

While I have nothing against helicopter parents, I wonder if indeed part of the anxiety there is an inability to differentiate ourselves from our child.  The child's problems are ours.  The same goes for parents who live their dreams through their children.  Then, when all comes crashing down, we run to the opposite extreme of complete differentiation and indifference: "They let me down.  They're impossible.  They don't listen to me."  But there is a middle ground of teaching, modeling, living and laughing without becoming upset if the child doesn't want to play soccer, and instead chooses chess, or doesn't want to learn challenging things, and instead wants to have tea parties.  It seems to me that such a middle ground is only possible when we have grounded our reason for having and loving the child in the child's own opportunity to enjoy life and find his/her own meaning.  The parent must have a desire to lead the child to the river of goodness and not also force the child to chug the water.  The parent must have a clear understanding of what life is about so that they can hope and pray to share, teach, and model that life with others.

For a lot of people, they may have a clear understanding of what life is about but feel incapable of raising a child into that life.  If life is about some form of enjoyment, and you're certain that your family will suffer hardship after hardship to survive, then should you have kids?  Well, I can't say, "no," that's not my place.  Many families, especially those who provide their own food and supplies, are often better off having children. My only point is that we should ask ourselves the question as seriously and prayerfully as possible.

With that said, I recently had a conversation with a couple planning to move to better chase their dreams and what they find meaningful in life.  As they were talking, the wife said, "We'll probably never have kids.  I know that sounds strange."  I felt bad for her and other wives (husbands, too, but especially wives) not planning on having kids.  There is a constant need to explain away such a 'strange' comment, as my friend immediately set about doing.  But as I told her, the reason for having or not having kids should be well articulated and thought out and, if it is, then well and good.  Her reason was indeed good, that they have had to scrape and fight for all that they have and, with the work they hope to do, their schedules would make it impossible to give a life to their child that they would hope for any child.  Others may simply say that they prefer a life of luxury and travel and wouldn't want a child to interrupt their fun.  That's not quite as good a reason but it's still a reason.  If you'd only ever resent your child for derailing your life, then don't have a child.  We should be able to leave room for those who wisely acknowledge that the parent and/or the child would be miserable and not able to fully enjoy life.  Responding, "Oh, but you'd make such a good mother!" is, first of all, an often not reflected upon enough comment to realize its untruth, and, secondly, a ridiculous thing to say to someone who is essentially saying, "I'd be unable to provide for a child what I think should be provided."  Such a person deserves our support, not terrible cliches.  Or, more exactly, such a person deserves our respect for honestly and deeply thinking about the welfare of the child.  The only way we can more properly respect those deciding not to have kids and leave room for them to make such a decision, without their feeling the need to constantly explain themselves, is if all of us stop assuming that having kids is an automatic part of life.

If we want having kids to be an automatic part of life for everyone, and want to continue saying, "Oh, but you'd be a great parent, and I want grandkids!" then we should think about ways to improve our communities and world.  Again, the reason for having kids will undoubtedly be associated with what life is about but the promises of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," of equality and justice, of love and peace, of hope, well, those promises are inevitably out of reach for many in our world today.  In fact, it is probably not an overstatement to say that those promises have been out of reach for some at every stage of human history.  We've had 'civilization' for about four thousand years, the revelations of God (through the Hebrews and Jewish people) for almost as long if not longer, and still many millions cannot guarantee to their children anything other than a life of starvation, migration, homelessness, extreme poverty, and misery.  Why have kids in that case, when the goodness of life is nearly impossible to grasp?  To bring them into such a world?  Because a loving God said we should procreate as a command, as a reason for marriage?  We in the privileged West like to look to third-world communities and say, "Boy, I've never met anyone so happy," and think that all is fine after all, but I, for one, cannot imagine that a loving God could command ignorance or inactivity when the scales of hope and contentment are so twisted; nor can I imagine a loving God commanding procreation into misery and at all costs.  No, if we want life and more life, then we as a society need to work harder making the foundations for life and survival more easily accessible.

After all, life is not about amassing as much material good as possible.  The atrocious inequality of power and material goods should therefore have no place in the question of why one should have kids so that each and every prospective parent can simply focus on the emotional and spiritual answer.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

The Democratic Primary: Why Vote at All?

One of the most ridiculous parts of our so-called democracy today is that campaigns for elections begin nearly two years before the elections, so it feels like we are in full swing for the Democratic primary for the 2020 election even though it is still far off.  This is even more true with Joe Biden recently declaring himself a candidate.  Let's put that to the side for now, however, because I want to focus on a statement I've heard a lot from Democrats or anti-Trump folks: We need a viable candidate to beat Trump.  Since we do seem to be in full campaign mode already, now is as good a time as any to address that statement and sentiment.

To respond to the supposed need for a viable candidate to beat Trump, we should first ask why we Americans vote at all.  Many in my generation do not feel like voting is useful or meaningful.  There are good reasons for that, whatever older folk may say.  The democratic process has certainly been inundated with outside forces: Russia, oversized corporate influence, politicians' wanting money for re-election campaigns, and on and on.  All of these forces have weakened the ideal above other ideals that our country, and the very nature of democracy and republics, was founded on: the right to self-determine.  It is the right to self-determine that liberty and freedom describe.  Our country was founded on this right to self-determine.

Even Christians, who should have a far more complicated relationship with government and voting than we currently do, hold the right to self-determine as part of God's relationship with us and why God created us in the first place.  Adam and Eve were given the right to choose.  They chose poorly, of course, but were still given that right.  After the Flood God confirmed that self-determination is His intention for His created people.  Abraham and Moses argued with God and changed God's mind.  1 Samuel 8, which describes how the Israelites again chose poorly by desiring a king other than God (hence why we should have a far more complicated relationship with government and voting than we do), includes God's affirming that we have the right to self-determine.  God didn't want the Israelites to go down the path of forming a government but, in the end, God gave the Israelites what they wanted. 

Self-determination is not merely a right.  It is foundational to who we have been created to be.  Of course, the foundational characteristic of self-determination should mostly be concerned with our faith and relationship to God/Christ, but that faithful relationship should pervade all of our lives, including our involvement (or not) in government.  We vote, then, because we have this right, because we are meant to self-determine.  Our vote is one of the means by which we self-determine.

If self-determination is the purpose of our individual vote, then we can connect the problem with the sentiment of viability for a party candidate with the history of who we have given the vote to.  Most Americans don't give much thought any more to the fact that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens but do not have electoral college votes nor representation in Congress.  Indeed, Puerto Ricans' representation in Congress is exactly the same as the colonists' representation in London's Parliament: someone is elected to be present with a voice but that person has no vote, no actual say, no ability to self-determine.  The same is true with our other territories.  It's even funny that we portrayed ourselves as a liberating force in World War II when we took over the Philippines from the Japanese when, in fact, we already controlled the Philippines beforehand.  Or look at how the media and the Commission on Presidential Debates handled third-party candidates in 2016.  The polling number needed to get on the televised debate stage was raised when it was clear that Johnson, of the Libertarian Party, was polling near the old, lower required numbers.  Or look at how the media and especially those with political power have handled and portrayed the March for Our Lives campaign.  Or look at the fact that Hillary Clinton was not far different from Trump leading up the primary until Bernie Sanders forced her to change her hand, which was all strange considering Bernie was pushed aside.  Bernie himself admitted that the reason he didn't run as an independent is because if he did he wouldn't have had as much media exposure or a chance to debate. 

The truth is that we don't want to share the right to vote, and therefore the right to self-determine, with anyone that we think might be outside an acceptable range.  Hispanics?  Asians?  So what if they are technically citizens, they can't have the same right to self-determine, even if we have to put them in the same position we Americans we were in when we declared, "No taxation without representation," and launched a revolution on the grounds of liberty and freedom.  Kids who want to take our guns away?  Radical independents?  Third-parties that don't fit into the Republican/Democrat range?  No, thank you.  Notice, too, that I'm only referring to our very recent history.  Despite our ideals and the reason for revolution, we began disenfranchising people from the right to self-determine from our beginning.  Apparently the right to self-determine only applies to those who look like us and think like us within an acceptable range.  (By the way, the same is true for citizens of other countries, too.  Cambodians, Vietnamese, El Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, Venezuelans, etc. shouldn't have the right to self-determine unless they are choosing what we, the powerful United States of America, want them to choose)

Obviously the problem with how we have treated the right to self-determine, and therefore the right to vote, and the entire related process, ignores the basic logic that the right to self-determine is the right to self-determine.  If there is going to be an accepted range within which we coerce people to choose, that range should only exclude what is outright evil, as in we should not be able to vote for the extermination of all brown-haired people.  Otherwise, by limiting the right to self-determine we thereby become shamefully elitist--only certain people have this right--and hypocritical while proving that we don't actually believe in our founding principles. 

More than that, we prove that we don't believe in redemption if we limit the right to self-determine.  Australia was peopled almost entirely by criminals (again of course ignoring the natives) and they seem to have turned out fine.  Yet many nowadays do not think that criminals should have the right to self-determine, to vote?  Yet many nowadays think that it is good and right for us to intervene in other countries' business, as if they'll fail without us?  If one group of people are capable of self-determining well, then all are. 

Put all of this together and we have reason not to care about the viability of candidates to win an election when we vote.  To even talk about viability is to again become shamefully elitist and hypocritical, especially because it is usually the powerful, including the media, who make such determinations of viability.  The media have portrayed Biden as the most likely to beat Trump even before Biden announced his campaign.  But what if he's not the best candidate?  What if Biden only gives us, in policy terms, nearly more of the same except without all of Trump's character flaws?  Would that still be good?  Both Bernie and Biden both mentioned as reasons for running the fact that, when they looked around the candidate pool, no one seemed as likely to beat Trump than themselves.  But such thinking is wrong.  If people have the right to self-determine, then they should be able to vote for the candidate that best represents their views and not be coerced into choosing someone merely for the sake of winning.

True, if we give people the right to self-determine, they may choose a candidate or policies that we dislike; they may choose a candidate or policies incapable of winning.  But if we return to the Bible and the fact of our foundational character of self-determination, we'll remind ourselves that often we have chosen poorly.  And that's okay.  Adam and Eve and on down the line faced heavy consequences for choosing poorly but God still did not remove the right to self-determine.  So, too, may we continue to face heavy consequences for choosing poorly, but we cannot remove the right to self-determine. 

What is strange in all of this is that most of the candidates in the Democratic primary who are most radically different, policy-wise, from Trump are the ones who are most blacked out in the media.  If beating Trump is the only goal--which is a faulty goal--then shouldn't a candidate be chosen who is unlike Trump?  I think of Tulsi Gabbard and Elizabeth Warren.  Regardless, the truth is that if Democrats, or anyone else, concern themselves with viability and winning elections, we are therefore refusing to self-determine or refusing others the right to self-determine.  We'd instead simply be narrowing the acceptable range of electability and action.  I fear for this country if that's what the Democrats decide to do.

All we should be doing in the political process, as in life generally, is asking ourselves, "What is it that I believe?  And what personal actions and who else will make those beliefs a tangible reality in the world around me?"  That's it.  Self-determine.