Wednesday, November 16, 2016

"Prophets of Doom" and a Faith That Operates Through Love

I spent a few days glued to "The Prophets of Doom" episode of Dan Carlin's Hardcore History podcast. Carlin opens the podcast by apologizing to everyone that he is going to offend in his attempt to tell the story of the Münster Rebellion of 1534-1535. That list included both  the religious and atheists. It's that powerful of a story.

I highly recommend the podcast to anyone who can stand a little gore and isn't afraid to plumb the depths of religious violence and Christianity. The story begins relatively quietly as a militant strand of the persecuted Anabaptist Christian religious minority takes over the town from the Catholic Prince Bishop and and the Lutheran City Council that had been in charge.

The roots of this Anabaptist movement include powerful concepts that have reverberated through history like the equality between human beings, a more modern view of marital relations, adult baptism, and the communal ownership of property. The rebellion eventually devolved into delusional religious fervor, murder, polygamy, starvation, and cannibalism. Every side committed violence that we would now consider war crimes. If you're not into podcasts, you can read a full description of the siege on the All Empires website.

I don't know what the next version of the "Doomsday Prophets" will be, but their arrival is as inevitable as winter snow on the Rockies. However, the spectrum of this issue doesn't just include "Doomsday Prophets." How many churches are classified as hate groups? How many churches are more easily identified by the people they don't like rather than the people they love?

While Münster's "Prophets of Doom" bring up a lot of interesting psychological and sociological questions, the one that I think is most important to the modern day religious reader is how to we ensure that we do not inadvertently travel down the same twisting but well-worn path that turns a good religious faith into something evil.

I think that the answer is that your faith must operate through love. Charitable love must be your faith's connection to other human beings. For Christians, any other connection between your faith and others risks defying Jesus's clear mandate, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you." Matthew 7:1-2.

Beyond the danger of losing salvation through judging others harshly, the Christian theological basis for having your faith operate through love is summed up in Matthew 22:34-40. In that passage, a Pharisee lawyer asked Jesus, "Teacher, what is the greatest commandment under the law."

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

As Christians, we must constantly evaluate our faith and our actions against those two commandments. That is as close as we can come to inoculating our faith against becoming exactly the opposite of what it should be.j

p.s. Here is another "Running with the Current" video.





Thursday, November 10, 2016

Running with the Current: Psalm One


I've started a new "Running with the Current" project focusing specifically on one spot of Ten Mile Creek near Rimini, Montana.  The goals is to do all 150 Psalms.

I hope you like them.  Here's Psalm One.




Friday, November 4, 2016

Election Fallout. Recapturing a Sense of Divine Providence


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"Triumph of Divine Providence" by Pietro da Cortona
I've spent the last few years doing history research for writing projects. The three periods that I've dwelt on are first-century Israel, the American Revolution, and the American Civil War. The time periods are different, yet the stories of humanity, power, identity and faith have powerful common currents.

One of the most interesting things that I've realized is how our modern age has lost touch with the belief in Divine Providence and its utility in understanding the course of humanity. This lens that allowed common people and world leaders to keep a sense of historical perspective amidst turbulent world events has been all-but abandoned.

As described by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Theology, "Traditional theism holds that God is the creator of heaven and earth, and that all that occurs in the universe takes place under Divine Providence — that is, under God's sovereign guidance and control."

Historical figures utilized the theory of Divine Providence to help them understand the overall course of history and help guide their own actions in the midst of trying or tragic events. For example, Jewish historian Flavius Josephus explained how Emperor Caligula's assassination was an act of Divine Providence which prevented the desecration of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Similarly, President George Washington relied on the theory of Divine Providence to provide support for the American Revolution. In a letter to Governor Trumbull of Connecticut, Washington wrote, "The cause of our common country calls us both to an active and dangerous duty; Divine Providence, which wisely orders the affairs of men, will enable us to discharge it with fidelity and success."

It's probably too strong to say that we've lost our belief in Divine Providence when the sentence "All things happen for a reason" is repeated daily across the United States from people who range from just a little bit spiritual to deeply religious. However, it's difficult to keep that platitude in mind when trying to understand perplexing and vexing real world events. Yet, this is exactly when we need to rely on Divine Providence to help us keep the world in perspective so we can continue to do the good things that we are called to do.

In a short time, the United States will elect new President. Whoever is elected, a vast portion of the country will be some version of disgusted, saddened or disillusioned. You can give yourself a day or a week to grieve, but anything more than that is challenging the Divine and the Divine Plan. That President will somehow be used for good - even if that good is to stir up a movement in response to his or her actions. 

Saint Paul's called all Christians to trust in the reality of Divine Providence. "And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose." Romans 8:28

That is not a call to fatalism, just the opposite. We are at a phase shift in history. The information revolution has connected over 3.5 billion people online. Our modes of communication, working, and governing are changing. These changes are making it more important than ever that each person to express their opinion and take action for the things they care about. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." That divine arc is real, but it relies on each of us to keep working to make our communities, our country, and our world a better place regardless of who is in the White House.

p.s. Go vote!



Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Complexity And Challenges of Praying for Others

"Please pray for me."  - "Please pray for her." - "Please pray for him."

It's an essential refrain of the faithful. The call to pray for each other is echoed throughout the Bible, but perhaps most clearly in James 5:16, "Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed." Each Apostolic letter is full of examples of the fathers of the Church asking other to pray for them.

Prayer requests seem simple, but I struggle with them because God's version of how a situation should play out is always more complicated and interesting than any version of an outcome that I could pray for. As the Garth Brooks song says, "Some of God's greatest gifts are unanswered prayers."

As a child, I easily prayed for someone to be healed quickly or their life made easier. It's become harder as I move through adulthood and have been forced to realize both in my own life and the lives of others that horrible situations often make people better. These challenges can be essential to our development in faith, love, and humility.

The harsh reality of improvement through adversity is reflected in scripture. In the Old Testament, the Lord describes refining the Israelites through the "furnace of affliction." Isiah 48:10. This message continues on into the New Testament. "Consider it all a joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance." James 1:2-3. 

Similarly, "[A]lthough now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ." 1 Peter 1:6-7.

Should I pray that someone avoids a situation that could deepen their faith or play an essential role in turning their life around? 

If that prayer isn't answered, does it mean it wasn't heard?

When the situation goes beyond mere personal trials and towards death, simplistic prayers for a continuation of life are complicated by the belief that earthly death is an essential step to union with the Divine Love. 1 John 4:16.

Is it okay for me to pray for the delay of someone's journey to their spiritual destination? What if they are in horrible unending pain?

What does it mean for me and my faith if those prayers aren't answered?

Beyond that, what kind of prayer am I supposed to offer for enemies and persecutors as required by Matthew 5:44? Most of my attempts in that arena turn out pretty selfish, basically backhanded attempts to pray for myself.

Simplest answer that I've seen to these conundrums is a simple prayer described by Russian monk in 19th century Orthodox classic The Way of the Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way.

"Merciful Lord, may your will be done; you wish that all men come to the truth and be saved, have mercy and save your servant __________. Receive this petition from me, as a cry of love which you have commanded."

This humble method of asking for divine intervention is applicable to friends, family members, and foes alike. It leaves plenty of room for interpretation on the need and direction of help. It's applicable for both those who are struggling in earth and those on their way out of this life.

Please give it a try. This world is desperately in need of prayer.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Monarch Butterflies, Paramecium, and the Mystery of Christmas

This time of year, we all beat each other about losing the true spirit of Christmas. I can't argue against our collective guilt. Awash in a world of decisions between where to shop, what to buy, and how to wrap the gifts. School vacations plan. Trees to light up. Meals to make. Friends to visit. Family to love and argue with...

It's hard hard to keep track of anything, much less the divinity of a baby born in in Israel over two thousand years ago. We can beat ourselves up over consumerism and loss of faith, but we should also be honest that it's hard to keep the focus on something beyond what our human brains to truly understand.

I can easily picture Mary and Joseph in a stable with Baby Jesus in a manger. Same thing with wise men following a really big star. Angels in the heavens are a little more difficult, but possible if  I mentally graft on some white wings.

That level of clarity doesn't extend to all the details. According to the Christian faith, Jesus fundamentally changed the relationship between God and humanity. As described in John 1:14, "[T]he Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the gory as of the Father's only Son, full of grace and truth." That concept is a lot more slippery. 

How can we grasp the nature of that massive spiritual inflection in human history when we can't figure out how to stop the cold virus or predict the weather with a higher degree of accuracy?

That doesn't mean we enough to form a connection with the Divine reality of Jesus; to sense and react to something deep, powerful and earth-changing. A Monarch Butterfly summering in southern Canada cannot perceive all of the details of its 2,500 mile migration to winter in Mexico, but it successfully makes the journey.



A paramecium doesn't need to understand everything about its environment to know that it needs to move towards warmth.



The physics of the Divinity of that child born in Bethlehem will always elude me, but there is something in my soul that knows that the son of God prophesy of Isaiah 7:14 was realized when Jesus was born to Mary. Matthew 1:18-25. It is the same voice that has spoken to other souls for over 2,000 years. In the same way that something in the Monarch Butterfly tells them it is time to begin flapping those little wings south and within the structure of the paramecium telling them to push and spin towards warmth.

That does not mean that Christmas is wrapped up in too much mystery to be celebrated and loved. There is a very basic concept that we can latch onto and treasure. The purpose of that child born in Israel was to help us each overcome our own personal battle between right and wrong.

Nothing is more obvious than the fact we cannot find the path to good on our own. We start out with the best of intentions and eventually slide off course. There is something incredibly good in us that knows that we can and should do better, but somehow we don't. Whether the fault lies on belief systems, brain functioning, or simply the human condition is up for debate; but the reality that we cannot find redemption on our own is self evident

In response, the Lord sent a child. I cannot understand exactly why, but I am eternally thankful that He did.

If you haven't heard it before, please take a few minutes to listen to Steve Earle's haunting Christmas song, "Nothing But a Child."

Merry Christmas.





Wednesday, November 20, 2013

1990's Magic Eye Posters and the Illusion of Ownership

Note: This post is dedicated to Joe Day. Joe was a regular at the NAMI Montana office before passing away this week. Joe courageously battled serious bipolar disorder and poverty. Despite these challenges, he really enjoyed life and helped make all of us better - even when we didn't want to.


Magic Eye hidden 3-D image posters were really popular when I was a teenager. Swirls of dots and shapes - an optical illusion that revealed itself to the trained eye. I'd helplessly stare at them on my friends' walls.

"Put your nose right on the poster, then slowly move back"

I followed their orders, but didn't see the hidden image.

"Relax your eyes."

Still nothing.

"Don't you see the ship?"

More nothing.

"Keep trying, eventually you'll see it."

I never did.


In my unqualified opinion, the greatest spiritual works are similar to those Magic Eye posters. There's more to them than you initially see. It might take multiple readings or even years of multiple readings for your mind to grasp the secondary meaning. Those strokes of insight are precious.

I recently grasped a deeper meaning in the Parable of the Tenants that I'd never seen before.The Parable of the Tenants is one of Jesus' teaching that he gave in Jerusalem under the fierce questioning of the chief priests, the scribes, and elders. Mark 12:1-12, Matthew 21: 33-46, Luke 20: 9-19.

Jesus described a landowner who built a vineyard on his land and then leased it to tenant farmers while he was away on a journey. The landowner later sent servants to collect some of the proceeds of the vineyard, but the farmers beat them and sent them away. Then the landlord sent his only son. The farmers killed him in hopes of having the vineyard for themselves.

Jesus finishes the parable with a quotation of Psalm 118 ("The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.") This powerful combination of ancient prophesy and a prophesy of Jesus's crucifixion delivers a powerful message on Jesus's divinity. That's the message that hits the Sunday sermons.

But, the secondary message is also valuable. The foundation of this parable is that human beings are the tenants of Creation. That is more than just a setup for the story.

We are tenant farmers of all that God has created. Everything that we've been entrusted with bears the expectation of that we will use it to serve the God of Love. The implications of this lesson are broad:
  • Our talents, interest and abilities belong to God.
  • Our property and resources belong to God.
  • Our family members belong to God.
  • The natural world and all of Creation belong to God.
This secondary meaning is so important that Jesus also describes it in the Parable of the Talents when God is described as a master who gives his servants gold coins in expectation that they will invest them and gain him a return. Matthew 25: 14-30. 

We are expected to care for and use the tools that we have been given to serve the Creator to the best of our ability, just like any tenant farmer would for the owner of the land. But, we must remember that they are not ours.

A river of personal suffering stems from misunderstanding this fundamental rule of Divine ownership. We cling to and try to dominate what was never ours to begin with and then blame God for taking it away.

As described by Dalai Lama, "Attachment is the origin, the root of suffering; hence it is the cause of suffering."


NOTE: This brings up the followup question of what does God expect us to put our time, efforts and resources towards. There are a lot of places to look for answers for that question, but Matthew 25: 31-46 which describes the process of Divine Judgment and the judgment of the Seven Churches in Revelation 2-3 is a great place to start.


*** Please use this link to book your hotel and airline tickets.  You get Expedia's great prices and they'll donate a portion of the sale to Uganda Rural Fund's critical services in the heart of Africa.  Thank you!***

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Bible’s Blueprint for Political Decisions in a Democracy

NOTE: This post is a lot drier than my usual posts, but I believe that the United States is at a critical stage in our democracy and it's important to seek guidance on how the government President Abraham Lincoln described as "of the people, by the people, for the people" should continue forward.


As an advocate for people who live with mental illness and their families, I work a lot in politics. Partisanship has no positive value in my job. I work with and against Democrats, Republicans, government workers, the military, government unions, government contractors, professional associations and anyone else remotely involved with the mental illness treatment system. We work together on one issue and disagree on the next. It's that way on the federal, state and local levels. Any other tactic or strategy is a disservice to the people that we're trying to help.

While there is a lot of general discussion of Christian values in politics, it's hard to distill how these values should guide complex policy decisions or even help determine we should vote for. The main reason for this is probably that Jesus was more concerned with saving souls than he was in establishing effective political mechanisms.

The New Testament offers the general guidance to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. It is the clear duty of each person to care for the poor, the oppressed and the excluded. However, there is no clear statement on what the government's role should be in carrying out these and other responsibilities? If there is a role, how do we balance it with Saint Paul's message that society should limit free-loading? 2 Thessalonians 3:10.

We have to turn back to the Old Testament to find an answers those questions. All the way back to Psalm 72.

What was Psalm 72 and Why Look to It for Guidance?

Like a multifaceted prism, Psalm 72 is open to multiple views and interpretations. The main controversies in these interpretations regard whether the Psalm is David’s prayer for his son Solomon’s reign, a prophecy of the Messiah, or some combination of the two. I don't want to wade into a theological battle which has divided some of history’s brightest theological minds. I ask the reader to read Psalm 72 as King David’s prayer for his son Solomon’s reign as King. This is not to deny any of the Messianic overtones that Saint Augustine, Martin Luther, Pope John Paul II, Martin Bucer and other preeminent theologians agree are there. One does not exclude the other, but this seems to be the interpretation favored by King David’s son Solomon and in that light the interpretation still has value.

The evidence of this is that the Biblical depiction of King Solomon’s reign specifically describe events prayed for in Psalm 72. The details of these events are so specific in both accounts that their congruence could not be a coincidence. As an example, Line 10 of Psalm 72 prays that the Kings of Tarshish and the islands bring tribute to the king while the kings of Arabia and Seba offer gifts. In its description of Solomon's rule, 2 Chronicles 9:21 states that Tarshish did end up sending King Solomon tributes of gold, silver, ivory, apes and monkey every three years. Similarly, 2 Chronicles 9:14 describes how the kings of Arabia also brought gold and silver to King Solomon.

The specific examples of how Psalm 72 guided portions of King Solomon's reign make it clear that it is not simply a Messianic prophesy. It was prayerfully used to guide government's roles and functioning. While some of the specific military and diplomatic lessons passed with King Solomon and his time, the broader statements of what makes a government legitimate and righteous are still valuable.

[I've underlined the relevant portions of Psalm 72 below.]


Psalm 72

Of Solomon

I.

O God, give your judgment to the king; your justice to the son of kings;
That he may govern your people with justice, your oppressed with right judgment,
That the mountains may yield their bounty for the people, and the hills great abundance,
That he may defend the oppressed among the people, save the poor and crush the oppressor.

II.

May he live as long as the sun endures, like the moon, through all generations,
May he be like rain coming down upon the fields, like showers watering the earth,
That abundance may flourish in his days, great bounty, till the moon be no more.

III.

May he rule from sea to sea, from the river to the ends of the earth.
May his foes kneel before him, may his enemies lick the dust.
May the kings of Tarshish and the islands bring tribute, the kings of Arabia and Sebia offer gifts.
May all kings bow before him, all nations serve him.
For he rescues the poor when they cry out, the oppressed who have no one to help.
He shows pity to the needy and the poor and saves the lives of the poor.
From extortion and violence he frees them, for precious is their blood in his sight.

IV.

Long may he live, receiving gold from Arabia, prayed for without cease, blessed be the day.
May wheat abound in the land, flourish even on the mountain heights.
May his fruit increase like Lebanon’s, his wheat like the grasses of the land.

May his name be blessed forever; as long as the sun, may his name endure.
May the tribes of the earth give blessings with his name; may all nations regard him as favored.

***

Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who alone does wonderful deeds. Blessed be his glorious name forever; may all the earth be filled with the LORD’s glory. Amen and amen.

The end of the psalms of David, son of Jesse.


Broad Roles of Government in Described Psalm 72
  • Ensuring justice, especially for the oppressed.
  • Stop the powerful from oppressing the weak through violence and extortion (this includes oppressors within the government).
  • Effectively managing natural resources.
  • Caring for the sick and injured who cannot care for themselves.
  • Rescuing the poor and oppressed.
  • Having a strong enough defense and police force to stop potentially oppressive forces from both outside and inside the governed region.
  • Supporting the economy.
These roles can and should be interpreted prayerfully by each individual. The question of what level of government should complete these tasks, how the task should be completed and how to pay for them are up for debate and they should be debated. The answers to these questions and others probably will not fall directly on party lines.

Societies need both liberal and conservative view points in order to thrive and prosper. Brain scans reveal that the Creator purposefully imbued us each with different talents and insights into the interpretation of risk and other factors that help structure our political beliefs. These differences are just as essential in determining the means of justly governing a society as the differences between talents and insights in any other intellectual endeavor such as art, medicine, and science.

Yet, we need a basic foundation on which to build those political arguments. Psalm 72 is a great place to start.