"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Photo Highlights of the Last Two Weeks

I thought it would be fun to share some images from the last couple weeks capturing how I’ve been spending my time when I’ve not been working, reading, writing, or sleeping. With the help of my wife and her brilliant photography, here are some snapshots…

Warmer weather has meant more dinners on our patio/balcony. Despite my hesitant or maybe disgusted face, I really am enjoying the experience, especially on a night with Asian food. I don’t know what was going through my head when this photo was taken. Maybe a fly on the noodles? Maybe the noodles momentarily looked like an old girlfriend? (No offense to my old girlfriends.)

A Chipotle recently opened up near our apartment, which we were both VERY excited about, as our area has been sorely lacking in Mexican-style gourmet fast-food. How much do we love Chipotle? Joann loves it so much that, to fulfill her desperate desire to be a mother that has yet gone unsatisfied, she has chosen, as a temporary child substitute, a chicken burrito. (Joann does not endorse this assessment of her desires.)

A nice up-close shot at a recent flat tire created by the stretch of 1-5 just north of Longview. Pretty gnarly, isn’t it? Speaking of parenting, when I’m a father, I’ll probably explain to my kids while they are still at that very gullible—I mean "trusting"— stage of their lives that flat tires are caused by little goblin-like creatures that jump out from the side of the road and slash your tires. My Dad used a similar type of creature in his explanation to a young me of how the refrigerator light turns on when you open the door.

My nephew Beniah and I are reading a “Thomas the Train Engine” book and are apparently displeased with a plot point and the direction in which the author took the story. Actually, I think Beniah was the one annoyed, considering his very particular literary standards; I’m just empathizing with him.

Joann and I unfortunately missed Jesus’ return; I think we were watching Bridesmaids when it happened. Sorry Jesus; I’ll make sure to make sure my calendar is cleared the next time you’re passing through. Do you like Asian food?

Embracing the rain at Evergreen State College. I went there last Friday evening to play soccer with some of the international students, but our game ended up begin canceled. The outdoor field was not an option on account of the heavy rain; the indoor field was unavailable on account of—yep, you guessed it—a trio of accordion players.

Getting emotional about the Mariners as observed on MLB Gameday, a program with live updates of every pitch and play. The shape of my mouth makes me think I’m about to mouth “FIGGINS!!!” I see Figgins has been benched for tonight’s game.

Me: “Yeah, those are my horses. Jealous?!?”

Kite-flying! To spice things up, we expanded on the classic beach activity of kite-flying, creating “kite-flying-dancing,” as seen in these shots.

A beach-town tradition: find the arcade, and find Ms. Pac-man. Jo and I expended $1.50 in quarters indulging our nostalgia. Filled with greedy ambition, I insisted on playing until I got the high score. Though based on the height of the score, I have a feeling they regularly unplug the machine at the end of the day, resetting the scores. Or, maybe I’m just awesome at Ms. Pac-man.

Joann and I, playing a little beach-wiffle-ball-home-run-derby. While these shots are posed, Joann tells me this was pretty much the look I had on my face the entire time. I guess I was a bit giddy that my wife was willing to play beach-wiffle-ball-home-run-derby with me. She’s so good to me. I wish I was as good to her; I hit a line drive at her that temporarily numbed her ankle.

Eating on the floor of our living room instead of the usual dinner table option, partly for TV viewing and partly for whimsicality's sake. There are two things I really like about this photo. One, Joann calls it a “picnic” when we eat on the floor. I think that’s cute. Two, Joann’s elegant and regal pinky position is in honor of our viewing of The King’s Speech. We’re also eating an elegant and regal plate of nachos.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Would You Want to Know the Hour? A Brain Dump on Death and Suffering

My "worlds" converged this past week as my personal reading paralleled a recent discussion in my “current events/debate” elective at my English school. The topic? Death and dying well. I guess I’ve had death on the brain lately. Sorry to sound morbid. J

Knowing the Future

We discussed in class whether or not we would like to know the hour of our death in advance. The topic was based on a news story I had them read concerning a pricey blood test—about $700—that some scientists suggest is an accurate predictor of our biological lifespan. The test measures “telomeres,” a part of our DNA that controls our cell division in a way that is somehow responsible for limiting the length of our lives.

Supposedly this test is on the way to becoming more available, and many have already expressed interest in taking it and are willing to pay the amount necessary. Here’s a link to an article that can flesh this out a bit more: "Lifespan Test." Sounds like there may be related tests in existence already.

There are pros and cons mentioned in the article. Some arguing against its value suggest it could be abused by companies who would attempt to sell “life elixirs” and profit off of the fear. There is also concern for how people would react to such knowledge. Insurance could be a problem if such knowledge was available to insurance companies.

Yet many arguing for its value see the potential to gain insight into a variety of age-related disorders. Such knowledge about one’s age could also help inform choices now, as people might choose to live a healthier lifestyle if their “biological life” indicated they had a significant amount of life left, or perhaps live more indulgently if they knew the end was near.

So this is obviously not an exact measurement, like some kind of time travel device giving us a glimpse of the future. A car wreck could thwart what any test suggests about our life span. As could unhealthy eating habits that might lead to various diseases. It’s not as if gaining such knowledge gives us license to take more risks. But what value is there in knowing? This is a bit of what my class and I were trying to decide.

My students unanimously agreed “no,” they wouldn’t like to know the length of their lives. We didn’t talk much about the reliability of the test nor the science of it, nor its accessibility. We all seemed more interested in the philosophical side of the issue: the value of knowing the day of your death.

Most just felt it would be too hard on family and friends to know the time of death, something that would cause dread and sorrow in their lives. They also felt that it would be too much knowledge, power, control, to be aware of when we’d die. And while it’s not the point of this particular medical test, which doesn’t foretell events, we got caught up in the more “Back to the Future” logical conundrums of whether or not such foreknowledge leaves us with or without power to alter our “destiny.”

Death and the Point of Suffering

I just finished “God, Medicine, and Suffering” by Stanley Hauerwas. Hauerwas here looks at stories of people who’ve dealt with the death of children, the role medicine plays in our lives, and a question many if not all people have asked at some point: what is the “point” of suffering?

His answer to that last question is thought-provoking, somewhat inspiring, and kind of annoying, in ways. He essentially says there is no point to suffering. He’s not interested in explaining suffering as a way of making us better and stronger people, or making us need God; such “purpose” makes God out to be kind of cruel.

Actually, what he’s really doing is suggesting that the question is the wrong question to be asking. For early Christians, he says, “suffering and evil…did not need to be ‘explained.’ Rather, what was required was the means to go on even if the evil could not be ‘explained’” (49). And later: “Suffering (for early Christians) was not a metaphysical problem needing a solution but a practical challenge requiring a response” (51).

Hauerwas displays a part of his “narrative approach” to theology here. He is not as interested in the “why” as what we do as individuals and communities in response to suffering in our own histories and our shared human story. How do we rightly live with suffering, with sufferers, and how do we display virtue and character in such situations?

Drawing on the “Psalms of lament,” Hauerwas suggests we not deny that suffering is a part of our story, feeling instead like we’re required to be continually happy and optimistic. He writes: “Creation is not as it ought to be. The lament is a cry of protest schooled by our faith in a God who would have us serve the world by exposing false comforts and deceptions. From such a perspective one of the profoundest forms of faithlessness is the unwillingness to acknowledge our inexplicable suffering and pain” (83).

Despite what at times feels like discouragement, Hauerwas seems to be offering several encouragements. One is to experience the freedom in not denying the horrible nature of suffering, especially suffering that one doesn't seem to really "cause" like child illness (as opposed to suffering resulting from violence, systemic poverty, or bad eating habits) We should lament it and name death and suffering for the horrible things they are.

Another encouragement is to try to understand your life as not having a point in itself (individualism), but as finding its meaning in connection to the larger narrative of God’s creation of and relationship with us, trusting in this God and this story.

Yet another encouragement is to see the point of life as not being “to live as long as possible” but as having more to do with enjoying our friendships with God and with others and seeing our lives as one piece in the larger narrative of the life of God, learning to accept our deaths with grace rather than despair (this is where he is very critical of medicines whose purpose is to extend the lives of those inevitably dying).

I'm not necessarily advocating total agreement with Hauerwas, and am still contemplating what he has said myself. But he does make some provocative points.

A Connection and Relatively Lighthearted Question

I guess the common theme between Hauerwas and our class discussion—beyond simply “death”—is our ability to deal with our deaths and the deaths of others well; how accepting death might free us as individuals and communities to not think of our lives as being about building up our own empires, finding a way to defeat every illness and hindrance, or finding means of distracting ourselves from our hurt, pain, and suffering. Knowing that the “point” of life is not to live as long as possible but to find meaning in our relationships and in how our lives give glory to God and contribute to the greater narrative of God’s life might enable us to better “cope” with the reality of suffering.

The majority of my students didn’t want to know their future, even in regard to other bits of information other than their death (like what technology will be like, how much money they'll have, etc). They seemed to be disinterested in that kind of knowledge and power, preferring instead to accept life as it comes and embrace the surprises.

What about you? Would you want to know when you would die if you could, whether through medical test or through time portal? J Why or why not? (These are not necessarily rhetorical questions; comments are welcome.) Would this be valuable and helpful knowledge? Or would that knowledge do more harm than good?

A More Serious Question

I guess the other more important question in all this: can our desperate need to find reasons and explanations for suffering—which often don’t seem to really satisfy—actually prevent us from really finding a way to cope and go on in the midst of such suffering? Should we consider that as creatures of God our “meaning” comes from our connection to the story of God and not from whether or not our lives last a really long time or even from our individual ambitions?

I have experienced the tragedy of losing a loved one. My childhood best friend, bound by his depression, killed himself at the age of 16. My Grandpa, a significant part of my childhood, slowly saw abundant life disappear due to his Alzheimer’s in his final years.

The latter example is easier for me to accept as a “part of life.” The former seems a bit more unfair and offensive to me. Yet despite my frequent cries of “why” in the midst of these events, I wonder if maybe God was telling me, “no ‘why’ Matt.” Or that the "why" is not as important as the "what now" and "how do we then live?" Maybe such events will make more sense to me some day. I hope.

Until then, I think it’s right for me to cry out in rage when such suffering occurs, while finding goodness in the way such moments are opportunities for love and community, with one another and with God, who, despite our suspicions of God’s character and power that often arise when we encounter suffering, hurts deeply with us in our pain, perhaps far more deeply than we do. That’s comforting, I guess. At least I feel like it should be comforting.

Feel free to comment and indulge in hypotheticals or share some insights I might have missed in regard to the topic at hand!

(Source: Hauerwas, Stanley. God, Medicine, and Suffering. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1990.)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Hurting for Local Libyans

One unique aspect of working with students from all over the world is my exposure to the challenges and trials the countries from which these students come are facing. Our school often feels the emotional hit when something significant happens abroad.

Some of our Japanese students were a bit shaken up after the tsunami in Japan a couple months ago. I’ve heard Venezuelan students generally displeased with the state of things under the leadership of Hugo Chavez. On a slightly different note, our Saudi students deal with the challenges that come simply from being Arab here in the States. And I imagine that there are many more such challenges of which I'm unaware or can't recall at the moment.

We also have a significant number of Libyan students, mostly male I believe. These students are very professional and respectful, many of them businessmen, sent by their respective companies to learn English for different reasons. There is a heaviness among these Libyan students right now that has been present for several weeksprobably the biggest “hit” I’ve seen among our student population in regard to the kind of thing I’m talking about here.

I had a conversation last week with one such Libyan student. His English is limited, but to the best of his ability he communicated a very obvious sense of angst felt by himself and many of the Libyans at Evergreen. He seems to feel conflicted, as if he’s not sure what he (or his fellow countrymen in Olympia) really want. On one hand, it’s a good time to be abroad, geographically away from the conflict. On the other hand, it seems some feel like they belong at home, in greater solidarity with the struggles of those in their homeland.

Yet going home, according to this student, might mean something dreadful: fighting for a cause he doesn’t believe in. He fears being asked to join with Gaddafi’s forces. I really can't speak to how likely that would be, based on my limited knowledge of the conflict, but it seems a real concern and possibility for him. But staying here in the U.S. for much longer doesn’t seem likely, as the scholarship money helping him study here will soon run out. And it seems that there have been issues with freezing of Libyan bank accounts, so I’m not sure how likely more financial aid would be for him and others. It's a messy situation.

I mention all this to challenge myself to pray and to invite others to join in solidarity with me. I know many have what one might cynically call “pet causes”—someone’s always asking for money, prayer, attention, or action for Darfur, or sex trafficking, or starving children, or fair trade, or Haiti, or Japan, etc. I suppose this fits that mold—my temporary pet cause. There is suffering everywhere, here and abroad. This particular manifestation of suffering and strife just happens to be one I encounter daily, and so I feel compelled to share it.

I don’t really know what can be done on our part; I certainly can work more at finding ways to be encouraging and comforting to my Libyan students, stepping outside of myself and my routine a little more frequently to offer a friendly hello or a few minutes of my time or some other gesture of compassion.

But there seems little harm in saying a quick prayer or two. So whoever you are and for whatever reason you pray—to prompt God to act in some tangible way, to bring yourself more deeply in touch with the sufferings of others, to discover God’s attitude and/or will, to inspire yourself or others to action—join me in remembering those Libyans here and abroad facing greater challenges than finishing a marathon or creating compelling and educational ESL lessons or deciding what to cook for dinner.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Post-Marathon Thoughts

The picture above, taken on Sunday, is hopefully sufficient proof that I did indeed finish my first marathon. Proof for myself that is, not for anyone else. That, combined with my sore knees and now legs which are likely sore in large part from compensating for my sore knees, indicate that Sunday wasn’t a dream. Though if it were a dream, I’m not sure whether it would qualify as a good dream or a bad dream.

I’ve been running for exercise for years. I remember the brutal six-mile run my freshman year RA, Ron, took me on through the hills of Newberg, OR. Six was pretty much my peak, until I ran just over ten miles a couple years ago. Then sometime this fall I “just felt like running,” in true Forrest Gump fashion, and cranked out a twelve-miler. I think it must have been then that I decided I seriously wanted to attempt a marathon.

I’m not sure I should be considered athletic. That’s not meant to sound self-deprecating, but self-aware and just plain honest. I guess in some ways, a person who pulls off a marathon is athletic. But then perhaps that’s about the only way I should be considered a good athlete. I don’t think I could win in a wrestling match with any of my friends (I can defeat my wife, though…not to brag or anything). I was called “Sneaky Matthew” by my soccer coach when I was five, though some of my friends have suggested maybe he was actually saying “Stinky Matthew” (they’re good friends, really).

I played baseball growing up, and while I love everything about the game of baseball, actually playing the game wasn’t necessarily my strong suit; I think mostly because I’m not that aggressive—afraid of the ball, afraid to dive, for example. I’ve had stretches in my life where I think I could be considered a fairly good golfer, but I’m not sure that’s universally agreed to be much of an athletic feat.

But what I’ve discovered these past six months, since I began my training program in November, and what was really made evident this past Sunday, is how much running is a matter, not of athleticism, but of the will. Based on my experience, it would seem that while few people are capable of becoming great enough at baseball or basketball to really excel in such sports, maybe based on factors out of our control like genetics, a significantly greater number of people could accomplish what I did in crossing the finish line after a 26.2 mile run. If they are willing.

I was strict in my adherence to a training schedule that enabled me to slowly increase the distance of my runs over the past six months. There would be days where I had no motivation to run, and might normally just permit myself to stay on the couch. But once I had my goal in mind (a May marathon) as well as a training plan which I believed that, were I to stray even a little bit from this plan, I would be endangering my chances of actually being prepared for this run several months down the road.

So I stuck with it, for the most part. Sometime in March I ran 17 miles, and started feeling significant knee pain for the first time, so I scaled back my training, running shorter distances, using the treadmill more often, as well as the elliptical and bike at my apartment’s tiny exercise room, being more intentional about my stretches while also finding a new pair of running shoes. I was able to get my distances back up, and after running 19.5 about three and a half weeks ago, I decided I could go forward with the marathon, despite a lesser but still significant amount of knee pain that seemed to come and go.

And that was mainly what did me in this past Sunday—my knees. I finished the marathon in 4 hours and 40 minutes. My initial goal was 4 hours even. Actually, my main goal was simply to finish, but I really believed breaking the four hour mark was a realistic goal. In most of my longer runs while training, my heart was never the issue—I found I had really built up a lot of cardio endurance. But I was concerned my legs couldn’t handle it. And it turns out, they couldn’t.

My wife will attest that I was nervous the day before and morning of the marathon. Trouble sleeping, frequent trips to the bathroom. Actually, my body seemed more nervous than my mind, if I can separate the two that way. But by the time the gun went off, I felt great. And continued to feel great for the next seven miles, really. Seven miles in, I felt great, felt like I was running at a good and appropriate speed, and was actually on pace to finish at around 3:45 or 3:50.

But whether it was the pouring rain, or not enough pre-run stretching, or the hilly terrain, or an overestimation of my abilities, or nervousness, or not quality enough training, or bad shoes, or old knee problems coming up, my body could not keep that pace. I started feeling some pains in various parts of my knees and around my knees at about mile 9, and the rest of the run was a struggle. The 3:45 pacer (guy running at a constant speed as a guide for other runners) passed me, followed soon after by the 3:55 pacer. The hardest was watching the 4 hour pacer run by. Maybe it’s just a number, but 3:59 looks much prettier than 4:01.

And it was disappointing, honestly, at first. I remember there being a real inner battle every time a pacer ran past, as I wrestled with whether or not I needed to push myself harder or accept the reality that my initial goals were, in light of the new painful situation, too ambitious. That’s hard. Especially because once the accountability of my 4 hour goal was gone, I think it became easier to give myself more grace and take more walk breaks.

But I’m not sure grace is what I wanted here, as much as stern, harsh self-discipline. Which was all part of what I think was a fascinating psychological battle going on within me. I felt a whole range of emotions, especially as I entered the second half of my run. I did not really pass anyone after mile 9, but was passed by a number of people, some much older than me. That was hard. I really had to remind myself that I was not competing with others but with myself. Finishing was the goal.

But at times even finishing sounded like a dumb idea. I was in pain. The ongoing conversation in my head went something like:

“Why keep putting myself through this pain…is it really worth it? This is actually just kind of stupid…no one’s forcing me to do this.”

“Yes, it is worth it! I’ve been training for months for this!”

“But I shouldn’t be so stubborn and proud that I don’t know when to quit!”

“But do I really want all my friends and family to know that I bailed?! And I’ll feel awful for quitting!”

“No I won’t feel awful. Trying is more important than succeeding.”

“But doesn’t quitting early mean you’re no longer trying?”

“Sh** that hurts! Need to walk again.”

“Okay, walk…but as soon as you can muster up the strength, start running again.”

“I can’t run any more. (Five seconds pass). Aw d*** it, okay, I’m running.”

And so on and so on, a similar conversation playing out in my head for several miles. But I did it. I didn’t finish as quickly as I would have liked, but it could have been worse. There were plenty of times when I realized that 5 hours was a real possibility, and I wanted to at least stay in the 4-hour range. That was a partial motivator to keep running more than walking. But the other factor was just a constant scrutiny of my effort: am I really trying as hard as I could be, or am I slacking right now? Am I letting myself off too easy?

I suppose one of the more thrilling moments came as soon as I could see the finish line. Despite my pain, I began to do the closest thing to a sprint I could manage for that final leg, certainly moving at a faster speed than I had all morning. And despite my body’s quick descent after the race into chills and a near inability to walk at all (I’m okay now), I felt without a doubt: “totally worth it.” Absolutely.

It took me a day and a half, but even though I’m still hurting, I said to Joann last night: “I want to do it again.” Obviously not tomorrow, but after one run, I’m hooked. I now feel like I have a better idea of what I need to do, how to train, how to pace, what realistic goals look like, and I have a time that I’m close to certain I can only improve upon. I’m pretty sure I just ran what will be the hardest marathon of my life. And now I’m hungry for more.

I sense some significant parallels in this experience to the other more “spiritual” areas of my life, that I won’t go deeply into, other than to say that I think there are some important lessons to be learned that I am trying to take seriously, especially in regard to the place of self-discipline in the Christian life; the place of goal setting and faithfulness to such goals; the tension between being gracious to myself while also having high expectations of myself; and knowing what dreams/goals/priorities/pursuits to hold on to and what to let go of (and when to let go of them).

But I can save that for another time. For now I’ll close with thanks. Thanks to the amazing Olympians who came out to cheer, chant, blow horns and bang cowbells in support of hundreds of runners they almost certainly didn’t know. Thanks to all the runners who passed me while I was obviously weakening, offering non-patronizing encouragement and support to press on and “keep moving forward” as hard as it may have been. Thanks to family and friends who supported and shared my excitement about the prospect of my first marathon.

And thanks to my wife and your attentiveness to my dietary and training needs, your picture-taking and cheering as you followed me around to various points throughout the run, your cute and clever umbrella/sign thing, and your pampering in the hours following my run—attending to my every need, be it by being a crutch to lean on while walking, baking cookies for me, massaging my knees, or telling me frequently how proud you are of me.

And thanks to God. You didn’t give me the courage to aggressively drive to the hoop or get in front of a hard-hit ground ball, but you did give me some pretty gnarly calf muscles. For that (those) I am grateful.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Do Our Decisions Matter?

This comment was recently made on an old blog post that touched on the buzz about Rob Bell’s new book a couple months ago: The Growing Universalism Conversation. I liked the question and thought my response worth posting. The length of my response also didn’t really fit into the comments section. :)

Hi Matt. I've read Love Wins and it sounds like a really good deal. Everybody gets to go...everybody gets in! Except, what if it's not really true? The part about not having to make a conscious choice in this life, that we'll get to make our choices when we come face to face with our Creator, when there is no room for doubt (no room for faith), I think that's where I get stuck. I don't want anyone to think...hmmm, I'll take my chances and wait to see what's what after I die. Or am I not understanding Universalism clearly...which is entirely possible. :)

My response:

Nice timing…just had a conversation yesterday with someone about decisions/choices and why or why not they matter. I liked your comment! I haven’t actually read Love Wins, so I might be a little uninformed. Here are some hopefully helpful thoughts inspired by your comment. I don’t think I’m offering an answer that will really satisfy your questions, as much as sharing with you how I have wrestled (and continue to wrestle) with the same questions.

1) I’d guess you probably do understand universalism correctly. Though some might state it like “everybody is in” rather than “gets in.” Others might say "everybody eventually will be in.” All kind of mean something slightly different, I think.

I also try to be careful about the language of “who gets in” in general. I think it runs the risk of reducing the point of this life to something like a tryout or audition. I’m not saying you mean that…just that this is where this mindset can lead. This seems too simplistic to me, as if we proclaim the good news of God’s love simply to get people through a couple hoops that will secure their destiny. Maybe that’s unfairly reductive of me, but it feels like the case sometimes in the way we talk.

2) I think it’s important to not discount the seriousness of God’s judgment. Our warm, fuzzy friend Jesus talks a lot about judgment, in the tradition of Old Testament prophets whose warnings and pleadings to repent and live rightly were very serious. I think my choices matter greatly, as I am going to be judged.

But I don’t believe in an angry God that loves to punish; I believe in a God who is a refining fire, committed to healing and making whole and restoring. I kind of wonder if maybe I won’t get into heaven “easily,” if I may have to experience some suffering or pain or sorrow before I’m truly healed and made whole and “ready” for heaven. But I don’t know. Maybe this idea of pain I’m suggesting belittles the belief that Christ has taken our place, belittles how we think about grace?

As for now, I have made the choice for Christ and continue to make choices because I want to honor the God to whom I owe everything, and because Jesus has given us enough warnings about our actions and the way we live that—while I believe in grace—I don’t ever want to take my salvation for granted. Avoiding a guilt- and works-based religion is the challenge in that though, for sure.

3) I often wonder if we Christians run the risk of being like the older brother in the story of the prodigal son. Do we feel like we are more entitled to unending life with God in heaven than others? Would it really be so awful if God showed mercy to someone who arrives at the "gates of heaven" and says, “oh, now I get, now I see…yes, I choose God.” Not saying God will, but if what if God did? Do we feel resistant (if we do) to this because it doesn’t fit the character of God or because it feels unfair to us and conflicts with some kind of self-righteousness we possess?

4) I don’t think fear of hell should be a motivator for evangelism. Actually, I’m not sure it’s all that effective. Maybe initially for some, but I imagine most non-Christians who are told heaven and hell are on the line in regards to making a decision about Jesus, don’t think Jesus matters that much anyway, and may not even believe in heaven or hell, thus having little motivation to make a decision.

While I don’t think we should use “motivators” to encourage people toward decisions but should present the truth as truthfully as we are capable, I think motivators like hope—for a better future for the world, for our own lives, and for what lies beyond this life—and love—the accepting, persisting, convicting, inspiring, healing, and comforting love of God—are better motivators than heaven/hell.

5) Many inclusivists would probably say that some people will still reject God forever, and that God allows them that freedom, that freedom is a part of love. I think you could argue we overemphasize “freedom” when we talk about love and our human choice, but regardless, maybe some people will see God and still doubt, still want nothing to do with God. Sad, but maybe true.

6) I am a Christian now because I believe what Jesus said and what others said about him, because it feels right, because it’s logical and coherent to me even if it defies rationality in some ways, and because it feels like when I love, hope, feel joy, show compassion—live the way of Jesus—it feels like I’m living how I was made to live. Like my actions are lining up with my true nature and identity. I’m not a Christian now because that’s what needed to happen to secure my destiny after this life, though maybe that was a partial motivation when I was younger.

I don’t want people to “take their chances and wait” either, but not because I believe eternity is at stake—because I believe now is at stake. I so believe in what I believe that I want others to experience it or something like it. And I think what I believe has universal relevance; it's not just true for me, but for all people. I guess I assume that's what belief requires...that we see our view of "how things really are" as relevant and significant for all people, not just for ourselves (which seems more like relativism, or just opinion/preference).

7) Finally, I think I trust in what I believe to be the character of God more than in some of my theology. My theology is probably somewhat in error. I try to hold my convictions with a healthy balance of confidence and open-mindedness. At times, I feel like I don’t really know how hell works, or the atonement, or the dual nature of Christ, etc. But I believe that God is good, and right, and whatever happens, I will eventually see that God’s way was and is the best. Am I certain about all my beliefs? No. I think certainty is overrated and often something we use to assuage our doubts and need to be in control. Doubt and faith and hope are a part of life.

So “what if it’s not true?” you asked. Great question. And a question that could be asked about a lot of matters of faith. What if the implication of the exclusivist Christian message that all those who aren’t Christians are probably going to hell is not really true? How might this change how the Church does mission, how people throughout the world understand the character and love of God, or even the amount of war and conflict and suffering present in our world?

Hopefully some of that helped more than harmed. :) This is just my two cents. And I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m putting words in your mouth; some of what I’m responding to here came from a very recent conversation, and from extensions of points you were making, not necessarily what you said. Anyway…thanks for giving me the opportunity to reflect and learn!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

More Groutfiti

See original post (http://maboswell.blogspot.com/2011/03/grout-phenomenon.html) for context.

I’ve had ample opportunity to gather more grout scrawlings on the bathroom walls of the SEM 2 building at The Evergreen State College. A quick list:

  • Grout of bounds
  • Grout, grout, let it all grout, these are things I can do with grout!
  • This is Major Tom to Grout Control
  • Some are born grout
  • The Groutuate
  • Coming grout of the closet
  • You know you make me want to grout!
  • Salad w/groutons
  • Groutational Symmetry
  • Groutful Muthaf***in Dead
  • That’s Groutrageous!
  • The Grout Depression
  • Groutuity included in check
  • Be the grout you wish to see in the world
  • Hansel and Grout-el
  • Down and Grout
  • The Groutest Story Ever Told
  • Who let the dogs grout? (Grout…grout…grout, grout)
  • Groutesque
All for now. I'm grout.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Bin Laden, Justice, Witness, and a Thought Experiment

I’ve been thinking about the Bin Laden events of the last few days, trying to understand my feelings both about the events themselves and the way Christians are or should be responding to what happened. I’ve found myself asking a number of questions, questions not so much about policy and legal matters and safety and so on, but about the deeper values and beliefs expressed in the response to these events.


For example, I’ve been contemplating the meaning and efficacy of justice. There are plenty of theories of justice, some that look a bit like revenge, some that look like an essential component in keeping societal order, some that prize fairness, and some that seem more interested in the needs of the victims.

I’ve mostly been thinking on a more theological than political level, as I feel more comfortable in that realm. What does God’s sense of justice look like? I’m sure I’ve expressed my feelings about this before in some form—my belief in a God whose justice is much more restorative than retributive. Why? I guess because I believe God likes to fix things that are broken. Because I believe God is free, not necessarily bound to any laws of the universe that God has set up or that we assume can only be broken with the abandonment of logic.

And because I believe God loves relationship, loves forgiveness, loves reconciliation, loves peace, and that the kind of justice that really feels “right” to God is a justice that doesn’t simply throw out dirty laundry but persists until that laundry is clean. God pursues, God doesn’t give up. I also think God knows we’re by nature a communal people, better than we know it, and that there is a deep joy and release and peace which come not from the "elimination" of those who’ve wronged us, but from their reformation. Not only their reformation, but their reconciliation with those who’ve wronged them or been wronged by them.

But alas, can/will God reform and reunite with a community someone who doesn’t want to be reformed and reunited? That’s a good discussion too.

But as far as whether or not justice has been brought in this situation, it seems fair to say that as broad of a concept as justice really is, that it depends on the perspective of the person. I’ll admit I don’t feel justice has been brought to Bin Laden or to those hurt by him. I’m not saying the US did anything wrong in all this, just that I don’t feel my sense of justice to be satisfied. But I also am much more removed and unaffected from any activity linked to this man than some other people and their families. I get that.

Christian Witness

I also have been thinking about the Christian reaction to the event, mostly with a sense of nervousness that outweighs my optimism. This seems like one of the those historical moments where the Church is provided the opportunity to be a voice of hope and comfort and guidance. I hope that it is has been. Unfortunately, the primary Christian response I’ve seen has been through facebook, and it hasn’t been all that great.

Meaning, if I weren’t a Christian, I’m not so sure that the comments being made would draw me in, would woo me to become part of the Christian community and life. There’s been a few too many Christians a little too excited about the torturous fires of hell. I don’t really imagine, if hell is tortuous, that God is really that excited about hell, unless maybe there’s some kind of greater end goal to hell (e.g., hell is more like purgatory than something unending).

I think we have to be really careful talking about hell in general in these situations. Maybe we feel like we want to communicate to people, “don’t worry, God is just, and he’s letting the devil kick Bin Laden’s ass right now!” to reassure them that God loves what is good and “hates” what is evil. But I think it’s risky, as we might communicate a God that is a bit more angry and vengeful than we mean to.

Hell may very well be essential to our faith. But when I talk about my wife to other people, I don’t start by talking about how she blows her nose on her shirt sleeve. I wouldn’t deny it; I just wouldn’t begin there as a way of giving you a complete and truthful picture of my wife (Note: she doesn’t really do that.). There's better ways of telling you the complete story of who my wife is than starting with something unpleasant. Not that there's anything unpleasant about my wife. She's a queen.

And then there’s the matter of being overly assertive about anyone’s eternal destiny at all. Some Christians out there seem to have shown a kind of compassion for Bin Laden considering “where he is now;” I’m uncomfortable with that. I think there’s a difference between being confident in and proclaiming what you believe and talking about stuff that even Jesus has warned us not to be too sure about.

We are not given the privilege of knowing with certainty how that will work, and I think it’s a godly, holy, beautiful thing to hope for the best and for what will most glorify God in the end. Some speculation is a great thing, and creates some good conversation for sure; but our claims should be tempered with a good dose of humility and awareness of our finitude, I think. Any who's in/who's out conversations can be more harmful than helpful.

A Thought Experiment

In light of all this, I’ve found myself indulging in a sort of thought experiment: what is the best possible outcome? I don’t mean in the coming weeks, here and now; I mean on the eternal, next-life kind of level. What can I imagine to be the best—the most beneficial, most rewarding, most God-honoring, most human-honoring, most good, most beautiful—outcome for the lives of all individuals involved?

I’m not advocating this as the “best” way to do theology. Trying to decide yourself what seems ideal is fraught with danger. In doing so, I’m probably at risk of projecting my wants onto God and others, or assuming I’m the best judge of an individual’s destiny and actions, or being a relativist and choosing my beliefs apart from any tradition, or just being plain arrogant.

That said, it’s a helpful thought experiment for me, because it gets me thinking about what it is that I hope for, what I believe to be the ultimate good, and, as a theologian, where the gray areas of theology allow at least the slight possibility that my indulgent ponderings about the afterlife might have some hint of truth, if not more than a hint.

So what’s the best possible scenario I could imagine for Bin Laden? I’ll start with what it’s not. It’s not annihilation. For one, someone being completely wiped out from existence is far more unimaginable to me than unending life. I cannot easily imagine nothingness. And there’s a part of me that hurts to think that this man’s story is finished, after all that has transpired in his life. I want more. I want a better ending to his existence.

I don’t think it’s perpetual, unending, tortuous hell, either. That doesn't feel like the best outcome. Even if it’s true that God is so bound by our free choice or by the moral laws of the universe or by God’s own nature or something that God must leave/send people to hell, I can’t imagine God’s happy about it. It seems like the life of God would be lacking, knowing that some are forever lost. Maybe I just don’t have a big enough picture of God that accounts for God’s ability to be complete and whole and content despite the loss of much of his creation to eternal torment. It just doesn’t seem like the best, from my finite, 28-year-old human perspective.

Nor do I think the best is a "free pass" through the gates of heaven, as if Bin Laden may just come waltzing in, saved by grace, all wrongs forgotten, off the hook. Such a notion is offensive to a lot of us, I’m sure (though maybe for the wrong reasons, such as a feeling similar to that of the entitled older brother in the story of the prodigal son). Actually, it doesn’t seem like he’d “fit” there. He’d be out of place. It might be uncomfortable for him, much like the sharp grass in Lewis’ portrait of the “unfit for heaven” in The Great Divorce.

So What's the "Best?"

Really, the best possible outcome I can imagine is really reflective of my personality and passions…in which case my vision might truly be a projection of what I want, rather than what really is God’s will and plan. But since I prefaced this as a “thought experiment,” then I can get away with that, can’t I? :)

I love unity, togetherness, ecumenism, and reconciliation. And I understand God as Trinity—One God, but a God who is somehow miraculously a unified plurality—three distinct persons, but so intertwined and interdependent that “they” are essentially One. I know that’s not the best definition of Trinity, but I’m still looking for one. :)

And I believe this to be similar to our destiny—a reconciled humanity, where no one keeps any record of wrongs, where all have been forgiven, where we are able to receive others as gifts and appreciate them for who they are, allowing others to impart and to give just as they receive from us. A community of diverse persons, yet one.

But how could Bin Laden fit in such a world? (Stick with me…just being speculative and hypothetical here). What if it took a one-on-one reconciliation between him and every person affected by his life and actions? That is, for him to sit down for coffee in God’s new world, individual by individual, listening to their stories, hearing their pain, and allowing that pain to be felt deeply in his soul. Then, to ask, with the greatest humility and sorrow, for forgiveness from those he has wronged.

Would he really do this, if God gave him the chance? I don’t know. Maybe not. But what would we do? I can’t answer this as well as someone more directly affected by his crimes against humanity, but I would hope that in accordance with the character of Jesus and of what I believe to be an essential Christian value, that I would forgive. Not just for his sake, but for my own. Because for me, few things are as painful as broken relationships, and few things as blissful as restoration. To forgive someone—it’s freeing, a gift both for the forgiver and the forgiven. “To err is human, to forgive divine” as Alexander Pope wrote.

My best case scenario for Bin Laden and for all who have wronged others—myself included—is not that we’d be perpetually punished for our wrongdoing, our evil, or our ignorance about the “true way,” nor that we’d simply be let off the hook for what we’ve done, as if God didn’t take our actions seriously. I guess you could argue that this is what grace is, what Jesus' cross means—that we’ve been let off the hook. Maybe so, though most Christians I know don’t believe that we’re really “off the hook” until we consciously acknowledge and accept that we’ve been let of the hook. That’s also a good discussion.

My best case scenario, and the thing that I will continue to hope for and pray for, is that somehow God would break through the hardheartedness of all of us so that we may find true peace, joy, and freedom; and that somehow, as improbable as it seems, a future may await us where God’s will—God’s desire—that “none should be lost” actually becomes reality, and that we will one day be people capable of forgiving even the most horrendous of actions—not just letting people off the hook for what they did to us, but actually loving them, valuing them, wanting to be a part of their lives and share meals and play catch and drink microbrews with them. I hope God gets what God really wants, if this is in fact what God really wants.

I’m an optimist. Obviously. Maybe my “thought experiment” paints too rosy a glimpse of our future. Or more likely, it’s “rosy” to my finite mind, and I’ve forgotten or dismissed some key aspects of God’s character, or the nature of love and justice, or Biblical truth, or what it means to be human.

What I really have hope in is a future of which God—a good and gracious God who loves and is love—is in control. I have faith in this God and in this future, and that it will likely surpass even my most marvelous, extravagant hopes and expectations.

But in the meantime, even though we cling to hope, may I not forget to mourn, to grieve, and to lament, in solidarity with those suffering and with God, who hurts along with us.