Monday, April 27, 2015

Book Review: The Challenge of Desire

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Desire can be controversial in the Christian world. The ascetic movement shunned desire, and a lot of American Protestantism followed the lines of Puritanism and the Victorian Era of strict self-control. There's something to be said for self-control, of course. Psychology, as well, has a lot to say on desire, with many theories focused on how to shape desire and how drives create problems. Yet modern psychological and theological research and trends have focused on the importance of desire as part of our lives that should not be ignored.

Wanting, longing, and ambition can be great drivers of progress toward God's will. They can also wreck great havoc throughout our lives and the world, of course. Balance is the key. Jen Pollock Michel's book, Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition, and the Life of Faith, appears on the surface to follow this line. In many ways, modern American Christians need to be taught to want. Or more accurately, taught to recognize their desire. As it was recognized as Christianity Today's 2015 Book of the Year, I had high hopes.

I firmly believe that God places desire in our hearts for a reason, but identifying the desire and pursuing it with balance can be a major challenge. Unfortunately, I didn't hear this in Michel's words. Rather, much of the book is comprised of lessons about who God is and the things God wants. There was a strong neo-Calvinist refrain throughout, emphasizing the importance of seeing God's sovereignty. Frankly, not much focus on true desire around here.

Toward the end of the book, she finally explicitly said what I had suspected was her thesis: "Holiness... will revise our personal desires." Like many of the neo-Calvinists of today, there is a focus on behavioral "holiness," conforming to certain beliefs about how God wants us to act. This explains her long theological diatribe--set our strong doctrine with which to align ourselves, then our behaviors will follow as holiness, and then our desire will be conformed to God.

This book is not really asking God to teach us to want, but rather to want what he wants. Wanting what God wants is not bad, of course; it is the prayer of many (most? virtually all?) followers of the Lord. However, there is a danger to emphasizing this approach in American Christianity--we've been consistently told our desires are bad, and we must ignore them and want what God wants, which usually matches certain rigid doctrinal statements.

The problem is that this leads to us ignoring, avoiding, and repressing our honest desires. This is not how to appropriately manage them, even if they're problematic. Rather, honestly acknowledging desire is the first step in evaluating whether we should act on it. And what about the possibility that God placed a desire and passion in us to move the world forward? Isn't that part of the role of the Holy Spirit? The answer is not necessarily to reshape our desires, but rather identify true, gut-level, core desire that drives our hearts and souls. These are not impulsive desires, but rather the soul longing. That is the want we need to be taught to recognize.

The saving grace of this book is the narrator, Karyn O'Bryant. She read it with emotion and inflection as if it was her own argument. She made the audiobook engaging.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Monday, April 6, 2015

In Memory of Dr. Robert H. Schuller

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A couple of weeks ago, I discovered I would soon be at my 400th blog post. I was trying to think of something significant for it. Then last week, Dr. Robert H. Schuller died, and I can think of no better way than to honor him with this post.

I have long thought that besides my immediate family, Schuller and his ministry has been the biggest impact to my theology, spirituality, and ministry. And that's, obviously, not a small thing to say. It's taken me a few days to put this together because it's hard to express even some of my thoughts and feelings in a coherent manner. Here's my attempt, probably more for my own processing than for anyone else.

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A brief personal history summary first, for context.

My knowledge of Schuller goes way back to childhood, before I became a Christian. My grandma would watch the Hour of Power, although I wouldn't pay much attention. My mom remembers my grandparents taking them to the drive in church when they were little and appreciating getting to stay in their pajamas for church. My grandma has a memorial brick in the newest campus building. It essentially functions as her memorial location for me.

My awareness of his ministry increased in high school after I became a Christian, but it was really my first year in college at UC Berkeley that made things connect. Going from a little mountain town to living in Berkeley was a culture shock, to say the least. And finding a church wasn't easy. I started receiving Schuller's daily email devotions, which helped keep me motivated, hope-filled, and focused on my priorities and central identity as a Christian in the midst of a lot of worldview challenge. Berkeley culture doesn't confront worldview in a kind way, but one of the things that was central to Schuller's approach and theology was being welcoming and inclusive, finding common elements of agreement among differences in worldview in order to improve the world. This helped give me strength and change my distaste for Berkeley's aggressive cynicism into something incredibly defining in my life, building a more dynamic, rich faith. When I was asked to speak about my experience in Berkeley for graduation at my church, I quoted one of Schuller's pithy sayings to represent how he helped me keep hope and tenacity.

When I moved back to Southern California for my doctorate, I heard about a new college/young adult ministry starting at the Crystal Cathedral, only about 45 minutes from where I lived, and I thought no harm in trying it out. In fact, I'd love to be able to actually be a part of that congregation. There, I met someone who would soon become a great friend, Bobby Schuller (grandson of Robert H. and now lead pastor of Shepherd's Grove and Hour of Power). Over the next few years, I helped build The Gathering, a emerging church-inspired "church-within-a-church" and even came on staff of the Cathedral for The Gathering. Obviously, Schuller's theology and intergenerational influence was felt throughout our work.

We at The Gathering had a very different style, but the foundational stance of hope and encouragement that Schuller promoted was pervasive and drew people who had been hurt by other institutional churches (frankly, not unlike some of Schuller's then-unconventional approaches). Eventually I moved out of the area and so had to find a more local congregation.

Suffice it to say that Schuller's ministry and my life have crossed paths in deep, meaningful ways for most of life.

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With that context, these are some reflections on how his ministerial approach and theology have impacted me.

While criticisms have been and will continue to be made about the Crystal Cathedral campus due to opulence, extravagance wasn't really the goal. Rather, Schuller's first intent around unique church structures was practical, to be inclusive of those who couldn't be a part of a traditional congregation. Guideposts' memorial is a good summary of much of his original ministerial intent. Schuller's point was to create a physical space that would help people feel a sense of holiness and grandness of God, especially via connecting to the natural world. For me, that's exactly what I felt around the campus. I loved spending hours studying or just meditating in the gardens. The stairs at top of the Tower of Hope, just outside the Chapel in the Sky, was my favorite place on the whole campus because of its balance of connecting with the natural world, feeling close to God, while also looking out over the community and remembering the mission of being in the world. My wife and I had our first kiss, got engaged, and were married on the Cathedral campus. My bachelor "party" was spent walking around the campus with my best man having some good, reflective conversations. So I have good memories there even apart from the relationships built via The Gathering. I'm regularly saddened by the fact that I feel like I have to apologize for misunderstandings of intent around the grounds. But personally, Schuller's architectural efforts help me reconnect to God whenever I roam the campus. I see this nonverbal piece of his message particularly influence my incarnational theology that is so central to my faith.

In hindsight, I can see so many impacts Schuller's theology and approach have made on me. His valuing of psychology likely had some influence on my profession, and I know his regular referencing of Viktor Frankl particularly triggered my interest in studying Frankl's work, which continues to be the foundation for my psychological worldview. I would regularly cite Schuller in my graduate school papers reflecting on my worldview and theology. His words and thoughts were gateway into deeper theological exploration and reflection for me.

A fundamental positive, encouraging theological stance is central to my theology, and I doubt that's coincidental. I'm sure his approach influenced me not only directly, but also via my grandparents and mom. This was and is a major distinction of Schuller's approach, which was often controversial. Central to my ministry and passion is helping people see and experience God as loving and accepting. Schuller helped give shape, theology, and purpose to this focus. A few recent articles have quoted him from a Christianity Today interview, saying, “I don’t think anything has been done in the name of Christ and under the banner of Christianity that has proven more destructive to human personality and, hence, counterproductive to the evangelism enterprise than the often crude, uncouth, and un-Christian strategy of attempting to make people aware of their lost and sinful condition.” There are many in the world who would consider this heresy. However, I increasingly agree with Schuller completely. Most of the greatest criticisms of Christianity and religion are from those who believe in the unbiblical wrathful God supporting retributive justice. Schuller has helped rescue millions from this spiritually and psychologically damaging perspective.

Many people don't realize Schuller's contributions to international dialogue and building bridges across groups. He helped open dialogue with the USSR (he was the first Christian to be on TV there, and Gorbachev was even a guest on the Hour of Power...). His son, Robert A. Schuller, has continued these efforts, engaging in regular interfaith peacemaking efforts. I believe his efforts to find peace among and value in diverse spiritualities influenced my ability and value of promoting the same. My dissertation was focused on exemplar Muslim and Christian interfaith peacemakers. As chair of the spirituality subcommittee at a public department of behavioral health, a lot of my efforts to open inclusion of spirituality are focused on reminding/teaching people that interfaith work can not only function, but it can be powerful, beneficial, and respectful. Schuller never abandoned, minimized, or apologized for his Christian faith in this interactions. Rather, he exemplified that living as a follower of Christ was the cause for these efforts.

Despite whatever fair or unfair criticisms people may have of him, at his heart, Schuller cared about people. He loved his family deeply and well (and I know they loved him back). He wanted to bring the hope of Christ to a hurting world. He helped reshape the structure of church in a way that met people where they were at in a new culture. Even Christianity Today recognized this influence in their tribute. He helped build cultural and religious bridges to build a better world. His methods may seem cheesy and dated to us now, but they were revolutionary and effective at the time.

We could do well to remember and continue the intent of reaching those ostracized by churches and broken Christianity in creative, hope-filled, and life-giving ways. Schuller's message was one of grace and love, and I will forever treasure him for it.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Review: The Centrality of Fringe Hours @JessicaNTurner @christianaudio

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The Fringe Hours: Making Time for You was one of the best nonfiction audiobooks I've listened to in a while. Jessica Turner essentially writes about self-care in the midst of a busy life.

I know a lot about self-care. I've read/listened to several books on the topic. I've taught it and reinforced it in therapy and parent education groups. I still suck at it, but I'm familiar with the topic. This is one of the most down-to-earth, practical, realistic, reflective, and emotionally-connected books on the topic.

Probably the highest praise I can give for it is that somehow it actually resulted in my making some small changes in my activities, even before the book was over, to improve my self-care. The concept of fringe hours (finding bits and pieces of time throughout the day) was not terribly novel to me. I've very good at planning well ahead and being quite efficient. But I think the key that was most helpful in this text was helping me be even more aware of the prioritizing of activities, especially those that are meant to be for fun.

I think one of the strengths of this book was that it is not prescriptive nor guilt-inducing. Rather, it provides many different frames on life, time, and our choice of activities that can likely reach a variety of readers. Turner offers several practical examples of how to use time effectively to bring ourselves life. She makes a compelling picture of the centrality of making time for ourselves without overspiritualizing or overpsychologizing it while balancing that with strong substance.

My biggest criticism is that this book is really targeted toward women. It says so in the description, and the language used throughout the book reinforces that frame. Turner talks about tendencies in women, but they were all descriptive of me. As a psychologist, I don't see these trends as being unique to women, albeit there are some social pressures to conform into certain patterns. However, she may be unintentionally reinforcing some gender stereotypes. More importantly, by framing this text only in terms of women, she may have lost a massive audience who just as desperately needs to use their fringe hours (actually, I need it FAR more than my wife). But if men can get over the feminine pronouns, it can still be quite useful.

Finally, Carla Mercer-Meyer does a superb job of narration. My common complaint of nonfiction audiobooks is that they're often not read by the authors, so there's a sense of passion and personality that's lost. However, Mercer-Meyer conveys both so well that she could have been mistaken for the author. It was one of the best (if not the best) narrated nonfiction audiobook I've listened to (and there's many on my list).

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Monday, March 16, 2015

Book Review: Ordinary: Extraordinarily Bad

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With a lot of my interest in valuing the Brother Lawrence-esque approaches to life, I was eager and hopeful to read Ordinary: How to Turn the World Upside Down. The book description is very much in line with what I like to emphasize:
What if the path toward an extraordinary life is becoming more ordinary?
Ordinary is not a call to be more radical. If anything, it is a call to the contrary. The kingdom of God isn’t coming with light shows, and shock and awe, but with lowly acts of service. Tony Merida wants to push back against sensationalism and “rock star Christianity,” and help people understand that they can make a powerful impact by practicing ordinary Christianity.
Through things such as humble acts of service, neighbor love, and hospitality, Christians can shake the foundations of the culture. In order to see things happen that have never happened before, Christians must to do what Christians have always done­. Christians need to become more ordinary. 
Let’s think together about how we, ordinary people, doing ordinary things, might turn the world upside down.
However, the book is minimally about the value of ordinary things. Rather, it is really a rather legalistic argument for some social acts with a lot of assumptions, offensive statements, and bad theology. Sadly, the narration made the entire book sound like a dry speech rather than something with passion and life behind it.

The biggest problem I had with this text was Merida's reasons for loving others. In biblical Christianity, we love others because we are infused with the love of God and this is the fundamental frame with how we approach other people. However, Merida asks us to love people to meet Jesus’ commands, to be able to preach the Gospel explicitly, and to show the world that Christians are not all that bad. These are not the reasons Jesus asks us to love our neighbor. They may be added benefits, but if we do "good works" for these reasons, we functionally doing the acts for manipulative purposes, and we will hurt and damage other people.

This is where he gets into some of his offensive framings. Some examples:

  • He talks about foster care not costing anything financially and actually coming with financial incentives. While technically true, we shouldn't even be discussing this if we're approaching foster care out of divine compassion. Having worked with plenty of foster families, I've seen some who essentially do it for the allowance. It's incredibly damaging. Those who foster for the right reasons wind up spending plenty of their own money.
  • Merida horribly adds stigma to foster youth when he explains that foster youth often age out with only $500, which doesn’t last long, so that is why, he argues, that it's not surprising that many former foster youth turn to crimes, gangs, and prostitution. He needs to do some accurate research and recognize the implications of sharing uninformed slices of the lives of the voiceless. This statement does nothing to help the situation and likely only damages a very difficult system.
  • He also adds stigma to prisoners. While encouraging readers to welcome prisoners into their homes, he explains how one family told the prisoner he could not be at home without another member present, and the father told his daughter to block the door with her dresser at night. This framing just reinforces negative (and often inaccurate) stereotypes about the untrustworthy and dangerous nature of former prisoners.
  • Merida sounded self-congratulatory about adopting a fifth child from Ethiopia after four adoptions from the Ukraine: Their reason for adoption was because "We had enough love in our hearts." He talked about the need to rescue children as fundamental to adoption. Later, he calls adoption the "Cinderella doctrine of Pauline doctrine." As being a proud adoptive parent, this is the kind of approach to adoption that stigmatizes adoption and causes true psychological damage in adoptees.
  • On a related note, his cultural insensitivity is astounding. He told stories of his Ukrainian-born son wanting a "sun tanned" brother (referring to his Ethiopian heritage) without recognizing the potential problematic interpretation. I don't blame the child; but this is a learning moment, even if to the reader only. He also talks later about his Ethiopian-born child not wanting to eat salad and thinking of his own mother's response to his asking why he needed to eat food: Because there are starving children in Africa. Rather than talking about how international adoption has opened his worldview and challenged his assumptions, he casually states, "Well, I guess that's not always true."
Merida also states things that are just wrong, both socially and theologically, that contribute to stigma and culture wars. Towards the end of the book, he asserts that despair is one of the greatest sins. This is one of the most psychologically harmful statements Christians make. And there's not legitimate theological support for it.

He also states at the start of the book about tolerance being problematic because we should not agree with others in the name of tolerance. Except tolerance is not agreement. It is simply acknowledging differences and allowing differences to exist without trying to force the other person to change. By incorrectly stating that one must agree in order to be tolerant, Merida is effectively advocating for a homogenous culture.

Finally, he argues that a quote attributed to Francis of Assisi ("preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words") is wrong. Merida emphasizes that words are always required, as we much explicitly direct people toward Christ. Some Christians believe this, but I find this to be a legalistic, narrow interpretation of the Gospel that misses its true heart, along the lines of the start of this review.

Ultimately, the book title and description is completely misleading. Merida argues that any ordinary person can engage in acts that some may call social justice (I have a hard time calling what he's saying social justice as the true justice component is missing, and there is a lot of social inaccuracies and offensiveness), but his whole book is about encouraging people to engage in prescribed activities that explicitly match biblical mandates.

In contrast, some of the central beauty of the Gospel is that lives (and even social systems) can be transformed by simply living life in a Christ-like way, loving people out of a fundamental character virtue stance of love and valuing of life and making simple decisions that contribute to systemic change that treats all people as made and loved by God.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Monday, February 2, 2015

Voting: By Needs or By Ideals?

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I had originally planned to write this back in November around election time, but I didn't have the motivation to sit and actually write it out. But the ideas are relevant year-round, I think.

I've seen plenty of commentaries focus on various groups, astounded at the group's minorities who vote for a different party or against a measure that goes against their needs.

But should we be voting just based on what we want? What about the role of sacrifice? Of doing what's right even when it's "not in our best interest"? In my view, doing what's right is ultimately in our best interest.

A couple of concrete examples:

Back in undergrad, the University of California system was talking about raising tuition for the first time in many years. Students were up in arms. Of course I didn't want my tuition to go up. It wasn't in my best interest (at least from one perspective). However, I supported the tuition hike because it seemed reasonable.

Similarly, we have lived in our little city for several years now, loving the small town feel and a variety of amenities, like it being a clean, safe city with nice parks. Like many cities, ours had some financial problems, so there was a measure proposing a temporary tax hike in order to keep these services going. After hours of reviewing arguments on either side, my wife and I decided to vote against our best interest and for a tax increase in order to keep what we loved about our city.

Shouldn't voting be about looking at the big picture and not just about my short-term desires? Why are we so quick to judge others by assuming what is in their best interest? And assuming what motivated their vote?

If we want thoughtful voters (I guess not everyone does), then we also need to recognize that not everyone votes based on what they think is best for themselves, but actually consider society as a whole. And there can be honest disagreement about what falls into both categories. But stopping assuming what is in other people's best interest may be a good start.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Will All Be Well?

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I've started subscribing to Richard Rohr's daily devotional, which I have found to be more thoughtful than most, balancing both an opportunity to pause and contemplate with intellectual growth and stimulation. Back in November, he had a post reflecting on Julian of Norwich's famous prayer, "All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."

I'm familiar with this prayer, having prayed it myself. It's a nice reminder of God's sovereignty, among other teleological ideas. But this time, I wondered how true this prayer really is. It depends on our end point, of course, as one could argue that once creation is renewed and reconciled, "all will be well."

But in the shorter term, not everything works out right. Babies die. Terrorists succeed. Good people go bankrupt. Hard workers lose their homes and jobs. People in therapy suicide.

No matter how hard we work, sometimes bad things happen.

So is saying a prayer that all shall be well still true? Or is it a Nietzschean opiate to make us feel better? Psychological research has indicated that the negative cognitions of the depressed (and I would add that the anxious probably fall into this, as well) are actually more accurate than the thoughts of those who are normal. The depressive things are reality. But it doesn't help us live, either. It seems that sometimes we need some level of ignorance or blindness in order to function appropriately.

I want to believe that all shall be well. Teleologically, I could say it's so. Frankly, I've had a remarkably blessed life. But in this world, I've also seen others in great pain despite faithfulness.

What is the balance between hoping all shall be well and knowing that it's not? Maybe it's the hope that's the key.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Retributive Justice: Human or Divine?

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Last week, I talked about whether God needs to be appeased. The big thing I want to emphasize in this sort of discussion is how embedded ideas of retributive justice are in our society. There is just a fundamental assumption that this is how things work, and of course God works the same way.

A poignant example of this, to me, was when I had jury duty recently. As I was walking into the courthouse, there was a guy with a bullhorn yelling about how people were going to Hell. Another was handing out tracts to everyone entering the courthouse. (Side note: While I hate this sort of representation of Christianity, I'm proud to live in a country where this can occur outside of a government courthouse. Further, what does it say about the claim that Christians are persecuted in the US?)

Having done my undergrad in Berkeley, I'm good at just walking past people trying to hand stuff to me. Trying to keep my temper in check for giving Christians such a bad name, I just said a polite, "No thank you" to the guy with the tract and keep walking. He then aggressively said, "Did you see the sign?!" referring to a cross saying something like, "Do you know God?" I responded, "I'm a Christian," to which he seemed to celebrate with a "Yeah!" So I turned around and said, "But you're doing it the wrong way!" I couldn't help myself. I'm unwilling to let others think I support such behavior.

Moving back from the side rant, what this indicated to me was the tendency many of us have to make assumptions about how things work and what others believe. These individuals were clearly promoting a highly retributive justice God right in front of an institution specializing in retributive justice (let's be honest, the US justice system is fundamentally about retributive justice--it frankly would be difficult to build a different system at this level). In many ways, this was a wise move--it powerfully reinforces the central principles of what they're trying to argue. If you believe in the governmental justice methodology, then it's easy to apply that spiritually.

But what if that application is wrong? What if retributive justice is really a human practicality (or tragedy)? What are we missing if we assume this approach to justice is from God?

Questions?

Got a question, struggle, or doubt you'd like to see addressed here? Contact me, and I'll try to discuss it (and may even help you get an answer).