Monday, November 25, 2013

What Makes Faith Legitimate?

One of my favorite courses in my undergraduate career (or ever, frankly) was Sociology of Religion, taught by a professor at the Jesuit school of theology at the Graduate Theological Union, which had partnerships with UC Berkeley. The first lecture was a discussion emphasizing the challenges of creating a universally-applicable definition of religion. (As I'm writing this, I realize it was one of the most memorable lectures I've had.) Suffice it to say, the definition is challenging. The 1972 definition by anthropologist Clifford Geertz we learned is dense, but remarkable. And I still use it to this day (I cited it in my dissertation and will be using it in an introduction to spirituality and mental health treatment cultural competency training I'm developing).

What I appreciate about the definition is it is functional, rather than focusing on specific elements of belief. Too often, people get caught up in these concrete elements (i.e. Is there God? Is there a congregation? Are there rituals? Is there Scripture?). And then this emphasis leads to dismissal of beliefs as legitimate religion, essentially invalidating the individuals' experiences of meaning-making.

Whether or not we agree with a set of beliefs doesn't give us the right to dismiss those beliefs as not a real religion or faith, in my opinion. In many ways, that is what some people are arguing from the tradition of Jediism. Yes, as in Jedi. As in Star Wars Jedi. I read a fascinating, pretty objective, descriptive article exploring the Church of the Jedi. And frankly, I believe it meets all the criteria of a bona fide religion from a sociological perspective.

Just because we agree or disagree with a belief system doesn't mean that followers of a perspective don't have the right to do so and be considered a religion. There's plenty of religions that people consider completely absurd while also not questioning whether those set of beliefs would qualify for the label of religion. Frankly, one of the best ways to help a religion grow is by persecuting and discriminating against its followers. Look at some of the biggest growth time for Christianity, for instance. So by removing rights from a group, we may ironically be giving them more moral support.

In reading the article, it also made me realize as Christians, we need to be humble about our origins, especially as others see us. One line that really struck me was, "So it's based on a movie. Christianity is based on a book." While most Christians would argue the Bible is more than a book, many hard core Wars fans consider the series more than a movie. And frankly, the parallels are striking.

Unsurprisingly, it comes down to faith. Faith that there is meaning and Truth in our system of beliefs. And experiences that make it all "seem uniquely realistic." That's why I'm a Christian and don't follow another faith. But I can't necessarily prove it beyond someone else's shadow of a doubt either. And that's okay.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Emotion and the Faith Experience

A few weeks back, CNN Belief Blog featured a post by a Christian, Brant Hansen, with Asperger's disorder that I had to read. First, the title referenced Star Trek: Mr. Spock goes to church. Secondly, the subtitle was "How one Christian copes with Asperger's syndrome," so my interest was further piqued with the intersection of psychology and faith. And the article exceeded my expectations.

This was a beautiful, honest exploration of one's very personal faith journey, struggles and all. While Hansen's emotional experiences in his faith were influenced by his diagnosis, he was not aware of the disorder until much later. And how much pain and judgment did he face because he didn't have the particular emotional reactions expected by our communities?

What I loved was that Hansen found he could have a strong faith outside of consistent transcendent emotional experiences. While many Christians won't have trouble accepting that because of the Asperger's label he has, I think there's something he can teach all of us: Stop making expectations of what other's faith journeys and experiences should be.

Life is complex. Emotions are incredibly complex. So are cognitions. Faith is infinitely complex, in my opinion. Put all of these together, and there are no formulas. Let's keep our eyes on the ultimate goals of faith. If we or our community is sincerely striving to follow Christ and be transformed by Him, then let's give latitude to the Holy Spirit to craft and shape our journey, even if it's quite different from the journey of anyone else we know...

Monday, November 11, 2013

College Crisis of Faith

Long-time readers of this blog know that I'm particularly interested in elements of doubt and faith, such as the dark night of the soul. I firmly believe these experiences actually help us develop, deepen, and strengthen our faith. But if we aren't told that they can do that, the experiences can be terrifying.

I've also said in various venues that I'm not liking the trend of discussions about college focusing on careers and profitability. That's not the purpose of most higher education, especially from the liberal arts tradition (which dominates almost all Amercian higher education systems, for the good, I believe). The purpose is really education. Learning about yourself and the world. The critical thinking skills and exposure to the amazing world definitely gives us excellent job skills, but this is quite different than a technical school, which has the purpose of giving you a set of specific skills to implement. The college experience is meant to be an experience that shapes our identities and worldviews, hopefully with the purpose of improving the world around us.

So Andrew Knapp's article on why he thinks it's a good thing for Christian college students to have a crisis of faith is spot on, I think. His points fit precisely within the philosophy of a liberal arts education and the core values of higher education. And we need to remember that it was usually Christians who supported this perspective. If we're confident in our faith, then we also shouldn't be afraid of our students having a crisis of faith.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Star Trek, Star Wars, and Church Worship Style

What's the similarity between Star Trek, Star Wars, and worship styles in Christian congregations? There's people very passionate (and vocal) about how to do each of them right.

A couple of months ago, my wife and I watched the documentary, The People v. George Lucas, an entertaining exploration of Star Wars fans' relationship with Lucas. One of the core elements of the documentary was how long-time Wars fans hated Episodes I-III and how Lucas modified IV-VI because of new technology. The filmmakers recognized that this dislike is not universal. But the conclusion was quite insightful, I thought: People had a strong emotional reaction and bond to Star Wars decades earlier. They wanted and expected the same experience now. Except they are different, Lucas is different, the world is different, and frankly, the Star Wars universe is different. You cannot have the same experience again. Yet many young people are experiencing Star Wars for the first time in the same way their elders did, but with new material. Does that really make the content bad, then?

The same thing is happening in the Trek universe. I'm amazed at how vitriolic some people have been towards the Abrams crew, especially Star Trek Into Darkness (SPOILER warning, if you haven't seen STID yet). Some people HATED it (no, that's not overemphasizing it). People have been ripping apart how the casting was horrible, how none of the characters are right, how the stories are ruined, and how there's too much action. I think what's really going on here is the same thing that occurred with Wars: Here is a new experience with old, beloved characters. Many of us want to recapture the old flame of things we once loved.

In the documentary, people were mentioning how they saw Star Wars as synonymous with the joy of their childhood. Psychologically, it looks like they want their childhood back (some basically said that). Yet there's no way to go back. I think it's the same process with Trek now. STID is actually my favorite of all the Trek films to date. I was never terribly impressed by The Wrath of Khan film and never intimidated or scared by the original Khan. Cumberbatch's Khan is chilling and truly deviously threatening in my experience. But I wonder if I would have had a different reaction if it were my beloved TNG crew. A new Q with a young Picard? Those are characters I have attachment to, while I've never been attached to TOS. Yet I would hope I would be open to a new experience.

Recently, our congregation went from two services each Sunday to one. Not because of attendance issues, but because we want to be one intergenerational church, not split by worship style. The big issue at hand was how to reconcile conflicting worship styles (isn't that always one of the major conflicts in a congregation?). While I appreciate "traditional" music, I don't have much, if any, emotional connection to it. It doesn't evoke worshipful feelings in me. When I see many people sing it, it doesn't look like they have any emotion, either (although that can be said for many congregations singing contemporary music :) ). But I wonder why people get so attached to that style. I think in many ways, it's the same process going on with Trek and Wars. People grew up hearing a particular type of music. They have warm memories of other experiences, which become paired with the music. The music reminds them of the past. And it's hard to let go and have a new experience. The same exact thing can be true for people to stuck on contemporary music. Or any other aspect of worship. During the first Sunday of the new schedule, one of our long-time (as in 50+ years attending) congregants shared about her experience of worship. She was so insightful, talking about how familiarity of style was welcoming, but how something different could be very valuable. Our pastor gave a wonderful sermon explaining the history and philosophy of worship in that congregation. I loved how he ended by saying that he hopes everyone found something they loved in the service. And something they disliked. Because that would be an area of growth to tolerate and appreciate differences.

We can honor the old experiences, but we have to remember we can never go back to before (just as said in the musical, Ragtime). We need to determine what we need now and what experiences will help facilitate that in the present. That may mean we need Chris Pine more than William Shatner. But that doesn't mean Shatner is less valid or less important. Without the Shatner Kirks, there would be no Pine Kirks...

Monday, September 30, 2013

Do Smart People Need Faith?

In August, I read an interesting article discussing a meta-analysis exploring the relationship of intelligence and faith. Since this lands squarely in a major area of interest for me, psychology and faith, I was fascinated.

Ultimately, just about any studying examining IQ and faith is going to identify correlation, not causation. The four causal factors suggested by the authors sound very plausible to me and could play a role in the lower levels of faith of those with higher intelligence.

I wonder if part of the causal influence has to do with the type of work those with higher intelligence tend to engage in. I don't mean to be derogatory here, simply descriptive. Those usually recognized to have a higher intelligence (from a cognitive standpoint--there is a lot of debate over other forms of intelligence, including emotional, social, creative, etc., and I personally think those do need to be recognized as elements of intelligence) tend to have white collar jobs. Those with lower intelligence tend to have blue collar jobs (of course there is always an exception, especially with immigrants).

Let's think about stereotypic blue collar jobs. Lots of manual labor. Lots of repetitive actions. Not a lot of mental stimulation. It's no wonder many blue collar workers turn to prayer, singing hymns, and other spiritual activities during work. I know I was often bored during work when I had blue collar jobs. From a psychological perspective, it can fill a gap of stimulation.

Now let's think about stereotypic white collar jobs. Very little manual labor. Very little repetitive actions. A lot of mental, novel stimulation. In the past few years of having increasingly stereotypic white collar positions, my time has been very filled with a variety of stimuli that also fill my brain. Since I like my work, I continue thinking about it and processing it in my off time. I notice I feel like I have less "downtime" to fill with prayer, Bible reading, etc. In some ways, I could argue my work distracts my brain from spiritual things (okay, from my incarnational perspective, work can be very spiritual, but we're talking about more explicitly spiritual stuff).

The more our time is filled with the ins and outs of daily life and a variety of activities, the easier it is to explain life away by those things. We are also more distracted from any potential spiritual needs and longings, so we're not even aware of them.

Do smart people need faith? I would argue yes. But they often have more of a challenge to recognize their need of faith.

"O Lord! Thou knowest how busy I must be this day: If I forget thee, do not forget me!" Sir Jacob Astley (1579-1652)

Monday, September 23, 2013

Dealing with Controversy

Controversy is no stranger to the Church. Some would argue that God made it that way. However, how we handle controversy is key. Much of the Christian Church sings the hymn, They'll Know We Are Christians By Our Love, but many of those congregations would not be recognized by love.

Back in July, our pastor was addressing various questions posed by congregants. One of the Sundays addressed how our congregation deals with controversy. It was one of the best sermons I've heard. Ever.

With the bulletin was a document entitled Controversial Issues and the Church's Ministry. Here is a copy (used with permission):
Controversial Issues and the Church's MinistryAffirmed by the Executive CouncilThe First Baptist Church of Redlands, CaliforniaAdopted on May 7, 2002 and revised on June 28, 2005 
Members of The First Baptist Church of Redlands like Christians elsewhere are not unanimous in their understanding of many social and personal issues. Several guiding principles therefore become important when considering controversial issues and the ministry of Christ's church. 
a) All people are received into the membership of The First Baptist Church of Redlands on the basis of their confession of faith in Christ and their commitment to support the ministry God has given us as a congregation both locally and globally.
b) Members of this congregation struggle with a number of personal and spiritual issues, and we humbly acknowledge that we all fall short of God's glory and are dependent on God's grace in every area of life. 
c) We all are challenged to study the scriptures using the best knowledge and interpretive principles available to us as we follow the leading of the Spirit, upholding as a congregation the historic Baptist principle of soul liberty in matters of faith and practice. 
d) The mission and ministry God has given our congregation is greater than any one issue. We must not allow the divisiveness of this age to divide the church, but (as Jesus teaches) trust God to separate the wheat from the tares (Matthew 13:24-30). 
e) The ministry of Jesus stretches us beyond our comfort zones as we reach out into our community. We must, therefore, guard our hearts against prejudices and false stereotypes cast upon minorities in our society and instead base our perspectives on convictions that build community and trust.  
f) Everyone is to be treated with the respect due one for whom Christ has died. No one is to be abused or harmed by either words or actions. Disparaging remarks, unkind comments, and abusive behavior have no place in the body of Christ. 
g) When considering leadership openings all character issues are relevant and may be taken into account in any and every situation.
While I'm of course biased, I love this. There are so many things that could be said for each point, but the thing I appreciate the most is that this statement reminds us of our priorities. Rather than getting bogged down by the minutiae of theological debate, this perspective keeps us focused on the greatest commandment: Love God and love others.

This statement is more about character and identity than about doctrine, and I think that's what makes it so Christian. And so hard to live up to!

During the message, my wife leaned over to me and said, "Now, that's something I would like to see posted on the door by the sanctuary!" She was referring to a past congregation we attended where they posted a huge sign at the sanctuary entrance, stating, "As Christians, we believe..." with their statement of faith. This move was one of the last actions that let us know we no longer aligned with their vision. As I explained to one of their pastors, trying to understand their decision-making process of the sign, I didn't even necessarily disagree with the content. By putting something up like that, they were sending the message that only people who agreed with that long list (very little of which would be salvific, in my opinion) would be welcomed in that congregation as a Christian. That process is what I have a problem with. And our current congregation's above statement reflects exactly the opposite sentiment. We are here on a journey of life. And life throws a lot of curve balls of confusion. We will do our best to be faithful in word and deed, but how we go about finding and living out truth is critical.

As our pastor told me one of the first times I met him, "We don't want doctrine to get in the way of doing what's right." That in itself could be a controversial statement, but I agreed with it then and agree with it now. It doesn't mean we don't stand by right belief. But we don't use it to clobber others. The right thing to do is to love people. No matter what. That doesn't mean excusing behavior. But not excusing behavior also doesn't mean condemnation. Ultimately, this approach is using the Bible as the center of the Christian faith.

I've experienced our congregation to demonstrate that delicate, holy balance. I've heard that our pastor has been accused by other community churches of being "too loving." I can only pray I receive that condemnation some day. Frankly, it's the same one the Pharisees gave Jesus...

Monday, September 16, 2013

Does Psychology Create a Need for Church Style? @maguyton

How much does our psychology influence the faith approach we follow, appreciate, and even need? There is regularly a lot of dialogue in the blogosphere about the holiness and horror of both the sin/wrath-focused church and the therapeutic church. Morgan Guyton recently published a couple of excellent posts on fundamentalism and his thoughts on the drive to the (highly disturbing) Christian domestic discipline movement (AKA wife spanking--yes, seriously). These posts spurred me to write about some thoughts I've had about the dichotomy between the sin and therapeutic churches.

One of the things I often hear from major proponents of sin-focused approaches is that we all need to be reminded of our problems, our weaknesses, and that God is in charge. In accordance, the argument for and against the therapeutic churches is that they make us feel too good about ourselves and make us forget about our failings.

This also reminds me of some of the applications of the 12 step approach (not all implementations are the same). Interestingly, there is a decent amount of narcissistic traits in people with substance misuse problems (this is a broad generalization, of course). I think the people who do best in 12 step programs often have this tendency, which is why it makes sense that they need to be reminded of their limitations. Can the same be said for the sin-focused churches? I think so. Some of the loudest voices of this approach (cough, Mark Driscoll, cough) ooze narcissism, so I can see how they benefit from being reminded of their finitude. And just like a good narcissist, they assume everyone is like them and needs the same approach.

Except I've met very few people who aren't aware of their limitations. Those who seem to be needing reminders fall into the undermentioned category. Almost every person I've worked with in my clinical work is acutely aware of his/her problems. Especially when we start getting into levels of higher anxiety, the last thing people need is to be reminded of what's wrong with them. Believe me, as someone with a strong level of perfectionism, I condemn myself plenty.

Continuing this message in the spiritual life does nothing to bring us closer to God. Rather, it reinforces psychological pathology, reinforcing a process of psychic self-flagellation. The therapeutic church approach, reminding people of the unconditional love and grace of God, compensates for the self-condemnation pattern many people experience regularly.

So perhaps both approaches are needed based on particular individuals and psychological processes. After all, God does meet us where we're at, right?

Does that mean I could actually recommend Driscoll and crew to the narcissists? I would have a hard time doing so because of his self-righteous condemnation of others rather than just himself (actually, I don't think I've ever heard him criticize himself, just like a good narcissist). Unfortunately, this becomes a pattern of many sin churches--the people condemn themselves, then become self-congratulatory for doing so and turns the condemnation on others, reinforcing the narcissistic tendencies.

Interestingly, a healthy therapeutic church (yes, there definitely are extreme, unhealthy ones who disregard any semblance of growth and change) could be very good medicine for narcissistic traits. In psychology, a popular explanation of the etiology of narcissism is called the narcissistic injury, which argues that these individuals in fact have an incredibly low self-esteem and sense of self-efficacy. Building up authentic self-regard is actually the "cure" for narcissism in this case. Internalizing God's unconditional love and grace is a core goal of therapeutic churches. And it's a beautiful spiritual and psychological cure to many ills...

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Need to be Right

Anyone ever want to be right? I know I like being right. And even more importantly, many of us like others knowing that we're right (especially when they're wrong, huh? :) ). How many conflicts arise from the insistence on being right (and trying to get others to acknowledge that)? What happens to the way we treat others when we insist on being right? What happens to our emotional state? Do the answers to these questions match with the fruit of the Spirit or most people's goals of life?

One of the concepts in the skill of dialectics in DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) is to let go of being right. This doesn't mean that there isn't right and wrong or that we shouldn't hold true to our values. Rather, the idea is essentially about letting go of winning an argument.

DBT is focused on targeting emotional dysregulation (emotions being overwhelming and out of control). So all the skills are practically aimed at increasing our ability to regulate ourselves. Trying to be right frequently leads to emotion dysregulation, which in turn leads to poor judgment and interpersonal conflict.

So trying to let go of having to be right allows us to look at what is effective in our long-term goals. Do I really need to convince my wife that dishes should be put in the dishwasher and not left in the sink? While I'm, of course, right, insisting on being right only leads to conflict, fights, and a poor relationship. Are the dishes really worth that? When we're emotionally dysregulated, whatever we're fighting for does seem worth it. But then we calm down, and it seems silly. So the goal is to head off the dysregulation in order to maintain wise decision-making.

This can be hard when relationships aren't at stake. I've been really tempted to take our first adoption attorney to court or make a formal complaint to the state bar association for breach of contract. From one angle, it's a lot of money we lost, and fighting to be right could literally pay off. And it's not like I care whether the guy likes me or not. But how much energy is lost in the process? What are the chances of actually achieving my goals? It's an uphill battle.

But there are times when it bothers me. A lot. I realized it's not really the loss of the money, since we'll get most of it back through the federal adoption tax credit. It's tolerating the idea that he thinks he won (or so I imagine him thinking). I don't want him to think he's right. I want him to think we're right. But what good does that ultimately do? Not much. It'll satisfy my emotions for a bit, then something else will come along to trigger them. Wouldn't it be better to find ways to regulate without relying on others?

There are times to fight for justice, but we need to be wise about it. And when our desire to be right becomes too strong, then we can actually lose sight of justice itself. (I'm afraid this happens sometimes in the legal system when prosecutors, defense attorneys, police officers, etc. behave unethically just to be right rather than seek truth.)

I see Jesus acting this way when Pilate was questioning him. There were so many ways Jesus could have argued he was right. But would it have convinced everyone? Would it have been effective at achieving his ultimate, long-term goals? From this perspective, I can see him saving his energy for what was most important. He could tolerate people thinking he was evil and even forgave them for making such erroneous judgments. He didn't have to be right. And that allowed him to be at peace and make even more powerful impact.

Yet ironically, how often do we insist on being right in the name of Christ? How much good does that bring?

I like being right. I want to be on the right side of things. More importantly, I really like it when people think I'm right (even if I'm wrong). And that desire leads to a lot of unrest. Jesus came to bring us life and peace. Part of that, I believe, is letting go of having to be right.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Occult Question, Part 2

I received a very thoughtful email from a reader in response to my post last week, Why I Don't Believe in the Occult. He agreed to let me post our short exchange, as I think it adds to the conversation and provides some clarification of my points.

Reader's Comment:

To the author at Jacobs cafe RE: on the nature of the spiritual world. 
I write, on an iPhone, in response to your comments about what you don't believe in related to the spiritual world of the occult and Hollywood's formulas about such. 
I have no problem with agreeing with you about the typical Christian Bookstores problems with popular supernatural fiction and Harry Potter and all that. I start with the assumption that CS Lewis' ScrewTape Letters and Charles Williams works like Descent into Hell are pretty tame and accessible and acceptable literary statements with "relative theological acceptance" on the mainstream Protestant conversation. So I want to make clear I am leaving all that context behind just to honor or admit some particular spiritual encounters I had with the Occult that were not shared by any of that sophisticated reflection. The experience i speak from was only a raw and totally "re-settling" and "over-turning" event. 
So, Part of me agrees with you and my "sophisticated theological" training supports much of that denouncement you make. BUT, also I was fortunate enough 40 years ago to directly experience some very deep encounters with the occult and from that found Jesus, as rescuer from that occultic violence. 
What you probably need to expand your horizons and reflection is to have some "scary as hell" encounters with the demonic realm where you shit your soul's pants and then thank God you were preserved from further fury and demise. When you find yourself like Job in a whirlwind holding your hands over your eyes and wondering where your ground of being and cosmological correctness vaporated... You will end up with a more complete sense of the context of your occult investigation.  
 I say that with an old Jesus people hippy guy's heart that has read thousands of sophisticated theological works over the last four decades but never forgotten several soul-shaking occult encounters.
Best of luck with your occult encounters and supporting grace. 
My reply:
Thanks for your comments, ___. 
I want to clarify that my post was really about the potential process of the occult and the concern people have in engaging in incantations and formulaic "magical" interventions. If dark forces exist, I don't think they operate in that fashion, so I see no threat in those activities. I see them just as games.
The existence of conscious dark forces is another conversation and debate, of course, which I talked about a little two and a half years ago ( Ultimately, I see it as a matter of faith, as any experience could be explained by a variety of psychological, cultural, sociological, medical, etc. theories. But they could be actually caused by dark forces. I'm not sure we'd ever be able to prove it one way or another, just like we cannot prove or disprove God. It's faith.
I'm not sure I would live my life any differently if I was very confident in an active, conscious Satanic force. I still think the ways we engage evil in the world would be the same whether it is human nature or active dark forces...

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Why I Don't Believe in the Occult

Conservative Christendom has long criticized films, books, TV series, games, and other media that have anything to do with witchcraft or the occult. The argument is that it lets in the demonic and exposes people (especially young ones) to dark forces. I've never been convinced of this. In fact, I've very much enjoyed several of the criticized franchises, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Harry Potter, and Hocus Pocus.

I've more recently realized why I probably have never felt threatened by this media. They all rely on formulaic interventions to impact how the powers that be work in the world. I don't believe God or the spiritual world works like that. God doesn't fit in the IFTTT (if this then that) workflow. He's far more relational.

Would potential dark forces work in a more formulaic way, then? Perhaps. But I don't see much evidence of formulas ever being the way things work in any Christian sacred texts. And I don't think gathering a few specific items and saying an incantation in a particular way would automatically please some dark being.

Magic like this just doesn't exist in this world. Magic from the perspective of awe, imagination, and wonder (as in Disney magic) is very much real, but that's a totally different arena.

Maybe Screwtape has pulled one over on me, and I'll quickly fall because l don't see the threat of the occult. But I frankly see no evidence that the spiritual works on formulas. Frankly, very little of the world, especially when involving humans, is truly as formulaic as these representations of the occult.

Sometimes I wish the world were more formulaic. It would be far easier to predict behavior and how things would work out. In fact, I think it is the human desire for clarity and confidence that leads us to try to find regular causal connections between things. If we can identify clearly defined formulas, then we have more control over the world (even the Divine), which soothes any anxiety we have about the ambiguity of life.

Because I don't believe the world, especially the spiritual world, operates on formula, then entertainment involving any form of magic is just that--entertaining fun. It's not a threat because it's not real. Frankly, I find the greater danger is believing that we can control ourselves, our world, and even God through rituals.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Too Positive

I realized I have experienced a decent variety of congregations. Some uber-casual, some more formal. Some "therapeutic," some more legalistic. I have generally agreed with more positive theology, focusing on transformation rather than hell, fire, and brimstone. At the same time, I've become increasingly uncomfortable in settings where everyone always seems so happy and the goal seems to be happiness.

I do believe that God ultimately wants us to be happy, but that's not the ultimate goal. I would argue that being filled with love (received and given) is much more of the goal. While love can make us happy, it can also cause a lot of pain and suffering. Too much focus on needing to be happy, and we can invalidate the negative emotional experiences that are natural in life.

Some would argue that we can simply choose to be happy. I'm sorry, but that's just plain wrong. Emotions are rarely chosen. Our behaviors can be, and we can influence our emotions. Some people have a biological tendency to be less likely to be triggered toward negative emotions. Blessed are they. But telling others that they can simply choose to be happy can be quite damaging and short sighted. The invalidation can actually lead to greater negative emoting.

We need to be aware of how our best intentions can hurt others. I actually believe the "therapeutic" church has a lot of good to offer people that is straight from God. But we can't miss the need and beauty of sitting in the suffering and muck. Solely discussing the positive side of emotions and life is often used to help us regain hope. However, I have also seen it do exactly the opposite, shaming people into feeling like they're not good enough because they're not happy.

Finding the balance of looking toward the ideal and hope while sitting in the valley is a challenge, especially on a congregational scale. My hope and prayer is for all of us to continue to try to be aware of the different places people are coming from and use our more global voices to be sensitive to this diversity.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Star Trek v. Wars

I have long loved Star Trek. In fact, I wore a Star Trek uniform for my 4th grade school pictures (TNG is the best, by the way). Recently, my wife and I have been going through the Star Wars films again (I own them all :) ), and I was reminded how much I really love Star Wars, as well. I saw a comment elsewhere that we have to remember that many people are fans of both Trek and Wars (but Trek is better).

It's been getting me thinking about the true differences between the two, not just the surface difference of more action in Wars than Trek. For some reason, it just recently hit me that the titles really reflect a lot of the fundamental difference (duh :) ). Trek really is about exploration and the journey of development. Wars is about... war. So it makes sense the latter has more action while the former is more focused on science. I think this is why Trek is such an enduring deeper interest for me. I'm not interested in the elements of exploration and development than just action and adventure.

In watching the special features for Episodes 1-III of Star Wars, it's so clear how visual George Lucas is. It makes a lot of sense why the Wars films have so much action. He actually explicitly stated that some scenes are all about visual storytelling, not the dialogue. In contrast, Ben Burtt (the sound designer for both the Wars films and the JJ Trek) talked about how his first exposure to TOS was just hearing audio recordings of the first several episodes. Because the dialogue, descriptions, and sounds were so good, he could visualize everything that was going on. Others often commented in reinvigorating Trek recently that Trek battles were more like "submarine warfare"--slow and dialogue-driven. That's what Abrams has been trying to change a bit. While I like traditional Trek, I really appreciate the revamped Trek, as well.

In some of the special features of the 2009 Star Trek film, JJ Abrams and others commented that Trek is about our future, while Wars is "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away." Roddenberry had an exceedingly positive view of humanity, and Trek is all abut optimism and building hope for developing a strong future for us. Wars is more a great saga about something that might have been.

I think these elements together really help to explain why Trek can actually become a way of life for some people (if you aren't familiar with this, watch either of the Trekkies documentaries--fascinating). I haven't heard of Star Wars fans taking things to that level. Trek has inspired scientists and encouraged real-life growth and development.

For me, Star Wars is a lot of fun, but it doesn't necessarily leave me with deep, lasting impacts. I love the moral and ethical dilemmas posed regularly in Star Trek. I find so much more to dialogue with, especially when applying spiritual values. There's definitely some of this in Wars (particularly the Jedi philosophy and traditions), but it just doesn't feel as rich to me. I think it's for this reason that Trek seems better in a serialized TV format, allowing for a slower pace, while Wars is more appropriate for the big screen. Both have done well in both arenas, but we'll see how it goes as JJ becomes a sci-fi uber-god, having a major hand in bringing back both franchises!

I'll always enjoys Wars and will definitely see the new ones in theaters (heck, I did a midnight showing for Episode III), but Trek will always have my heart. Who's with me?! ;)

Monday, July 29, 2013

Is the High Church Less Pretentious? @rachelheldevans

On Saturday, Rachel Held Evans posted a great piece entitled, Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church. I agree with a lot of what she wrote (and her writing in general). The part I want to comment on is her explanation for why so many young people are leaving the low church (the more casual, traditional evangelical style) for the high church traditions (more focused on liturgy and tradition). In the middle of her post, she writes:
Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions  Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic.
This is where I disagree. In fact, my experience is that the high church traditions have come across as far more pretentious than those of the low church. Perhaps it's some of the people I've encountered in those churches who look down on anything more casual and spontaneous.

Some argue that liturgy and tradition is quite meaningful, as it makes them feel connected to the many generations who have come before and the congregations worldwide who may be doing the same thing at the same time. This makes sense intellectually, but I have to say I've never had that experience, at least emotionally. (Roger Olson has a great post that includes some comparison and analysis of this.)

Perhaps it's because I'm pretty big into low church tradition in many ways, even theologically. While I haven't gotten to experience it, I love the idea of the completely non-planned and community-driven Friends (Quaker) services. And I can't say I personally have ever been moved by a liturgy. But I've definitely been moved by more casual experiences.

I think where there's a big disconnect for many people of all generations is the scripted nature of evangelicalism. While casual may appear to be spontaneous, many of us know the services Held Evans criticizes are highly scripted, often more so than their liturgical counterparts. And I've heard it said a few times that most churches actually are quite liturgical, if we look at having a routine set of behaviors and schedule for a service.

But some seem more performance-driven than others. Is the purpose of a script/routine/liturgy for practicality, everyone knowing what comes next, or because we all believe this is the right way to do it and will draw more people in, effectively creating an emotional experience (and these are not mutually exclusive options). In my experience, many evangelical churches have moved more and more to the latter, effectively disregarding the potential work of the Holy Spirit to move. And at the same time, I don't think the emotions created by an amazing performance are inauthentic or wrong (concerts and theatrical performances do this all the time, and we're fine with it).

I think too much of a focus on the performance in an area where performance isn't key (the Church) is the problem, though. There becomes this fear of failing to do things properly (another theme in many areas of Christendom). And soon we lose a direct experience of God for performance. I love Renovaré's retreat theme this year: "Changing Performance for God to Experiencing Life with God."

Too much performance in church, and the congregation becomes an audience. That's why I generally like low church traditions: I feel a greater sense of participation. Yet early in grad school, I remember one of my professors sharing her experience in the Episcopal Church. She described how even her small son (around 4 or 5) could participate because of the repetition of the liturgy. That gave me a whole new appreciation and understanding of liturgy and high church traditions.

In my current congregation, I see there being a very nice balance between the low and high church traditions. There's definitely elements of liturgy, but there's also a low church accessibility. People of all ages and backgrounds lead the congregation in some of the liturgical prayers and elements (I don't know how common this is elsewhere). But then there's times when the service feels like a pretty casual, contemporary service. I don't think anyone would ever freak out if something were missed or forgotten one week. I think the key is that there isn't a rigidity to a particular style. In many ways, I see our congregation engaging in this balance because it's worked practically for the congregation. Not because it's so inherently amazing.

Traditional liturgy has a lot of benefits. So does the casualness and apparent spontaneity of stereotypical evangelical churches. But both are just a style and can be used to be highly pretentious. Both can create accessibility, and both can shut people out.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

I Shouldn't Pay for Their Healthcare... But I Do

I doubt we'll see the end of debates about healthcare reform anytime soon. Interestingly, many of the things being tried now were tried a couple of decades ago, too, from my understanding. Yet having worked in a major medical center for the past five years, I can definitely understand that health care needs major reforming.

Last week, I saw a story in my Facebook feed (supposedly) from an ER physician who was treating some young kid with expensive tattoos and piercings, but with Medicaid (public insurance, for those who don't know). The argument was that if he had enough money for the tattoos, piercings, and cigarettes, we shouldn't have to pay for his health care.

There were so many problems and fallacies with this story and argument that I wanted to write a response. I haven't heard a plan I've loved so far, so this isn't a political statement, but rather an opportunity to flesh out some alternative perspectives.

First of all, I've learned in working with a variety of minors, many will actually give themselves or each other the tattoos or piercings. Others get fancy-looking ones free in trade for a variety of favors. So don't be so quick to assume the kid has money. And there's a lot I could say about the addictive nature of cigarettes that would make just about anyone prioritize buying them over health care.

Ultimately, though, the real question comes to whether we should have to pay for other people's health care. Actually, if you pay taxes and have private insurance, you already pay for other people's health care.

Few people know that most hospitals (at least those with an ER or the equivalent) fall under EMTALA, a law requiring the hospital to treat anyone who walks in if they meet admission criteria, regardless of their ability to pay. The admitting staff cannot ask about insurance or payment until they determine if they will admit the individual. The purpose is that anyone can get help in life-threatening situations, which I believe is good.

Now many hospitals treat huge numbers of people who have no insurance or whose insurance doesn't cover costs. The hospitals still have to operate. So who gets the bill? Those of us with private insurance. Our costs get higher, so our insurance premiums get higher. This is just one part of the skyrocketing cost of healthcare.

And it's not just life threatening situations. People use the ER or hospital for things many people would seek in a traditional outpatient appointment. In the psych hospital, for instance, we would regularly have people admitted because they ran out of medications. Why didn't they get them filled outpatient? Either they didn't have insurance, or more commonly, they couldn't get an appointment. So now an issue that could have a sub-$100 visit up to a few times a month turns into a $1000 a day treatment for 3-5 days. And private insurance holders subsidize this treatment.

This also gets us to the issue of not having enough providers if universal health care is passed. I used to be strongly persuaded by this argument. But then I started realizing what it meant: I have money, so I can have health care; someone else doesn't have money, so they can't have health care. Is that really fair? Or godly?

There's also some fallacies with it. Go back to our individual who couldn't get an outpatient appointment for med refills or therapy. Sure, there is a paucity of providers for public insurance (at least in California). But part of the problem is that the public insurance reimburses providers at such a low rate, they often cannot cover costs. If everyone had insurance that could reimburse at a decent rate, more providers would likely be able to be available. Oh, and don't forget that we still subsidize outpatient visits. Many providers have a certain number of low income or pro bono slots. How do they compensate for the financial loss there? By getting more money from those who can pay.

So don't think you'll start paying for someone else. You already do. And it's a completely ineffective use of that money. If we're going to pay for others' healthcare, let's do it in a way that works and really helps everyone.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Love, Not Justice, Fulfills the Law

There's a lot of commentary in the aftermath of the verdict in the tragic case of Trayvon Martin. Even I, who now generally avoids the news, couldn't avoid some of the commentary. Because I didn't follow it too closely, I am not at all qualified to determine whether Zimmerman is guilty or not. What I do find more interesting is the strong reactions people have, particularly using the word, justice.

I remembering reading one person (I don't know who) stating something like, "Justice hasn't happened because his death wasn't punished." I find it a sad state of affairs when we equate justice with punishment. This is something I discuss a lot in parent groups when the topic of discipline comes up.

What is the purpose of discipline or justice? Ultimately, it is to set things right. Especially from a disciplinary perspective, psychology has consistently found that reinforcing positive behavior is far more effective than punishing negative behavior, when possible. Research into our "justice" system has discovered the same thing. The consequences society gives to dissuade crime doesn't actually dissuade much crime.

Will continuing to dole out punishments really help people learn? Will that help our society become less racist? Will it help your child learn to value school? It can teach behavioral submission and conformity, but not necessarily the deeper values.

Rather, love and support do this. Acceptance of people where they're at rather than forcing them to be something they're not can actually help them move to a place of change. And remember that acceptance does not mean agreement or approval. There's a lot of good psychological research in this area (DBT is a good place to start on this).

Interestingly, the book of Romans seems to agree. Just look at the second half of Romans 13:10: "love is what fulfills the law." Punishment seems to meet human needs of vengeance. But does it actually do good?

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Return of the Blog

So it's been about 8 months since I last posted on here. Getting ready for a baby and the ensuing fun and challenges of  having a newborn have distracted me a bit from my blogging duties. And that's what they've felt like a lot: Duties. It's interesting to read how so many bloggers absolutely love writing. I don't. But I do like ideas, and I like discussing them. And frankly some of the best ways of really sharing and discussing ideas is through writing. So I've decided to come back and try again, whether or not anyone actually reads them. If nothing else, it will be a good opportunity to consolidate some of my musings. We'll see how it goes this time! :)


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).