Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Book Review - The Irresistible Revolution by Shaine Claiborne

If anyone pays any attention to my reading list, they must think I am a slow reader. It takes me a long time to get through the books I list here. I read fiction now and then and actually manage to return books to the library in a reasonable amount of time, but the "morning books" are a slow go. Too many of my mornings allow no time to make progress in anything beyond the Bible.

This morning I finished a book I have been working on for several months -- The Irresistible Revolution: Living As an Ordinary Radical by Shaine Claiborne. The author is a self-described radical. He does ministry in the inner city of Philadelphia. When the U.S. declared war on Iraq, he went to Iraq to minister to the people there. He has sneaked into an event where the President of the United States was speaking, passing himself off as a journalist and then removing his outer business attire to expose a t-shirt with words of protest. He has been arrested multiple times for civil disobedience.

This book was not a waste of my time. It is readable and thought-provoking. It gave me a nudge to nurture my natural pacifism. It challenged me to find ways to minister to people living in poverty. It encouraged me by presenting a snapshot of one person's take on what it looks like to take the teachings of Jesus Christ seriously.

This is a book that makes me feel like I've been listening to the author speak of his personal experience rather than reading about it. Every word is written in the voice of the author. I can imagine myself in a crowd of people listening to him speak. And in my imagined picture, I imagine myself interacting with him. Only, that part doesn't work. When I approach him, he doesn't see me. He looks past me for someone more interesting. Ordinary, law-abiding citizens bore him. He's looking for people living more obviously radical lifestyles than mine.

Now, I may be very wrong about Mr. Claiborne. He may actually enjoy exploring ministry possibilities with ordinary people trying to invest their lives in ways that bless those around them, particularly in the needy people in their world. But his book is written in a tone that leaves me feeling hopelessly dull and lacking in spiritual fervor. I'm not ready to give up my current community to seek out a more exotic setting in the inner city. If everyone who cares about needy people went to the inner city, who would care about those trapped in destructive lifestyles in less populated areas? I'm also not quite willing to accept his underlying message that says real Christians live in ways that stir up the government to oppose them. I suppose that if I looked hard enough I could find some form of local injustice that requires fighting the government to correct. But I don't have to look nearly so hard to find ways to minister to people in ways that please governing authorities by addressing community needs that aren't easily addressed by government -- e.g., literacy, adult education, and spiritual needs.

I think I may be too old for this book. I've long outgrown any desire I might have had in my younger years to stir up trouble for myself by bringing the negative attention of authority figures my direction. Actually, I get along quite well with authority figures. Maybe I'm just fortunate to live in a place where the government is more interested in building community than in oppressing needy people. Or maybe I'm blind and my blindness survived this attempt to open my eyes.

This book wasn't a waste of my time to read. It gave me a view of an alternative approach to Christian living. It's good for me to see how other people are living out the teachings of Jesus Christ. Reading it reminded me that ministry happens outside the four walls of the church. But it gave me no ideas for law-abiding ministry in my rural community. Mr. Claiborne wouldn't find nearly enough excitement and challenge in my world. While people were struggling with drunk-driving citations and literacy and economic issues, the most likely action I can imagine for him would be to move into a tepee set up outside the gates of the local Navy base in protest against the war, inconveniencing the civilian employees there by forcing the base to go on high danger alert. (This scenario doesn't take all that much imagination on my part. It has already been done in protest of some other military action.)

In summary, I'm not unhappy about the time I invested in reading the book, but it won't get a permanent spot on my bookshelves. If someone wants to read it, I'll mail it to the first person who asks.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Funerals and universalism

We had a death in the family this week, temporarily stopping our world in order to deal with all that comes at such times. As a family member only by marriage, my role was observatory in nature as much as anything. It's interesting to listen to people at such times.

I spend a lot of time immersed in the evangelical subculture, where the world is neatly divided into "saved" and "unsaved", Christian and nonbeliever. The strongest mission of evangelicals is to evangelize - identify the unsaved and persuade them to get saved. We are warned often of the importance of warning the unsaved that they are hellbound if they don't become saved. Death ends all chances of salvation.

So then someone dies. And out come the platitudes.

"He's in a better place now."
"At least she's not suffering any longer."
"He'll be waiting over yonder for you."

Even if the deceased was the target of evangelism before death, one must be kind.

"May God have mercy on his soul."
"We never know what change of heart she may have had before she breathed her last breath."

In the end, we seem to vote for universalism, for all to be given a heavenly reward, regardless of the life they lived. Who wants to tell the grieving family, "Well, I guess that's it. Life is over. We'll just have to accept that she's gone forever"? Even worse would be to say, "You know, I'm not sure he was a proper Christian. I'm guessing that eternal punishment awaits him."

Death seems to prompt people to express some interesting beliefs about death and heaven. Someone told me that people refuse to die in the presence of those who love them deeply, that they will linger through endless days of round-the-clock vigilance and die when the one who loves them steps away for just a moment. It was the first I heard of this pattern. The message behind it seemed to be one of comfort for those who went to great lengths to stay close and then somehow missed the actual moment of death.

From what I hear, people believe that those who die are immediately escorted into heaven, that they can observe those who are left behind, that they experience instant healing, and that they are waiting anxiously for us to join them. When push comes to shove, they don't seem to have a very firm belief that anyone they loved would be in any danger of experiencing eternal punishment. Or maybe it's the ones who have such optimistic beliefs who do the most talking, while those who fear for the soul of the dearly departed, speak more of comfort for those left behind.

I don't have a problem with any of these beliefs. I don't know what happens after death. As I wrote in my last post, I'm "betting the farm" on some type of hereafter for those who are followers of Jesus Christ, a life with more than enough joys to compensate for any loss we might experience in this life. By which I mean that I'm not making choices as though this life is all there is. However, I'm not betting anything at all on the literal reality of some sort of eternal punishment. Universalism, the belief that all will be "saved" in the end, doesn't particularly bother me. It simply interests me that it seems to be so firmly rejected by many in regard to those who are living and so much more acceptable in the face of death and grieving. When kindness and compassion are in great need, people tend to view God as more forgiving than at other times. Or maybe those with more orthodox beliefs concerning heaven and hell stand silent while those who aren't afraid to express universalistic views speak up.

In this case, it doesn't really matter because the deceased had made a statement of faith before he died. Everyone present who believes in heaven in any form could rejoice that he had passed from suffering to his eternal reward. And mourn the loss of the good days when he was healthy and active in this life. Death is sad even with a strong belief in a blessed afterlife, simply because of the grief of those who are left behind.

It has been a difficult week and there will be difficult days to come. Belief in an afterlife never quite succeeds in eliminating grief in the face of death.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Postmodernism and Absolute Truth

In his book The Church in Transition: The Journey of Existing Churches into the Emerging Culture Tim Conder lists "seven deadly fears" concerning the emerging forms of worship. The first "deadly fear" is: Postmodernism and the loss of 'truth'. My observation is that Conder was spot on in putting this fear at the top of his list. I have encountered more hand-wringing over this one perceived aspect of postmodernism than any other.

I am postmodern enough to be quite resistant to those who insist that there is absolute truth and that they know what it is. It's not that I don't believe in absolute truth. I actually do. For example, I believe that there is either a divine Creator or there is not. Absolutely. The choices are existence or non-existence, and whichever is true is absolutely true.

So I'm right in there with all the people telling me there is absolute truth. Right up to the point where they present an example of an absolute truth. At that point, they've lost me. How can they be certain that they have discovered the truth? What is their absolutely reliable source for that discovery? Why does their version of absolute truth differ from another person's? Which version is the absolute truth about absolute truth?

In other words, as a postmodern thinker, I (a) absolutely believe in absolute truth; (b) doubt that it's humanly possible to absolutely determine the absolute truth about anything.

The reason so many people involved in organized religion are so afraid of that position is because to accept it would leave them in the position of possibly discovering that there is no truth behind their faith. If there is no God/Allah/Great Spirit/Creator, then all religion is a waste of devotion. If Jesus Christ was not God in flesh, Christianity has no validity.

Many people believe in Jesus Christ as the conveyor of absolute truth about God and man. So do I. Where we differ is that I am aware that I may be completely mistaken. And I'm all right with that. I have looked hard at the possibility and choose to risk being wrong. I'm not the first to figure out that there's less risk in mistakenly believing in a God and in life after death than in mistakenly denying the existence of more than I can see. I choose to believe because I'm capable of believing and have found that believing brings great reward even here and now in terms of joy and peace.

What intrigues me is how the absolute truth advocates sometimes stop short in their faith. They are positive there is a God. They are positive that "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16 KJV)" But I sometimes wonder if they truly believe that God loves them and me and the lesbian couple next door. I wonder if they truly believe that the joys of heaven will overwhelmingly make up for the sorrows of this life. It seems that they are reluctant to step beyond what they "know" and make a choice to believe what seems less obvious to them.

Several "watershed moments" in my life have involved decisions to "bet the farm" on a particular aspect of the Christian faith. For example, there was a moment when I decided to "bet the farm" on "heaven" (or a new earth to be more scripturally accurate). That's not just a head decision, it's a radical lifestyle decision. It allows me to accept less from life with less grief. I do not seek to grab all the gusto in this life as though this is all there is. I may never do the things I have dreamed of doing in my lifetime, but I choose to believe that, in the life to come, I will not regret the things left undone on this earth.

Another "watershed moment" was when I decided to "sign up" for 'Sermon on the Mount' living. You know, turning the other cheek, going the second mile, forgiving those who trespass against me, that sort of thing. The absolute truth people warn me that one mustn't take such teachings too literally, that Christians have to fight for their rights, that we can't just lie down and be doormats. However, I decided to try it. I'm still trying. It turns out that I'm not a very good doormat. I keep finding myself back up on my feet. So I dig in a little deeper, try to lie a little flatter. And it seems to be a quite satisfying way to live in those times when I manage to pull it off.

Yes, I believe in absolute truth. Either (a) believing the teachings of Jesus Christ and incorporating those teachings into one's lifestyle brings abundant and eternal life or (b) it doesn't. Or maybe those teachings have limited value. There's absolute truth somewhere in the spectrum of possibilities. I'm sure that it's there, I just don't know what it is. But -- to bring in one more metaphor -- I'm putting all my eggs into one basket. And things are looking better and better all the time. At this point in my life (49 years and 10 months), I'm ready to say that even if the eternal life part doesn't pan out, the joys of living here and now have more than made up for anything I've sacrificed thus far in the name of Christianity.

Those looking in at postmodernity from the outside seem quite certain that one must be absolutely convinced that Jesus Christ is the only path to God in order to be a committed Christian. But doesn't faith by definition involve choosing to believe what has not been proven? Why would we insist on knowing for sure that our "faith" is not in vain?

Thursday, November 08, 2007

My Internal Timekeeper

For 16 years, I was out of the job market, a stay-at-home mom, no employment, no time-cards, no pay. Now I have a part-time job, no immediate supervisor, no time-card, modest pay. I'm finding it difficult to adjust to being employed. At first it was just a few hours a week and I was paid for what I worked. However, a couple of years ago, I moved to a salary and have been trying to raise my total hours per week since then. I'm only aiming for 23 hours a week. It shouldn't be that hard. But it is.

I think I have zeroed in on at least part of the problem: my internal timekeeper. It was developed during all of those busy years of being a full-time mother plus juggling multiple volunteer jobs plus trying to carve out time for personal interests. It operates somewhere below my conscious cognitive processes and has this capability of figuring out exactly how long any particular task will take under pressure.

The "under pressure" part is a key to this. Suppose that I need to prepare for a monthly library board meeting. I could spend hours doing so. I could review past board minutes for outstanding issues. I could work up a fancy agenda. I could send out reminders of the meeting to all of the members. I could write up a detailed report of my activities since the last meeting. I could analyze the statistics to report trends in the library. I could study the financial picture for the library and create charts and graphs. However, my internal timekeeper considers what must absolutely be done in preparation for the meeting and decides that it will take me no longer than an hour of working at maximum efficiency to prepare at some minimum level of adequacy. It then suggests to some subconscious part of my decision-making process that there's no need to start my preparations more than an hour before the meeting.

While all this is going on, the conscious part of my daily planner has decided to start early on my board meeting preparations and get them out of the way. However, other options for investing my time, some important, some not, some urgent, some not, step in and vie for my time. And my internal timekeeper says, "Sure, go ahead and do that. You really only need an hour to get ready for the meeting."

This creates some serious problems for me. That internal timekeeper is concerned only with checking off the most pressing tasks on my to-do list. It has no regard for investing time today in tasks that could be put off until tomorrow or next week or forever. It doesn't care about the whole 23 hours per week goal. It releases me to do actual work "on the clock" only if it determines the tasks I will be doing will be either interesting, important, or urgent. It likes to work under pressure. After all, I'm a much more efficient worker when I have only one hour to do what can be done in an hour but could be stretched to three. If I have three hours before the deadline for that project, I can either take three hours to do it or ignore the approaching deadline until only one hour is left. I find it impossible to do the one hour of work needed three hours ahead of the deadline and then fill those other two hours efficiently.

Something has to change. Now that I have become aware of how my internal timekeeper is undermining my conscious planning efforts, I need to find a way to control it.

Meanwhile, however, I find it fascinating that this ability exists below my conscious level to make a quite accurate assessment of exactly how long a task will take to accomplish at maximum efficiency. Packing for a trip? Three hours without pressure, 20 minutes with. Preparing a Sunday School lesson? Three hours to do dynamically, one hour to do adequately. And at some level, I have determined that the difference between adequate and dynamic is not worth the extra two hours.

Right now I need to be using my one day off this week to accomplish multiple goals. And right now my internal timekeeper is sorting through the deadlines for and importance of those goals and discarding most of them as less interesting, important, or urgent than making this post. It's reducing my to-do list to the bare minimum that must be done today and calculating how much time it will take to do only the bare essentials. While I was counting on accomplishing much in this day at one level, it was looking at my true interests and condensing everything else down to make room for the things that give me the most pleasure right now.

Self-control. I need to take responsibility for my schedule, for my priorities, for how I invest my time. Because what gives me the most pleasure right now is seldom the same thing that will make me feel good about a day at its close. Which means I need to reach down into the realm of my internal timekeeper and break it to my conscious will. I need to get a harness on it and use its surprising skills consciously rather than allowing it to derail my schedule by authorizing procrastination.

I wonder how that is done.