Friday, December 12, 2008

You Know Things That God Himself Does Not

I mentioned in a previous post that with school out for the semester, I am catching up on my elective reading, especially theological essays. It strikes me, just how similar the tone is at times between the stridently religious and the stridently political, even when the authors are atheist or intensely secular. There is a habit in both groups to demand agreement and to launch invective at people expressing contrary opinions. Huh.

Anyway, reading through this stuff it hit me that doctrine and dogma are very often overstated, and the major lessons are sometimes missed. What’s odd is that people so obviously familiar with Scripture, nonetheless miss the clear examples where God warns us not to become legalistic, to work to persuade through love rather than threats, to offer hope rather than contempt. Look at the lessons in the biblical book of Ruth, a Moabite woman through whom the lineage of King David runs. Look at the first Pharaoh in Genesis, the one who rose up Joseph to privilege and power through respect for his ability and integrity. Switching to the New Testament, many people vaguely recall the Roman Centurion whose faith was praised by Christ, but they forget that he was not only no Jew, there is no evidence that he became a formal disciple of Christ either. And then, of course, there is the loudest message – the one we know as the Good Samaritan. Jesus warned people many times that God looks at the heart, not the sign on the door – remember how he said that when a tax collector and a Pharisee both prayed to God, only the tax collector was reconciled, because he asked for mercy and was contrite, while the Pharisee was arrogant?

I am not saying that doctrine and dogma are not important in their own right, but we need to make sure we have our hearts right first. And nowhere is that more obvious, than when we consider the strange paradox that while God is omniscient and Man is not, we know things that God does not know!

Here’s how that works: God is absolutely pure, and therefore no sinful man may enter into His presence. As a result, even the slightest sin is an eternal barrier between us, and so represents a formidable problem, which Christ resolved by taking the penalty unto Himself on our behalf. Therefore, promises the Lord, our sins are not merely forgiven as humans think of the word, but taken away as if they never were, so that they may not in any way be a barrier between God and the people He loves. If any of us were to see God in Heaven and mention our sins from the past, he would tell us frankly and honestly, ‘I do not know what you mean. What sin?’

We, however, do remember our own sins (and many of us make a point to remember as many sins committed by other people as possible); even the Bible details sins by such heroes as David and Paul. I say ‘heroes’ not to excuse their sins, but to point out that those two are clear examples of men whose sins were forgiven, yet we also know, thousands of years later, what some of those sins were. As a result, we mortal humans actually know some things which God has denied to Himself. Oh, the logic of it makes sense to me, but it means that the Almighty has chosen to accept limited omniscience in order to be true to His word. The implications of that choice are frankly staggering, but also for another place and time.

For here, we humans might do well to ask ourselves whether our moral bearings are as true as we like to claim, and whether we ourselves might do well to put aside details and choose to see each other according to grace and hope rather than indictment and accusation.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

God in Poopy Diapers

I like reading about a variety of opinions, and I often find religious debates invigorating. This week I am brushing up on eschatology, and I found some very interesting essays. But I noticed as I read, that many of them were hostile to interpretations other than their own. One Lutheran writer not only held the amillenial position, he regarded all others as “devilish” and “heretical”, and went to so far as to say that anyone who wrote in defense of an opinion different from his own was working for Satan. Rather a strident tack to take in discussing the words of fellow Christians. I do indeed understand that the fellow is convinced that the subject is of great importance and that he has great confidence in his own interpretation of things, but I could not help but wonder if he had stopped to test his own assumptions, while denouncing such behavior in other writers.

That’s not a knock on Lutherans, but on anyone so sure they are right that they figure it’s time for the rest of the world to agree with them or just shut up. And as the last several thousand years of human history shows, that’s been as common in religion as in any other place. The Gospel accounts warn us that the Jewish religious officials had become stiff-necked and legalistic, just as the Egyptians were during their day, the Babylonians during theirs, the Romans during theirs, the Roman Catholics before the Reformation, and so on. Pretty much every religious group which gets a bit of power, abuses it, whether the Baptists, the Lutherans, the Anglicans … et cetera, et cetera ad nauseum. This is one reason why so many people reject religion altogether, being put off by the worse elements in the world of faith, but that ignores the great good done by people of faith, and to my mind the essential truth of God. Not that I have it all figured out, but I do respect the many works done by people who claim allegiance to a creator and holy person. If we should note those who claim God as if he were a possession of theirs or their employee, so also we should respect the humble yet worthy efforts to increase understanding and goodwill done by those who think and act in terms of love and compassion. Which brings me to Christ Jesus.

I speak from the perspective and experience of a Christian, and therefore my opinion is that the man Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, who redeemed Mankind from sin and evil for all time, the only begotten Son of the Most High God. I mean no disrespect to any other beliefs, but speak from what I know as true. Anyway, one of the great truths about Christ, but one which often is quickly forgotten by believers, is that despite His right to glory and power, Jesus lived a life of hardship and poverty, one He accepted without complaint, indeed one he specifically chose. I believe He did so for many reasons, including the proof that anyone can be truly good if their heart is pure, and money or power or influence are convenient luxuries, but not really essential for doing good works. I also think this ties in to something Christ warned His disciples about, that to enter what he called the ‘kingdom of Heaven’, that they must “become as little children”. As in helpless, totally dependant on their parents, completely open and honest in all things. Imagine a toddler, unable to even change his soiled diapers on his own, and then imagine the Lord God deliberately choosing to subject His very person to such a condition, dependant on the creations to whom he had granted life and free will, and who had inevitably screwed up everything given to their trust. For all the doctrines of authority and power, of ultimate destiny and so on, the creator of all Creation once laid in a manger, wholly dependant on the love of humans for His own survival and welfare. He walked among ordinary people and shared all of their common experiences, including the ones which involved pain and loss. Jesus lived as a man, honest and without offense against any other person. The worst true claims His enemies could make against Him, included the admission that he helped people, as in ‘Jesus healed on the Sabbath’.

This is the season Christians call ‘Advent’, when we might do well to consider Christ the child, who chose the life of a poor itinerant preacher as the model for true goodness.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

I Need A New Word

I need a new word, one which can describe two apparent contradictions existing at the same time, like an oxymoron but carrying more the emphasis of the extreme nature of the opposites. Such a word might be used to describe Rod Blagojevich, a man who was smart and savvy enough to get himself elected governor of Illinois, yet stupid enough to not only think selling a seat for the United States Senate for personal gain was a winning idea, but moronic enough to think he could get away with it. Aside from the ethics of his apparent crime, one wonders how Governor Blagojevich could have been so short-sighted. As governor of one of the nation’s most important states, Blagojevich certainly held many attractive personal opportunities for his life after leaving office, but he threw them away for the chance at relatively small short-term gains. This guy crushed every hope for his own future, to say nothing of staining the honor of his office, through an ignoble and frankly stupid decision.

This is hardly the first time that smart people have done stupid things. Politically, the most infamous case would have to be Richard Nixon, who was caught covering up crimes committed by friends of his because of his own secret tape recording system – it somehow never occurred to Nixon to destroy the tapes before they were discovered, or better yet, not to say incriminating things in a place he knew would record everything said. The man brilliant enough to play the communist regimes in Moscow and Beijing against each other, was too stupid to remember his own tape system. Go figure.

Other Presidents have shown symptoms of the same disorder. George W Bush thought he could trust the Democrats to keep their word on agreements, just as his father did. Honorable but dumb. Bill Clinton thought he could lie his way out of the Lewinsky scandal, forgetting the Watergate lesson that the cover-up is worse than the crime. Ronald Reagan even fell into that trap, making a deal with Iran that he wrongly believed would never become public knowledge. Carter, despite his doctorate, was conned into believing that the Ayatollah was a man of peace. And so on through the pantheon of ‘great’ men.

So, what should we call this behavior, this odd habit of capable and intelligent people doing stupid things, of nominally honorable men giving in to poor judgment or poor morals? I wanna know.

Grief, Honor, Prayer

Monday, a Marine Corps F/A-18D crashed into a San Diego neighborhood, killing four family members, including two children. The incident is under investigation.

Dong Yun Yoon, a naturalized citizen who was born in South Korea, lost his wife, mother-in-law, and his two children, ages 15 months and 2 months. From the CNN report, Yoon said “"I cannot believe that they are not here right now. I know there are many people who have experienced more terrible things, but please, tell me how to do it. I don't know what to do."

By itself, this story would be a horrific tragedy, a man who has lost everything due to something he could never have possibly foreseen or prevented. But what struck me was the character of the man, speaking even in his grief about the pilot of the plane:

"He is one of our treasures for the country," Yoon said in accented English punctuated by long pauses while he tried to maintain his composure.

"I don't blame him. I don't have any hard feelings. I know he did everything he could,"

I try to be a good man, but I have to say that I do not know if I could find such honorable words for the pilot, were I standing in Mr. Yoon’s shoes right now. I could forgive the pilot, maybe, but it would be hard to show the grace that Mr. Yoon did in this place and time. It only reinforces the fact to me that here is a good man who is suffering a terrible, unbearable pain unjustly, even if it is no one’s fault.

If you are a praying person like me, please add Dong Yun Yoon to your prayer list, a good and kind man who needs and deserves solace and comfort in this time.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

True Power

I like to read for relaxation, and occasionally watch movies. I have noticed that a lot of them like to show a person as powerful by demonstrating their ability to kill and destroy. Certainly that is a kind of power, but when you think about it not so great a power. Killing, for example. Certainly I regard a person as dangerous, who would kill someone for no good reason, or who could carelessly cost lives. But I do not really consider that kind of person as truly powerful. After all, sooner or later we all die, and that includes the killers. And a small shift in circumstances can easily change who has the greater killing power. The same Nazis who thought themselves so powerful while they ran death camps for Jews and other sorts of people they wished to remove, found they could not stop either the Soviet or American armies, nor the judgments of those courts which considered their actions heinous even by human standards. In the end, murder and all the gruesome lot of deliberate death are shown to be useless or worse, a mental disorder. The power to kill is only truly a power when it is combined with a worthy ideal, such as removing the Nazis was worth the cost.

Similarly, other crimes prove, on reflection, to be no demonstration of puissance. A man who can rape a woman is only an animal, and a sick one at that. The ability to enslave people only proves the lack of humanity, not a superior quality of such. In the end, all coercive and destructive force tends to detract from the person, not validate their authenticity. There are several qualities that a real person exhibits, qualities which manifestation defines and demonstrates their true power. They are integrity, credibility, trustworthiness, selflessness, duty, valor, wisdom, faith, and hope. Few enough people have any of those qualities to any great degree, and it is a rare person indeed who exhibits them all, but we should all be minded to seek out and develop those qualities in our own lives, for in them we find the tools to true power, the ability to create, to heal, to teach, to defend, to uplift, to set right and to make community. In short, to make what is, better.

Monday, December 08, 2008

It’s Only Money --- And Your Hopes, Dreams, and Future

My older daughter Andrea got herself married yesterday. Kind of a strange situation there, being that she is my wife’s daughter from her first marriage, which is only important in that as the step-dad I had no official role in the event; her birth father walked her down the aisle, my wife is the bride’s mother, and my birth daughter Jagan was the flower girl. Me, I got to hold the coats and various accessories and stay out of the way. On the positive side, I think I stayed out of the way pretty well. Got a few good pictures too. The wedding was at the A.D. Bruce Chapel on the campus of the University of Houston, and the weather was perfect.

Seeing your kids get married is always bittersweet. On the one hand, it’s a great day to see them commit to a life together with the one they have chosen. On the other hand, you really worry about all the things your kid still needs to learn, especially the mistakes you made and hoped you could keep your child from making. Without going into details, there are many places where I would have hoped that my daughter would have listened to good advice, usually from her mother, which is of course the reason she ignores it – I believe that a lot of kids resist admitting that their parents are right about anything, or that they could need their parents once they are themselves adults. Been there myself, y’know?

That ‘don’t listen to anyone else’ mindset is not limited to kids, though. In business, I often see new managers decide to rip up and replace everything and everyone. Many times that means destroying the good with the bad, and what comes in may not be as good as what was lost. In discussing the problems with the automakers, some astute readers pointed out that some of the executives have not been there long, and have actually been working effectively at problems which are simply too big and which have been around too long already to be answered quickly with a few smart moves. What I have found to be the most effective practice, is for the new boss to take some time to be sure of what’s going on and who’s doing what before taking action or committing to a decision – you cannot depend on just what you think is the case, or what some people tell you is going on. You often need a broader and deeper perspective than what you have coming in, which is why you should consider the contribution your predecessor may be able to offer. Despite the partisanship, many outgoing presidents are able and willing to assist the new chief executive with what they know about the most important issues and policies. While a changing administration may well mean a sea change in policy direction, it is nonetheless important to understand how and why the prior president reached the decisions he did. I am curious to see if President Obama proves to be as wise as I hope my 24-year-old daughter will be.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

No Blogging Today - No Wallet Tomorrow

My oldest daughter gets married today.

I, with or without my sanity, will be back on Monday ... hopefully.