Thursday, July 24, 2008


(What Would Jesus Tell You To Do?... in contrast to What Would Jesus Do?)

Just over a year ago, I moved jobs from a publicly owned company to one that is faith-based. Both in the same general industry. When I went through the interview process, I knew that where I was going would be different than where I was coming from. Where I came from, we had meetings that started with our stock price; where I was going, we would have meetings that started with prayer. Where I came from, we listened to the stock market for inspiration; where I was going, we listened to religious teachings. I was at a time in my personal life that I was really looking for something to help me see my way. I'm not one for providence, but I did feel a certain calling to this new company.

My second week on the job, I had a project lead come to my desk and say "Paul, I need your team to make this project I'm working on their top priority! There are three directors' bonuses riding on this project!"


I didn't realize that "make more money for my boss" was explicitly in my job description. Must be under "other duties as assigned." I'll have to discuss this with my boss later.

Over the course of the last year, I've learned that while "this is important because it will make your boss money" is an approach used only by directors who are on their way out of the company, there is a related difference in leadership and goal setting between these two companies. In the former all of the Senior Vice Presidents and above had exactly the same goals -- they won or lost (almost) entirely as a team. In the latter, goals are set individually across divisions without the same shared success and failure.

Two thoughts come to mind:

The first is the simple adage that "Joy shared is joy multiplied; pain shared is pain divided."

The second is the idea of hesed - relational love. (I'm no scholar, but our Sunday school class discussed "love" this year.) It occurs to me that a leadership team where goals are shared (or a company where corporate strategy is shared and well aligned) is very much what I think God is asking us as a people to be, too. In our discussion of love, one of the key concepts was that the love of God brings us closer together and that love and kindness between eachother other brings us closer to God. Common and shared goals bring teams closer together, too. Having those relationships brings them closer to the shared goals; and moving closer to those shared goals also brings them closer together.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Blue Language

I've been following an interesting discussions about swearing/cursing/cussing/bad words in Christian fiction.

From what I understand, profanity is not allowed in novels published by Christian publishing houses, even if they're found in dialogue spoken by non-Christian bad guys.

From literary agent Rachelle Gardner's blog, a question from a writer:

"It seems that many writers and publishers are willing to include rape and murder, but shy away from the occasional well chosen curse word. . . . I do understand that it is often overdone and that many people are offended by cussing. Yet I tend to think that sexual violence is much more disturbing. . . . Why is it ok to push the envelope with violence but not with language in Christian fiction?"

Good question!

The first part of Rachelle's response is solid: the market won't bear it. Many, many people will call the publisher to complain, take their books back to the store, etc. The interesting part (to me!) is this last paragraph:

Why do we allow violence but not cursing? Good question. There is a saying amongst CBA writers that you can have your bad guys kill all the innocent people you want—just don't let them swear while they're doing it. I think one Christian rationale is that the Bible contains plenty of violence. But Jesus didn't go around using curse words to make his point.

I don't really get this part. First, I'd point out that definitions of the idea of "cursing," not to mention specific words included in that category, definitely change over time. (Doesn't Jesus curse at the Pharisees?) And most of us aren't speaking Time-of-Jesus Aramaic with period-appropriate context, so we're relying on others' translations of specific curses. Since we're talking specific language, here, rather than intent, this is important.

Second, I think that this is a classic case of focusing on the letter of the law rather than the intent. How can we care so much more about what someone says when she stubs her toe than we care about how she treats her neighbors? My father was once reprimanded by a parishioner for using the word "dang" from the pulpit.

There's a solid argument to be made, I believe, about the words we're exposed to living on in our heads and coming more easily to our minds (and our tongues). I agree that we should carefully choose that which we decide to ingest.

But the same point can certainly be made about violence, rape, and hatefulness of all kinds. For a while, I stopped watching all crime-related television shows because of the horrific and violent dreams I was having.

One respondent said, Today 20,000 people, mostly children, will die of hunger around the world. Yet most of us Christians still buy Starbucks at $3 a cup, purchase large quantities of brand-name toys for our children, eat out twice a week, and dress in clothing that must look brand-new. Doesn't that speak to more people in a more convincing way? I know that even writing it reminds me of my own faults much more than the phrase "don't give a f*7%."

There are quite a lot of really interesting points made in the long comments section responding to Rachelle's original post.

The sanitization of works by the CBA world reeks of pharisaical attitudes. In Jesus’ day the Pharisees dedicated themselves to developing their own sub-culture and then defending it with scripture. They insisted on perfection, a white-washed tomb perfection. Nothing infuriated Jesus more than that, more than them. He did not come to setup another sanitized culture; He came to establish another kingdom – a kingdom of love and redemption, unafraid to meet each person in their eating-with-the-pigs lifestyle.

I would love to hear what you all think about this issue, especially those of you who are regular readers of CBA fiction (description follows).

Clarification/disclaimer: I haven't read a whole lot of Christian fiction, by which I specifically mean "CBA" fiction, that which is published by Christian publishing houses, intended for Christian readers, and revolving around Christian themes. I certainly read Christian nonfiction books, and I find a lot of the mainstream fiction I read to contain (often strong) Christian elements. Note that Jan Karon is published by Penguin, not a Christian imprint or publisher, so is "mainstream" fiction (ABA) rather than Christian fiction (CBA) despite being a Christian author who writes Christian fiction. I read and enjoy Jan Karon. I hope that's clear? In short: I find the discussion intriquing, but my personal experience here is somewhat limited.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Who found whom?

The "finding Jesus" concept rings fresh in our Presbyterian ears in light of the recent petition from some seminary leadership to reemphasize "adoption" in our version of the Heidelberg Confession. Their words were: "Specifically, it (the current PC [USA] translation) distorts Reformed accounts of God’s covenant (4.019, 4.074) and of redemption and eschatology (4.055) and obscures the Reformed teaching of our adoption in Christ (4.033)."

Do we choose to be God's children - and live our lives as such because we said we would - or is our faithfulness an irresistible response to God's grace? Could we refuse to allow God to find us? Could we know that God found us and not find that remarkable?

Lieutenant Dan asked Forrest Gump why people persisted in asking if he had "found" Jesus, only later to experience for himself God's power in the storm and find some personal peace as a result. Encountering God's magnificence may, at times, come as a result of our choice to engage God in conversation.

Could it be a both/and?

We cannot gain God's grace by our own good merit or effort because God's grace predates us - we were claimed by God before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1). So it seems that God's action absolves us of the "finding" responsibility, and, theoretically, should launch us into a pretty heartfelt quest to find out more about the One who found us worthy to be made, named and claimed in the first place.

Oh yes, and recognize that others are equally claimed and named.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Have You Found Jesus, Yet?

"Excuse me. Have you found Jesus?"
"I didn't know he was lost!"

I can guarantee the first person I heard that joke from was my father. He's a high school science teacher and renowned for his love of puns.

Whenever I think about questions of science versus faith, dogma versus adaptation, or Christianity versus whatever, I think about my Dad. He was a missionary in Turkey for 11 years with the Church World Service, has been a high school science teacher for 30 years, and always has a way of making things seem very obvious and simple. His perspective on controversial topics (like evolution, Islam, full acceptance of homosexuality, sex-ed, capital punishment) is that we know what the right choices are because we understand many view points. It doesn't mean you have to agree with others, but the more you know about those other viewpoints, the more you know about your own beliefs.

When people ask my Dad questions like "how do you reconcile science and your Christianity?"

He looks at them quizzically. "I don't understand what you're asking. Everything I learn through science enhances my faith, brings me closer to Christ."

He has a way of making it sound like he just said "Why am I wet? I only got splashed with water."

Monday, July 7, 2008

My Controversial View on Marriage - A Response

Ah, my husband, my heart. I disagree!

More accurately, I do agree with your first point, that churches should be able to decide who they'll marry. But I disagree that the civil aspect of marriage should be completely divorced from the religious aspect.

Philosophically, I agree with you about the separation of church and state, but in practice I don't agree that it can - or should - be a complete separation, just a fair one.

I believe in the importance of organized religion in our culture. I believe in the importance of standing up before our community: our friends, our family, our God, and our brothers and sisters in Christ to proclaim our marriage vows. And I believe that marriage - religious and spiritual as well as civil - is an integral support pole of that framework.

I believe that if religious marriage ceremonies were completely divorced from the necessary civil ceremonies to confer the legal rights and privileges of marriage upon a couple, then fewer couples would seek out religious marriage ceremonies.

I think you agree with me on that, and I concede your point that the remaining core would be more serious, more devoted than those who currently get married in a church simply because it's the thing to do.

But I think that would be bad for society, bad for marriage, and bad for churches.

To the latter point, I'm thinking of the many many young people (ourselves included) who decide to stop church shopping and settle down with a congregation when they decide to get married. Sure, some are just after the discount on the sanctuary, but others (ourselves included!) become active members of the church. (And weddings bring in money, too.)

That's just the pragmatic stuff. Numbers numbers numbers. Money money money. I believe that marriage and organized religion are a big part of what holds our society together, and I believe that they need to be encouraged, not discouraged, as the number of practicing religious folk worldwide continues to decline.

Here it is in action, Presbyterians on different sides of an issue, talking it out and keeping the conversation alive.

Friday, July 4, 2008

My Controversial View on Marriage

Whenever I discuss same-sex-marriage with people who have the same general view point that I do (pro), I get a surprised response. My position on same-sex-marriage is that:
  1. Individual churches or denominations should be allowed to govern what they consider to be appropriate for the rite or sacrament of marriage based on the rules of their own form of government; but
  2. The legal privileges and rights associated with what the government refers to as "marriage" should be governed by government alone.
For me, it's an issue of separation of church and state. I'd like to have the religious debate be separate from the civil debate. I'm not naive enough to think that's really possible, but I think that it can help clarify the issue from a legal and judicial perspective.

Think about the abortion debate: the court has somewhat protected itself from moral debate by creating a more logical, scientific framework for discussion. When does life begin? The court has a strong history of protecting the idea that murder is wrong and should be punished (with some specific exceptions like self defense). So, anyone who wants to debate the legality of specific abortion techniques or situations with court has had to do so within the framework of "when does life begin?"

Back to marriage.

I haven't really formulated for myself where the same kind of legal precedence for the civil act/state of marriage comes from. My working theory, though, is that civil marriage is about telling the government that you want to share certain legal authority, privileges, and responsibilities with another person - not in a corporate way as if you were forming a corporate partnership or something like that - in a personal way. In civil marriage, you indicate that there is one other person that you trust to make certain decision on behalf of the two of you (within the restriction of any and all premarital agreements). Admittedly, I'm still working on the right way to phrase this. To dissuade doomsday theorists - I'd argue that government has the authority to determine the nature of how its laws are shared by citizens, to ensure the legal protection of everyone involved. We wouldn't have to legalize polygamy and human-animal marriage.

On the other hand, faith-marriage would have an entirely different set of laws and governance, specific to the faith in which the marriage is sanctified. In the case of PC(USA), we're still figuring out where we stand on that. Some more progressive faiths already perform marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples, but can't affirm them as a civil marriage. More conservative faiths would continue to reject same-sex marriage, and likely continue internal debate on the issue.

But a faith-marriage would not provide the legal rights and responsibilities associated with a civil-marriage. The same couple would have to present themselves to a legal authority for that.

I also think the language has to change. In my version, "marriage" is the faith-union, "something else" is the legal-union. Maybe: civil union, personal partnership, nuptial. [I actually like that last one, maybe. It's not so sterile as "civil union."]

My point is that I think this breakdown is necessary to make the debate constructive:

Keep the faith-oriented part of the discussion within the church - what is the best course of action and decision to make within our community of faith based on our interpretation of what we consider to be the relevant body of knowledge? [Vague enough!?]

Keep the legal part of the discussion within the courts - what is the best course of action and decision to make within the aims and goals of existing laws and precedences? [Still hard to interpret, but a bit less subjective!]

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

but he was asleep

I have always loved the story of Jesus quieting the storm. To think that Jesus was with the disciples the whole time the storm was brewing and raging – asleep! How many times in our lives, or the lives of our faith communities, do we face seemingly terrifying situations forgetting that Jesus is with us. When we are sure we have been abandoned by God and something terrible is about to happen – we need only 'wake him up.'

I, for one, am comforted by a God who is present, yet asleep; responsive to the fears and cries of the people of faith. In a world filled with Christians who specialize in the storm-tracking-hype of impending calamity, we need more people who know that Jesus is already in the boat with them, ready, willing and able to bring calm. 

"Why are you afraid?" he asks. Why indeed?

"Get into the boat"

"Get into the boat. Go across the lake. There will be a storm. You will not die."

--The Rev. Gradye Parsons
Stated Clerk of the General Assembly
June 28, 2008

When I read this letter discussing the recent decisions regarding PC(USA) ordination standards, Rev. Parsons' quote struck me as both inspirational and pragmatic. As Presbyterians, we seek discernment; we consider; we send out to committee for assessment; we pray and ponder. Eventually, we make decisions that formally express to others how we see the Word brought to life in the world around us. When we decide is when I'm most energized, but in the consideration and discernment, I'm most proud.

I hope that Rev. Parsons will forgive me for parsing his quote, but here is my application of that message to the situation we are in:

Get into the boat...
There's a good chance that some individual churches might consider this a crucial time to consider the future of the continuity of the denomination or specifically their own membership in the denomination. No matter how much many of us wish this were the end of the discussion, the exact opposite is true. The point at which decisions are made is a time for renewed dialogue rather than a time to end open relationships. We're all in this boat together.

Go across the lake...
This is a time for us to go on a journey together and arrive at the destination together. We may disagree on the destination, what path to take, who should row and who should steer; but in the end, it is in being together in right relationships with each other (rather than contentious or confrontational ones) that we're able to experience hesed. We must journey together as one.

There will be a storm...
I believe that we can only truly know ourselves after experiencing turmoil and questioning what we think we know? Life is alive because of the storms that we experience: internal strife debating what is right to do, external factors forcing us to make hasty decisions, confrontation with others after intended or unintended offenses, disagreements on which direction is most correct or least wrong. As the narrow margin of the vote indicates (54 / 46), we as a denomination are not of one single mind on the issue. People with many different perspectives will come together, clash, and settle... and change. Come together, clash, and settle... and change.

You will not die...
Change happens only through a journey. And the end of each journey is merely the beginning of another. This action of the GA is about going on a journey together. One that changes the way we discuss ordination and the ways in which God calls us together. If we don't change the way in which we discuss the issues that our current societies must address, then our discussion cannot be effective. The only situation in which we "die" is when when fail to change, when we choose to stop journeying together.

Some churches have begun posting information about their push to intentionally and methodically divide the denomination, creating relationships between our churches that are explicitly more separate. I hope that, instead, we can continue the dialogue together: as a denomination, as individual churches that will be inevitably divided in opinion; as a nation; as communities; and as humans. Times of contention are times for coming together to build relationships that will make us stronger and more able to survive the inherent turmoil in our current situation and the other storms that we are sure to encounter in the future.

As a denomination and through our representatives and leaders, we have discerned and studied and voted and changed. We are at one ending... and another beginning. In spite of our differences on whether the changes are consistent with teachings or not, I would expect us to agree that we are taught to build relationships that bring us closer together rather than further apart (especially in situations that naturally divide us).