...are the ones that make the biggest difference



Well, I just completed my last final for this semester. In my nursing fundamentals class I'm almost guaranteed an A. In my pharmacology class, its all but impossible that I get an A. Even with a possible extra credit assignment, I would need to have scored 98% on my final to get an A, which is pegged at a frustrating 93%. I've been unable to break 91% all semester long. So I guess I'll be happy with a B. Well, not happy exactly, but its acceptable.

Sign of the times, though. In preparing for the final, I was typing up answers to a painfully comprehensive study guide. For those of you unfamiliar with the drug naming system in use today, they're all made up and frequently quite unusual. Just about every drug name I typed into Word gave me one of those red-squiggly-hey-idiot-did-you-mean-to-spell-"the"-"teh"-? things, except for the really common ones like acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Oh, and viagra. Yup, viagra has become so commonplace its even on Word's pathetically incomplete dictionary.


Baby dedication?

This last Sunday at church - which is a rather largish Missionary congregation that was planted a few years ago - a number of families participated in "baby dedications". Basically, the moms & dads stood up front cradling their little one while the pastor prayed for them. It didn't last very long. The main gist seemed to be something about us as a church community coming around the families to support them in prayer, in material ways and in setting a good example of the Christian life for their children and that the parents are committing to raise them up as Christians.=. Nothing at all objectionable or unreasonable. My wife prefered the way the congregation of her youth did it - each child was prayed for separately - and felt that it emphasized the community aspects of the dedication much more effectively. Not growing up in a church that practiced baby dedications, I really have no opinion on that. All I do know is that I just plain don't get it.

What is the point, really? Regardless of whether the parents make a public profession of their intent to raise their children in the faith, they are still commanded by God to do so. Its good that they want to make a public declaration of that fact, but it is of no real consequence; the commitment they made when they had the child far exceeds any mere statement to that effect in front of a group of people. And accountability-wise, those parents should still be accountable to the leaders of their congregation and to those godly men & women God has put in their lives to support, guide & correct them in many other areas. On the plus side, they are introduced to and prayed for by the entire congregation, which is certainly a good thing. But even that functions as a kind of pseudo-entrance into church membership. This child, while likely not getting any voting rights in a congregational lead church, is still treated like a member of the community. So its not like the dedication is any way a preparatory step towards the final goal of church membership. The faith of this child is not presumed against in any way; they are treated like members of the church and full followers of Jesus Christ.

Which is probably why it just really seems to me that child dedications are deritualized baptisms. Instead of serving a spiritual purpose, ie, the child being reborn into Christ and thus better armed to live their faith, it serves the psychological needs of the parents. The parents want to do something for their child, they want the child to be part of the church and they want their child to be prepared for the life of faith, but aside from some informal prayers that frankly could be said by anyone, at any time of an individual's life, child dedications don't actually do anything for that child. No spiritual reality changes for that child. They get some prayers, some people who coo at them a bit and that's about it. Like I said, I don't get it.

If anyone has a different perspective, I'd be interested to hear it.


Ted Haggard

Of course, everyone has heard about it. The news plays the story ad nauseam not least for the wish of political fallout during this election cycle. Ted Haggard's gay maybe-not-quite-a-tryst-but-close-enough is the latest big deal. The wife has been following it more closely than I. I understand he has resigned or been fired from his pastoral position and as head of the NAE, which is as it should be. The drug purchase by itself would warrant some fairly serious disciplinary action. Stepping over into adultery - yeah, lets just go ahead and take your name off the office door.

I feel bad for the man. There are not many whose personal sins and temptations would make for such national display. And I daresay there are probably even those celebrating the revelation of his hypocrisy. He's got to feel incredibly low right now and I hope he is able to make it through this crisis with a solid faith. He seems to have been blessed with a remarkable and faithful wife, so he's incredibly fortunate in at least one way. I hope he picks up the pieces, spends a lot of time in prayer and finds a way to move on.

What I don't hope, however, is that the man makes some kind of return to public life. Ever. I don't mean that harshly, but I think its fair to say the man has defamed the name of Christ, demonstrated some blatant hypocrisy (which we all do, generally speaking, almost daily) and given a lot ammo to people that already had too much mud to sling. I believe that God can and does heal us of sin. I believe God can and does restore fallen people and that someday, after a suitable period of reflection, prayer and renewal, Ted may even be spiritually fit to step back into a pastoral role. So my reasons for hoping he stays under the radar are entirely due to the cultural backlash his return to prominence could bring. We don't need another national figure with egg on his face, no matter how old.



In the few odd hours that are not spent with my nose deep in a nursing textbook of one variety or another (I've even had to go down to 3 days-a-week at work for the next few weeks because I was starting to fall behind, especially in pharmacology), the wife and I are trying to work through Dallas Willard's "The Great Omission". I'd never really heard of Willard until a couple of months back when Christianity Today did a piece on him and then I found this latest book prominently displayed at Border's (I haven't been there in once in the last 6 weeks at least, which is bizarre because we used to go there every weekend!) So far, the book has been quite good - asking some hard questions, pointing out some key failings in the evangelical tradition and taking a good hard look at both what the Bible and history has to say about discipleship. One passage in particular really got me thinking.

In it, Willard is addressing a group of Christian academics at a conference of some kind and asks them if what we believe about Jesus is true, how can we regard Him as anything less than the master of every field of human inquiry? How can we not regard Christ as an expert not just on 1st century Judaism and the Kingdom of God, but also literature, science, computers, or any other field of human endeavor? Willard says the responses he got were hostility to the idea as nonsensical, befuddlement and some that found it to be a key and challenging question that they took to heart. I must admit I found myself reacting in all of those ways to the question; generally confused, then wondering what sense it makes to think of Jesus as the master of nursing assistance (since I currently work as a nurse's aid) and then trying to answer that question in a positive light. I can actually see Jesus being the master of nursing assistance since primarily what I do is directly caring for the sick. It ain't real technical, believe me. But it does require care & concern, gentleness, compassion and many other requirements typically associated with Jesus' character. But what about nursing, since that's what I'm studying to be? Believe it or not, nursing is a highly technical field requiring a great deal of scientific knowledge about body processes, disease symptoms, medicines, various medical technologies, as well as the more interpersonal aspects of patient care, working with families and working under doctors. Did I ever really consider that Jesus had anything significant to say about medication administration and patient assessment?

The answer, of course, is no and I truthfully found it a difficult idea to ponder. At some levels, if felt very much the kitschy Jesus-is-my-best-friend crap that I find so very annoying. Certainly one thing I gained of appreciation of in Orthodoxy is Jesus' absolute majesty; something Protestants in general don't spend anywhere near enough time contemplating. But after I thought about it for a while, I realized that this was not actually the case. This is taking Jesus' claims to divinity - and by extension omniscience - very, very seriously. It is to recognize His lordship over all of creation, including these rather paltry human endeavors that we give so much billing to. I realized that, in fact, very few Christians ever seem to give any credence to the idea that Jesus just might have something useful to add to the field of law or computer science or research or literature, except for the moral implications of the way we behave in those fields. We have basically widdled Jesus' mastery over those areas of human thought into simple moral quidelines about the way we are to behave - am I nice to my coworkers/students/employees/customers? Am I honest in my dealings? Do I treat others fairly?

The very nature of those questions, however, clearly demonstrates that we actually give Jesus very little room in our professional lives. He is the cop who makes sure we don't break any rules instead of the map telling us where to go within that field. Indeed, instead of being the very ground upon which we trod in those pursuits. I honestly don't know how to get past that very limited kind of thinking; I'll own up to having not been very active in trying to break out of the former habits of mind if only due to busy-ness and mental fatigue. But I want to.


Darn it...back to square one.

I must admit that one of the things that I found so attractive about Orthodoxy was that it came packaged with answers to all kinds of difficult questions. What is the church? Who is in charge? What is the source of authority? How do we know who is right? All these questions, and countless others, had easy, or at least easily accessible, answers within the Orthodox framework. There might be some ambiguity, some varying degrees of disagreement or varieties of interpretation, but at least the foundation upon which these differences existed was the same. And in this common source, the questions didn't matter quite as much because the source was in common to all the questioners - everyone could at least agree on that and seemingly get along quite well.

But alas, I am back to square one with no pre-packaged answers to any of it. Well, most of it, anyways. One of the things that has really been on my mind of late is the nature and identity of the church. This has been partly inspired by a series of posts & comments-debates over on Pontifications regarding these same questions and related issues. At the end of one post, which pointed out a Calvinist site taking on Orthodoxy, he posted a quote by Newman:

“And this one thing at least is certain; whatever history teaches, whatever it omits, whatever it exaggerates or extenuates, whatever it says and unsays, at least the Christianity of history is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this”

If there is one thing that my journey through Orthodoxy over the last couple of years has taught me is that this statement is almost entirely true. A quick review of the first few centuries of the faith shows that Protestantism just doesn't match in many ways. Different structure, different understanding of the sacraments, authority, vocation and certainly different theological emphases. But that is not to say Protestantism is wholly alien to the early church; it is Trinitarian, has a high view of scripture (perhaps higher than the Ante-Nicene Fathers, but they clearly held it in high regard as well), is missional and evangelical (in the non-political sense of the word), and ardently desires to worship and honor Christ. Of course, the Orthodox and Catholic churches believe, despite those important similarities, that the absence of the other stuff clearly separates Protestantism from the historic church. Thus, any Protestant truly concerned with the identity of the church must join one of those communions in order to be in fellowship with true extension of the Apostles.

But the Protestant who studies history rightly turns the tables and asks whether Orthodoxy and Catholicism are really all that similar to the early church. Certainly they share generally similar structures with the episcopal hierarchy, similar views of the sacraments, vocations, and certain theological points. But the Protestant reading history and the Fathers finds marked departures as well. In Catholicism, the role & authority of the Pope is a distinct variation. In Orthodoxy, the lack of missional zeal. In both communions the high veneration of Mary and the veneration of the saints generally, icons, eschatology (purgatory and the toll-houses, for example) and other theological understandings are wide variations from the faith of the early church. While they may not have strayed off the path entirely, I think there is a case to be made that Orthodoxy and Catholicism have strayed. They have innovated, perhaps for very good, holy intentions, but they have innovated nonetheless. Who is to say which set of differences, Protestant or Orthodox/Catholic, is the greater or more injurious to faith? Arguments can be made from either side on why their's is the better, but I don't think either really has an airtight case.

Which leaves me with yet more questions, and only a few conclusions. One of which; we're left to deal with what history has handed us. I think the state of the church, in its most general sense, is a mixed-bag of strengths and weaknesses, highs and lows. We all have a long way to go in living out the Gospel of our Lord, many areas where we need to improve our faithfulness. For me, this realization is actually rather freeing. I don't expect to find a perfect church anymore. I don't expect to find a place of ultimate fulfillment, which is what I was hoping Orthodoxy would be. What I expect, what I hope to find, is rather a community of the faithful honest about their failings, committed to doing better and who are trying to live out the Gospel. That is all, and I believe, that is more than enough.


Well prepared

I am currently heading into the 3rd week of school, which has been wonderfully abridged with the holiday. No class or clinicals - just the lab on Thursday or Friday morning. So far, the nursing classes have been informative but not particularly challenging. Which is not terribly surprising as we've been going through some of the very basic groundwork of the trade; history, safety, asepsis, etc. Most the 'hands-on' stuff we've covered so far I've already learned on the job, and from the instructor's discussion on what we'll be doing & learning for this semester, I think I have been extraordinarily well prepared by my last year of employment. One indicator came last week at the clinical site as we were being assigned patients. The instructor had assigned about half the class and then said a couple of the remaining patients were "medically complex" and wanted to give them to someone with some direct patient care experience. Every thing in her description of their "complexity" is something I deal with every day on almost every one of my patients. I'm very grateful to have been lead to my hospital and for the apparently unique professional experience it has imparted to me.

There have been some things that I have been wholly unprepared for, though. One, due to the often serious status of my patients and the length of their hospital stay prior to coming to us, we are, in all honesty, not overly concerned with their possible embarassment. Many of them have gotten so used to the stuff we have to do, that they don't bat an eye at it anyways, but my instructor and my textbook take a much more serious view to maintaing the patient's dignity. Which is a good thing and a lesson I am trying to take to heart even in my current job. Second, I was not prepared for some of the "theories of nursing" that have been presented to us. Driven largely by what appears to me to be a desire to be considered on par with medicine (ie, doctors), various nursing academics have tried mightily to concoct conceptual frameworks that identify the unique factors that nurses bring to the patient. But as these are academics, some theories have been cross-pollinated by the worst kind of popular tripe that prevails in many of the humanities in the modern university. And with that, I leave you to Parse's Human Becoming Theory

Parse proposes three assumptions about human becoming:

1. Human becoming is freely choosing personal meaning in situations in the intersubjective process of relating value priorities.
2. Human becoming is cocreating rhythmic patterns or relating in mutual process with the universe.
3. Human becoming is cotranscending multidimensionally with the emerging possibles.

The nurse's role involves helping individuals and families in choosing the possibilities for changing the health process. Specifically, the nurse's role consists of illuminating meaning (uncovering what was and what will be), synchronizing rhythms (leading through discussion to recognize harmony), and mobilizing transcendence (dreaming of possibilities and planning to reach them). The Parse nurse uses "true presence" in the nurse-client process. "In true presence the nurse's whole being is immersed with the client as the other illuminates the meaning of his or her situation and moves beyond the moment."



Edumacation ain't cheap

I went to get my books yesterday for the start of classes this coming Monday. Over $700 worth of books and equipment (not including uniforms) for just 2 classes! In case you're wondering what $700 worth of books and equipment looks like...
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The big blue bag (which you can hardly see above the books) is the lab kit, which contains all kinds of basic medical equipment (needles, IV bags & lines, catheters, etc) for practicing on each other. Now, the needle/IV thing doesn't really bother me, but the catheters? Yeah, I'm really hoping we have some kind of elaborate dummy for practicing with those.

Fortunately, I got a nice new backpack for my birthday which was more than capable of handling the 40 lbs of books. And thankfully, my new "hog" has a special bag-loop attachment that let me put my lab kit on the floor-board between my legs without worries. Here is my new "hog":

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With us only having 1 car and the amount of time I'd have to spend waiting for the bus, we figured another mode of transportation would be good. It isn't ideal, but it'll work just fine for the next couple of years since we live pretty close to school and work. Plus, its a lot of fun.


After gaining a little perspective

Its been a few months now since the wife and I decided/were lead to turn back on our exploration of Orthodoxy. We've looked around at some other churches, had some good discussions about what we feel like is important in a church and have just gained some perspective on the whole thing. Here is a brief sketch of my current thinking and the insights I've gained over the course of this last year. (And it is just over a year since we moved here; August 5th, my birthday, was the one year mark.)

--Really, I don't consider our current direction to be a 'turning back'. We're continuing forward with a different heading, but its a heading we could have never found without first moving through Orthodox territory. I have found new vistas, new mountains and new roads for having come this way, and I think they will only lead me to a greater and deeper faith. As a caveat, I am not intending this post to be taken as an attack on Orthodoxy - it is a Tradition I admire and love, and I know that it preaches the Gospel. And God may lead us back there someday, so these are really thoughts-in-process and nowhere near a final conclusion. I also know that I am no expert on Orthodoxy; these are simply my impressions based on time spent at 2 different parishes, a fair amount of reading and interacting with Orthodox Christians online. They could also do with a great deal of expansion and will probably each be followed up by multiple posts.--

After gaining a little perspective on what the church is, I think it is both much more and much less than what Orthodoxy recommends to us. First the "more." Orthodoxy views herself as the "one true church" and looks questionably upon other Christian groups. Depending on the zealousness of the parties involved, that view ranges from a warm, benign regard as Christians who are well-meaning but at least partially wrong-headed, to a cold, dismissive regard as so-called Christians who are entirely on the wrong track and likely to not end up in heaven. No matter where the opinion falls, non-Orthodox Christians are viewed as outsiders and are not welcome to commune. And from what I understand, Orthodox Christians are not allowed to commune elsewhere (without special permission, at least.) While I am no advocate of an open table that includes non-believers, I think that a closed communion among Christian groups that subscribe to the Nicene creed is deeply troublesome. Orthodoxy is not the only group to set such boundaries, so this is not an Orthodoxy-only problem. I know there are slippery-slope arguments to be made, that various groups don't agree in other important areas and that there are certainly good, historical reasons why these restrictions are in place, but I just don't like 'em. I don't think they contribute to the unity of the body of Christ, which is a clear biblical imperative. The "less" refers to the hierarchical nature of the Orthodox church. While there are clearly defined roles within the NT portrayal of the church and early church history also points to the episcopal structure, I don't find it particularly clear where the "priesthood of all believers" enters into the Orthodox structure. I also struggle with the fact that Christ spoke rather strongly against the hierarchical Temple system, and yet it seems to be duplicated in Orthodoxy. There is a rigid structure that decidedly keeps non-clergy at a certain remove, putting them back into dependence onto others to participate in their faith.

After gaining a little perspective on the sacraments, I think they are meant to be more accessible. This really struck me on our first visit to a Lutheran liturgy, wherein Communion was taken quite seriously but without all the attendant ritual action & language of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy. I generally felt during the DL that things moved along quite well until after the homily when the liturgy transitioned into the preparation of the Eucharist. At that point, I almost always seemed to get tripped up somehow and had to struggle to remain focused. I know this is purely subjective, but it affected the way I thought & felt about Orthodoxy. Why was all of this necessary? What did it add to our worship? What positive effect did it have on us? Now, I'm not advocating a man-centered worship by any means, but Christ states quite explicitly that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath. Worship is God-directed but it benefits us by allowing us to commune with our Creator, to adore our Redeemer and to move deeper into the Spirit. Without taking too utilitarian a tone, how does all that ritual action help us to do those things? I think there is an uavoidable tension in worship between God and man. Is our worship pleasing to God and is it beneficial to us? Many Protestant churches obviously stray much too far in trying to fulfill the latter but I think Orthodoxy may tip too much in favor of the former. There is much, much more to be said on this subject, which I'm sure will generate future posts, but this is a good summary of where I'm at right now.

After gaining a little perspective on theology, I think the utter seriousness with which Orthodoxy undertakes it is dead-on. This is especially true in light of many Christians drinking deeply at the well of postmodernism, and thus being lead into the miry clay of relativism. I've heard more than a few such Christians refer to theology as nothing more than "God-talk" with absolutely no positive correspondence to the reality of God. Further, many speak of Christ as if He were merely the way our culture seeks God and other's cultural expressions are therefore equally valid. Even for those Christian groups not investing in postmodern theology, there are more than a few that are struggling with other deviations, like the "prosperity Gospel" or any of the charismatic movements that crop periodically in the Pentecostal churches. And overall, there is a spirit that denies the importance of theology, of teaching theology to the church or that theology affects our daily lives. This is one of the things that the wife and I are most stringent upon as we have attended churches over the last few months - is the teaching good and meaty? Or is it merely baby formula? I, of course, recognize that what separates theologically serious churches from the rest is the dreaded (in evangelical minds) specter of tradition, cue ominous music. Without making that tradition as authoritative as Scripture, and largely without consciously realizing it, solid churches hold fast to the faith of their fathers, reacting instinctively against novelty and innovation. I think this will be one of the areas where I learn and grow the most in the coming months and years; the interplay of Scripture, tradition and the challenges of each new generation.

As I read through this, I think the major theme that runs through my present feelings & thought is balance. How do we find it, how do we lose it and what can we do to maintain it? Not easy questions, I know, and many will likely come up with very different answers. But will Christians be able to find that balance together, or stand on the status quo that keeps us separated?


Allegory as love affair?

The Pontificator recently quoted a lengthy quote from Robert Louis Wilken on the use of allegory in the history of the Church's interpretation of, and relationship with, Scripture. Wilken argues that allegorical interpretation methods were by no means foreign to the earliest Christians and that, indeed, allegory is a necessary tool for the modern church to recover due to the Bible's inexhaustible depths and the varied experience and milieu of the Church through the centuries. Or, put another way "...the book the Church reads also belongs to another time and to other places...." The Church must dust off the use of allegory because in no other way can the Bible be received as the Bible.

Really, the only reason this post jumped out at me is because I was reading NT Wright's "The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture", and I'm still digesting the weighty arguments of this rather brief book. But in it, Wright discusses various misuses or misreadings of Scripture that have, in his view, cropped up through Church history. He argues that the earliest Christians did not employ allegory, but appealed to exegesis and scriptural narrative of redemption and renewal in Christ in arguing against heresies and innovations. Champions of the faith, like Ireneaus in his battles against the gnostics, used detail exegetical arguments about the actual meaning of specific passages and texts. They did not begin to use allegory until, in Wright's opinion, the focus on the "narrative character" of Scripture slowly diminished alongside "the church's hold on the Jewish sense of the sciptural story...." The latter involves the Church's self-understanding as a continuation of the people of Israel and their story in a creational and covenantal understanding of monotheism. He comes to argue that, while allegory "highlights the church's insistence on the importance of continuing to live with scripture...", it inevitably leads to a tension between interpretation and authority. How far can an allegorical reinterpretation (seemingly) stray from the text before it begins to lose its authority? He asks, "[a]t what point in this process are we forced to conclude that what is really 'authoritative' within such an operation is the system of theology or devotion already believed or embraced on other grounds, which is then 'discovered' in the text by the interpretative method being used?"

I encountered a rather frustrating use of allegory in reading "Mary: The Untrodden Portal". Frustrating because I could easily understand the argument the author was making from the text but really coudn't see how anyone would come up with that novel interpretation without first importing the idea. The author, quoting a saint whose name escapes me, argues that the East gate in Ezekiel 44 allegorically represents Mary (or her womb) and since it was shut after God went through it, similarly Mary was shut after God went through her in the Incarnation, thus "proving" the ever-virginity of the Theotokos. But the text itself could never be made to say any such thing if the doctrine had not already been firmly established in the mind of the interpreter - so what is authoritative about that kind of interpretation? Clearly it is not the text. Wright argues that at least some of the uses of allegory "constitute a step away from the Jewish world of the first century within which Jesus and his first followers were at home." He does concede that allegory, given the nature of the debates surrounding difficult passages in the OT which might have lead to them being tossed altogether, did serve as a way of saving the Bible for the church. But where allegory fails is that it does not appeal to the Bible itself, even though it operates with a Christian framework and uses biblical language, but rather to previously established doctrines and traditions within the church.

Wilken, perhaps understanding this but thinking about it differently, seems to indicate this fact when he says "[i]n [the Bible's] pages the fullness of Christian faith and life could be found in bewildering detail and infinite variety—all organized around the center which was the Church." (Emphasis mine.) Within the Catholic perspective the Pontificator now embraces, perhaps dusting off allegory makes a great deal of sense. Within that (or the Orthodox) framework, there may be enough safeguards to ensure that things don't go too far afield, but what guarantees are there? And what does this say about the Church's true view on the authority of Scripture? If Wright is correct about the use of Scripture by the earliest Christians, what are the practical effects of such a return to allegory? What role will Scripture play, what role can it play, in such an interpretative system?

Waa, waa, waa - I want my milk and cookies

Adam, over at Pomomusings recently got a traffic ticket from a red-light camera for running a red. Apparently the large sign indicating red-light enforcement was in effect was not enough to dissuade him from this dangerous act because it did not explicitly state "camera in use." He complains that the sign wasn't clear, the he got a ticket at all and that the fine (a whopping $70 which is a pittance compared to most locales) cannot be appealed to a lower amount. And all this because he entered an intersection only a mere second after the light turned red, as if nothing bad can happen in the space of the few seconds it takes him to clear the intersection. Given that I currently have at least 3 patients recovering from severe brain injury due to auto accidents, and 2 others who are parapalegics from auto accidents a few years back, I found his cavalier attitude towards such a dangerous act rather childish and told him so. Apparently that makes me a "troll" and gets comments closed on the post. Yup, Adam, I'll stick to my own blog where the lives of the people in my community are just as valuable as those overseas.


Israel's response - what should we think?

Like many, if not most, people, the current conflict in Israel/Lebanon/Gaza has been on my mind a lot lately, especially the military activity in Lebanon. Personally, I've been all over the map in my thinking on it. Hezbollah, while it does have some limited political legitimacy in Lebanon through holding elected office and through its strong social support network (it has built hospitals, after all) is, nevertheless, a despicable organization comprised mainly of brutal, hate-filled murderers who think nothing of targeting Israeli citizens and infrastructure. They initiated this crisis with their unprovoked aggression and continue to court a military response with the firing of rockets into Israel. And the Bush administration's argument against merely returning to the status quo has a lot of merit. A much larger and more brutal conflict may loom in the not-too-distant future if Hezbollah, and through it Iran, is not put into check during this opportunity.

Initially I thought they got what was coming to them and Israel was undertaking a legitimate military response to a real and persistent threat. I think there is some room to argue that the response was a bit opportunistic in that this was a huge set of airstrikes that were costing more than a few innocent lives in Lebanon over 2 soldiers that could (potentially) be succesfully negotiated for. But, then again, this has been a long and difficult struggle and it is not easy to draw a clear and simple line about what constitutes a mere continuation of previous hostility and what is a new form or level of aggression. In poking around the internet or watching TV, there seems to be a lot of people who think that this is actually an easy distinction to make and it seems a great deal have settled into a black-white polarity in their thinking on this matter. Either Israel is right or it is wrong, and the latter no matter what Hezbollah did or is doing to foment the conflict. If Israel is right, then a cease-fire or UN peace-keeping force should be pushed off into the future, whether by weeks or months, in order to let Israel finish the job. If Israel is wrong, then these options cannot be brought into the picture fast enough to end the attacks. There is very little middle ground and even less nuance in understanding this conflict.

That being said, I will lay out my position: Israel should end all attacks on Lebanon except on active Hezbollah attack points, ie, missile launchers about to be, being, or have immediately been fired. This means no more attacks on population centers, roads or other non-military targets. Israel should withdraw its troops from Lebanon and seek an actual armed UN or NATO force to impose a cease-fire and to assist the Lebanese government in gaining control over its territory.

Here are my reaons:

1) This has been an ongoing conflict for decades and so it actually makes little sense to try to point to a single act as the cause of this latest flare-up. Yes, Hezbollah kidnapped some soldiers, but they did so in support of Hamas and the Palestinians in Gaza who were coming under attack for their own kidnapping operation. Why did Hamas kidnap that soldier? Certainly in response to some Israeli action, which itself was a response to some Palestinian action, which itself was a response to some Israeli action...ad infitum. While I certainly believe that Hamas, Hezbollah and other such groups bear a large balance of the moral culpability in this conflict, we cannot pretend that Israel has been perfectly upright in all its dealings and activity in regards to the Palestinians. The very founding of the modern nation of Israel was actually a bit of ethnic cleansing, forcing Palestinians off of their lands in order to make room for the Jews. And since then, Israel has indeed committed its own fair share of crimes and immoral activity. Even though Israel does not intentionally target civilians, it seems to think very little of inflicting civilian casualties - the Palestinian death toll in the Intifada was more than 3 times that of the Israelis. In the latest conflict, Israel has targeted ambulances and intentionally shelled a UN observation post, and the Lebanse death-toll is somewhere around 10 times the number of Israeli dead. Both sides share in the long and convoluted cords of blame and just because Israel is a Western-style Democracy does not mean that it is infallible or that we should give it a pass on its failings. I am not arguing for moral equivalency, only that the roots of this conflict are too deep to easily make black & white declarations. And because of that, Israel's response may be predicated more on decades of anger and frustration rather than clear thinking on how to best respond to these attacks. I think this long history is churning up more emotion than strategy.

2) Israel's aggressive response is predicated on the notion of eliminating Hezbollah as a military threat. An idea I fully support. But can Israel succeed in this mission? The answer is an unfortunate "no." Yes, Israel may be able to capture or destroy most, or even all, of the rockets and other long-range munitions that Hezbollah currently uses. It may be able to kill or capture most, or even all, of the organization's fighters and leaders. But Hezbollah is not a threat just because of its weapons and it is not limited to its actual members. Hezbollah is an ideology and Israel's response is actually feeding it, helping it to grow and take root. Dealing a strong blow to Hezbollah now will only beat it back in the short term; it will grow back and find new ways to attack Israel. Perhaps it will realize that conventional weapons aren't effective and seek to acquire some form of WMD. Basically, I don't think this is a battle Israel can win in the long-term and I think its chances of success in the short-term are actually pretty low. Hezbollah is dug in deep, it has a well-developed logistics, intelligence and recruiting network, as well as political power and legitimacy in Lebanon and elsewhere. Israel cannot kill it. I don't believe Hezbollah can be negotiated with either, which is why an armed, empowered peacekeeping force is probably the best chance Israel has of achieving a more stable peace.

3) And finally, if the US and Israel is right, and Hezbollah is really just the lapdog of Iran and Syria (to a lesser extent) than a death toll of nearly 600 Lebanese caught in the crossfire is completely unacceptable. I fully believe that a decent percentage of those killed were either actual Hezbollah fighters or were directly supporting Hezbollah's attacks in some other way (ie, storing weapons or housing fighters), but it is entirely inconceivable that even half of them were directly linked in any meaningful way. I don't care what anyone says, a decision to bomb a bunker that is surrounded by civilians is as much a decision to kill those civilians as it is to destroy the military target. Innocent casualties are unavoidable in any modern conflict, but is Israel trying hard enough? I think the death toll proves otherwise and when the sheer numbers are considered in conjunction with attacks on ambulances, neutral observers and vital civilian infrastructure like power stations, we can conclude that Israel is being far too cavalier about the effect its attacks are having on innocent people. That is not at all fitting of a nation that obviously respects the rule of law, the rights of individuals and the spirit of democracy. To argue that Israel must be free(r) from moral restraint due to the barbarity of Hezbollah is arguing for moral equivalency from the opposite direction.

I think 2 & 3 are actually the most compelling reasons for an Israeli withdrawal. Why continue an attack that is costing so many innocent lives if the chance for success is low? Why push forward on something that is only going to make things worse in the long run?



After calling in sick the last couple of days, I got downstaffed today, meaning I've had a 5-day weekend. Thankfully I've got the PTO hours to cover them, so no harm done to the old wallet. Having some time on my hands, I went to Borders to drink some coffee and peruse books and magazines - one of my favorite activities. Whoever came up with that business model deserves a large cash reward. I had been working my way through a biography of Luther but it appears to have actually been purchased. I've also been poking around in NT Wright's books, finding them pretty interesting. I checked out "The Last Word" from the library and have been working through it. Its good if a little simplistic. I also read a lot of culural & political magazines, but since there aren't any new issues out of my usual fare, I popped over to "Discover" magazine, which I do from time to time, and read an interesting article (sorry, but you have to register to view the article) on a debate that's starting to gain some ground in the realm of physics.

For those of you who don't know, physics is plagued by a lack of a "grand unified theory" which works at both the macro (galactic) and micro (subatomic) levels. Einstein's relativity doesn't fly within the atom and quantum physics is persona non grata everywhere else. After reading "The Elegant Universe" some years back, I've found stuff that touches on these issues pretty fascinating. When scientists look at the universe they see that things don't fit within their elegant equations and models, specifically, in the rotational speed of galaxies. Looking at our solar system, the planets closest to the sun rotate much faster than those further out, which is what you'd expect. The further the distance, the less the pull of gravity effects those far flung planets and so they slow down. But this is not the case regarding stars orbiting around the center of a galaxy. The closer stars due rotate faster, but at some point all the rest of the outer stars rotate at the same speed regardless of distance. Newton's laws on gravity say this is impossible, so..."When confronting such a paradox, scientists have only a few options: Question the data; question the theory; or invent something new, maybe even something invisible, to explain the effect." Cue dark matter.

Dark matter is stuff that has mass, and thus generates gravitational pull, but neither emits nor reflects light. Its invisible except, allegedly, in its effects. A lot of astrophysics has concentrated on dark matter since this novelty was proposed and it has become something of a staple in the field. But this mainstay is now being challenged by the theories of Mordehai Milgrom, who proposed a simple change in Newton's laws that not only renders dark matter unneccessary, but also accurately predicts other astronomical phenomenon. It hasn't been proven, but it answers the questions at least as well as the theories of dark matter. But many in the physics community won't even give him a chance to explain himself. He has found it almost impossible to get his papers published and when they are, they are apparently dismissed out of hand. Other scientists are starting to take notice, but it has been a long uphill battle. What we have here is the ugly face of a fundamentalist physics, wherein the key dogmas have already been staked out and any challenge to them is treated as heresy (the article uses that word many times). No matter whether the heresy is supported by evidence, is simpler and/or functions at least as well as other theories.

I find this terribly ironic. Science, which as a whole in the last 100 or so years, has been deeply antagonistic towards faith in something unseen, is now itself fighting to maintain its own faith in something unseen. It is modeling the fundamentalist behavior that so many deride in the religious without realizing its own dogmatic claims.


The seeming impossibility...

of finding a good, balanced church. Ever since deciding that Orthodoxy was not where God was presently calling us, the wife and I have been trying to find a church to call home. So far, we've mainly focused our search on Lutheran churches, since the LCMS is liturgical & sacramental but apparently in no danger of falling into the morass of liberal theology and practice. The first church we went to, St Paul's, we liked very much, but over a few visits we found that the preaching seemed to consistently amount to little more than "we're Lutherans, this is what we believe and isn't that swell?" Now, this is from both pastors and would be fine if they got into the meat behind the doctrine, but they don't. And this is what we've experienced at the other LCMS churches we've gone to so far. Weak preaching has characterized them all, including a more "contemporary" LCMS church that seemed to be trying to copy a goodly portion of the evangelical, low-church playbook. I think there is basically one more LCMS church close to us that we're going to try and then there is a Wisconsin synod church we might check out as well. We've heard some very good things about a Missionary church that we're also going to try, but we're both a bit nervous about heading back into what (from their website) appears to be a pretty typical evangelical church. I'm trying very hard to keep an open mind, to be prayerful and open to God's leading, but after almost a year of "exploration" we're getting pretty anxious to find our place.



These articles are a few days old, but they caught my eye and, in large part, are confirming what I'm currently experiencing at work. The first article reports on a study that finds non-profit healthcare providers consistently outpeform their for-profit counterparts.

Authors writing in the journal Health Affairs found that a systematic analysis of 162 studies of nonprofit versus for-profit health care providers supports the concept that a facility's ownership status makes a difference in outcomes and in the cost of health care....the analysis found a pattern of differences between nonprofits and for-profits in cost, quality and accessibility...In what they called the biggest review of the literature to date, authors reported that eight studies found nonprofit hospitals have lower mortality rates, versus one study finding for-profits have lower rates of death.

There are many factors that enter into the relative quality or "success" (a difficult to define term in medicine) of healthcare, but a huge factor is the morale of the direct care providers and their ability to effectively do their jobs. Which is why the second article, which discusses a lawsuit filed by the countries largest nurses union against some of the bigger hospital chains for intentionally colluding to depress wages, is so troubling. Even though the nursing shortage has increased over the last decade "....[w]age increases for nurses have been insignificant during the decade-long shortage, experts said. Wages stagnated in 2003 and then fell 6.4 percent in 2004, leading to a decline in nurses working at hospitals..." Which is unfortunate, because that is precisely where the patients who need the hightest quality of care actually are.

Which brings me to my current employment situation. Our clinical director (basically the head nurse) and corporate director both recently quit at the same time. We currently have 2 interim people from other hospitals filling those roles who are, to say the least, corporate lap-dogs. They have instituted a variety of changes, including pressuring our clinical educator to leave by cutting back on his hours, cutting back on staffing (the cause of my being downstaffed each of the last 3 Fridays) and trying to push down costs on needed patient-care equipment. As an example of the last, we have a patient that needs a specialty bed & mattress due to some very aggravated wounds on his hips, lower back and butt, but since this rental is very expensive they wanted to discontinue the bed even though lower cost beds were not helping him. The staffing cuts, however, have been worse. Most of our patients are coming directly out of the ICU and have a high acuity level, which basically means they are in pretty bad shape - lots of meds, lots of labs to be drawn, IV's, vents, you name it. Our nurses normally handle 3-4 patients, 5 in those instances where the patients are in good shape (ICU nurses generally only handle 2). Now, regardless of their acuity level, corporate has mandated each nurse will carry 5 patients. This makes the nursing staff much, much busier, means there are fewer nurses on the floor to help each other with difficult procedures or to watch patients during a break, and greatly increases the stress level of everyone on the floor. Morale is down, people calling-in for work is up, and for me personally, I'm being run ragged most days of the week - and what I do doesn't have the potential to kill anyone.

So connecting the dots between the quality level provided by for-profits versus non-profits isn't hard to do. Where cost is the prime concern, neither patients nor the staff can be. The staff is too busy to provide high quality care though they'd like to and are more likely to make mistakes or miss something important in a patient's status. A humanitarian endeavor like medicine can be very poorly served by becoming a business.

What makes a Protestant Protestant?

Via an email exchange with a Lutheran blogger (I haven't asked if its ok to quote him, so I won't link his blog), he made the rather startling comment that he does not consider Lutheranism to be Protestant. Rather, he considered it be a "kind of Catholic." I heard a similar point on a Lutheran radio show while the host was *reviewing a taped testimony of a Lutheran convert to Orthodoxy. He took issue with the convert lumping Lutherans in with Protestants and later described Lutherans as "evangelical catholics" and "a confessing movement within the church catholic". He explained those statements like this: "we hold to the 3 ecumenical creeds, to the confessions, to the fathers, to everything that has been taught since the very beginning - that's catholic. The centrality of Christ's atoning sacrifice - that's evangelical."

Which, of course, makes me wonder - what makes a Protestant Protestant? How is that really defined? There is obviously the element of protesting-against or dissenting-from that is necessarily a part of the definition. But that doesn't fully encapsulate the movement, either, because there are a great many Protestant bodies that are positively for something and not just against the Catholic church. Is Protestantism defined more as a set of beliefs in and of themselves? Or is it more accurately defined in relation to (or opposition to) some other Christian entity? The latter clearly seems to have been much more accurate during the early years of the Reformation, although it must be granted that the Reformers did not just see themselves acting against the abuses of the Catholic Church, but as searchers after the original faith (their success is arguable, obviously). But now that many groups seem either to not care much about Catholicism one way or the other, and other groups are actively engaging the Church for areas of commonality with an eye to potential unity, the latter definition doesn't seem to apply.

Its an interesting claim, and one I will have to think much more about.

*If you're interested, it was the June 6th program during the 2nd hour. He addresses the convert's story at about 38:00, and speaks more about Lutheranism as catholic around 51:00+.


The trouble with monergism

I spent a goodly part of this morning at Border's doing some reading on Lutheranism, or rather, on Luther and his beliefs, and I must say I found what I read a little difficult to understand and accept. It seems that Luther is a bit of a monergist. I say "a bit" because both analyses that I read (one from Pelikan's masterful 5-part history of the church, this one being the 4th volume on the Reformation, the other The Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther) seemed a bit muddled on this point. Some of the stuff he said was apparently quite monergist and others a tad synergistic even though he expressly denied any form of synergism. But he also expressly rejected the monergism of Calvinism (speaking of which, I've gotten into a bit of a debate with Troy on the matter). The doctrine FAQ on the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod doesn't clear things up so well, either. Take this question and answer:

Q. Is it accurate to say that Lutherans believe that we are first given the ability to believe in Christ as Lord and Savior through the Holy Spirit and then it is our choice and responsibility to choose to believe in Christ, or am I off here?

A. Lutherans consistently and deliberately avoid using language of human "choice" when speaking of conversion, since we believe that faith is a gift of God created by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel, not a matter of human "choice" or "decision." From a human perspective, of course--especially in the case of adults or older children--conversion may at times appear to involve certain (mental and emotional) aspects of "choosing," but spiritually speaking faith is not a "choice" we make but a free gift of God's grace created by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the means of grace. Ultimately, therefore, conversion is a miracle and mystery that we confess in accordance with what the Scriptures teach and in which we rejoice, but which we do not claim fully to understand or attempt to explain in ways that "make sense" to human reason (e.g., the question why some who hear the Gospel believe and others do not).

But to another question the role of choice, this is part of the response:

All of this, of course, does not mean that when the Holy Spirit creates faith in our hearts we are not the ones who believe. On the contrary, Lutheran theologians have often spoken of faith as something that is "active" (fides activa) to emphasize that humans are active subjects in the believing. Paradoxically, then, faith is a purely passive act: God alone can give us the power to believe, while we are the ones who believe.

Thus, there is no contradiction between saying that we in our sinful, unregenerate condition cannot choose to believe, but that we can choose to reject God's grace.
(emphasis mine)

The last line of this section seems to contradict the last line of the above section in that it does seem to speak to the reason why some people hear the Gospel and yet disbelieve: they reject the gift of faith. But they (the LCMS) seem quite insistent on negating human choice while trying to maintain the capacity for it, at least in the sense that one may reject faith, at the same time. Like this:

Others answer this question by pointing to God's sovereign will: God himself predestines from eternity some to be saved and others to be damned. Lutherans reject this answer as unscriptural because according to the Bible God sincerely desires all to be saved and has predestined no one to damnation.

So how do Lutherans answer this question? The answer is that Lutherans do not try to answer it, because (we believe) the Bible itself does not provide an answer to this question that is comprehensible to human reason. Lutherans affirm, with Scripture, that whoever is saved is saved by God's grace alone, a grace so sure that it excludes all human "action" and "choice" but rather rests on the foundation of God's action in Christ and his "choice" (predestination) from before the beginning of time. Lutherans also affirm, with Scripture, that those who are damned are damned not by God's "choice" but on account of their own human sin and rebellion and unbelief. From a human perspective, there is no "rational" or "logical" way to put these two truths together. Lutherans believe and confess them not because they are "rational" and "logical," but because this is what we find taught in Scripture.

I'm certainly no critic of a good bit of mystery in our faith & theology - it was one of the things that drew me to Orthodoxy in the first place. I do not feel a constant need to define & clarify & dogmatize what can only be speculatively ascertained, particularly when in so doing we have to reject or severely modify passages of Scripture. For instance, 1 Tim 2:4 is pretty clear on God's desire for all men to be saved, yet Calvinists are forced to "clarify" the plain meaning of the text in order to maintain their double predestination, which is not explicit in the Bible. They dogmatize the uncertain due not to sound exegesis, but a value-laden eisegesis, carrying their nice-sounding ideas about God's sovereignty into the text. But this mystery, this uncertainty is troubling me. Maybe because its unfamiliar, maybe because it seems to be rejecting my personal experience and the experience of many of the Christians I know who all most certainly had a moment when they decided to repent, to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and throw themselves on His mercy. Maybe that was an illusion. Maybe it wasn't a positive choice, just the absence of a negative choice, ie, resistance to the faith the Spirit was quickening, but it sure didn't feel like it.

I still have more reading and study to do, but in the meantime, any and all are welcome to comment - I welcome the input and challenges as we sort through our choice of church home. But I especially welcome the input of any Lutherans reading this that may be able to better clarify their position for me.


Back in the fort...

Fort Wayne, that is. We spent a wonderful, sometimes tense, week leading up to my brother's wedding on Saturday afternoon in Iowa. And it really was a wonderful week, being with almost my entire family the whole time. A few more popped in on Friday, which made it even better. I got to spend a lot of time with my brother, which I am grateful for. We had a last minute change in the rehearsal dinner venue which ended up being a far, far better choice - excellent food and great atmosphere. The wedding itself went off beautifully. A bright, sunny day without being too warm. The men, including myself as the co-officiant, were all in formal kilts - which is the kilt and a tuxedo-ish jacket, vest, shirt and bowtie, along with a "sporran" (a kind of man-purse that is tied around the waist which I found to be an uncomfortably great and useful item), dress shoes and knee-socks with little bits of cloth at the top called "flashes." (You can find a good picture of this ensemble here.) The jackets got a little warm, but there was a nice breeze which kept up some good circulation, if you catch my drift. The ladies wore a very pretty black & white dress which had some embrodery work that kept up the Scottish theme. The bride was in an elegant white dress with detached arms that hung low - it was very Celtic princess-ish - and her processional music was played by a real, live bagpiper.

I was able to do a great deal more in the ceremony than I had anticipated, including pronouncing them husband and wife. I started choking up right from the beginning and had to fight it off pretty hard the whole time. This kind of got my brother going, which I think is pretty funny. My brother is a rather large, mean looking fellow who has in the past taken on 4 guys at once and beaten them handily. He would not strike you as the kind of guy who would cry, even at his own wedding, so I was pleased to show everyone what a softy he really is. My message, which I almost entirely scrapped and rewrote the morning of the wedding, got a lot of compliments and what's more, was what I really wanted to say to them. I hope some of it penetrated and may get them thinking a bit more about God and faith in the future.

We stayed out late after the wedding, didn't get enough sleep before the brunch and before getting on the road for the 8 hour drive back home, so I'm more or less exhausted today. I'm now going to go take a nap.


Road trip memories

Very early tomorrow morning we will be driving to Iowa for my brother's wedding this weekend - she's dismayed about the early part, not the rest of it - where I will be co-officiating at the ceremony. I'm only able to "co" because I've been out of full-time ministry too long and lost my ministry credentials. So I'll be performing the majority of the service and a local pastor will step in to do the vows and make the final, legal pronouncement. It should be good. And not just because all the men in the wedding party, as well as yours truly, will be wearing kilts. I guess I'm lucky I've got a built-in joke to open with.

But in prepping for this, I wanted to get some cd's together and found an old one that the wife and I listened to a lot as we made the 7 day drive from Anchorage to Phoenix. Right now I'm listening to a song from that cd and I can see the winding road running through the forests of British Columbia, the headlights illuminating a wall of rock where the road cut through the mountains, my wife asleep in the passenger seat. It was a good feeling of coming home, of making a new beginning.


Saying goodbye

R.F.'s funeral was yesterday morning. The wife and I went to the visitation on Friday night, where I met more of his family and saw a few other staf members. It was strange to see him laying in the casket in a tux instead of a hospital bed with a gown. Stranger still to see how fake he looked with all that makeup on. But that few moments at the casket gave me a chance to say goodbye and I could not help but reflect on how much I've grown and experienced over the course of the last year. My wife's aunt died last summer and we attended both the visitation and the funeral. The visitation, quite honestly, freaked me out a little bit. I've only been to a few funerals and as far as I can remember, this was the first one with the actual body on display. And people were touching her, which made me even more uncomfortable. The wife grew up in a small town in Illinois in a larger church with the whole span of ages present. She'd been to quite a few visitations like this, so for her it was old hat.

But over the course of the last year, I've had the unique privilege of taking care of the recently deceased on a number of different occasions. And I do take it as a privilege - the chance to show a few last acts of love and respect for someone whom I had known and cared for, and who was deeply and passionately loved by the God who died to snuff out death entirely. I've cleaned them one last time, removed the IV lines, EKG leads and other medical implements that allow us to provide heroic care but also, in their own subtle ways, dehumanize the patient, make them into a squiggly line on a computer screen or a drip rate, rather than a person. So I take it as a solemn honor to rehumanize them, so to speak, to return them more closely to how they were when they came into the world. And standing there, sometimes alone with the body, I have found myself almost irresistibily drawn to pray for that person, to pray for their soul and for God's mercy on them. From the Orthodox and Catholic perspectives, I know there is nothing wrong with this. Prayers for the dead are salutary and beneficial for those whom we pray. I also know there is pratically no biblical warrant for it, which is why the Protestant perspectives deem such prayers as at best ineffectual (the person having already been judged based on their own faith or lack thereof), and at worst, sinful to some degree. I don't know who is right or what to make of it all except that it just seems right. It seems like the loving thing to do, to beseech God for their entry into His presence with joy, for His mercy on their sins, for them to hear their name called from the Book of Life.

So I said goodbye to R.F. on Friday night, but the wife and I were invited to a dinner after the funeral to celebrate his life. I felt honored to be invited, but as Saturday noon rolled around, I also felt quite uncomfortable about it. We decided to go and I'm glad we did. His family, those who weren't able to visit him much while he was in the hospital, needed to hear about his final week, the things he said, the feelings he expressed. They just needed to hear it and frankly, I needed to tell it to someone who knew him. It was good. It was bittersweet, shot through with rays of joy and eternal expectations despite the present pain.

Spy camera...

A while back, I expressed my consternation to my wife that you just can't seem to find a tiny digital camera like you'd find in a camera phone. Our current cell phone contract doesn't expire for some time - we've even still got our Illinois numbers because changing them would require a new and more expensive contract - and we already got our new phones sans camera. In describing this camera to my wife, I almost ivariably called it a "spy camera" because I was envisioning one of those little cigarette lighter-sized doohickeys that James Bond had. I found a few online at Overstock.com, but I'm loathe to purchase stuff like that online. Yeah, its basically a toy, but I don't want to waste my money either and since these were off brands, I decided to wait. And then, 2 weeks ago, I found one at Target, a Philips, for about $15. So I got my spy camera. The photo quality is low, you only get 20 pictures at the highest quality and you can't see the pics until you upload them, but I'm still liking it a great deal. Here are a few photos I took this morning of the Lutheran church we've gone to the last couple of weeks.

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And here are a few more from the grounds around our apartments. There's a little forested belt that runs along one of the rivers.

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Bad day

Work today started out kind of rough. We had one patient turn violent over night and lucky me, being the biggest guy in our hospital, I was called in to help this man off the floor after he slipped in a puddle of his own urine whilst fighting one of the nurses. I tell you, nothing makes that 445am alarm worth it more than starting your workday with someone else's pee on your pants. So we get him settled, or so we thought, and I head off to start on my regular duties. While I'm in a room, I hear a "Code Strong" go out over the intercom, which means "unruly patient or visitor". I stuck my head out the door to see if they needed any help but they seemed to have things under control. "Seemed" being the operative word. They had basically barricaded the guy in his room after he attacked the nurse again and called security. He was unhappy with this resolution and in an apparent effort to find an alternate exit, he tried to toss a table through his 8th floor window. And quite nearly succeeded, judging by the largeish hole that resulted. He was eventually carted off to one of the padded rooms in the ER downstairs. The incident created quite a stir and the corporate administrative staff were buzzing around most of the morning trying to "listen to staff concerns" and answer any questions. It was a real treat.

But the worst part of the day happened not soon after Houdini tried to pull his grand escape. We had a patient, R.F., and aside from a real nasty and persistent abdominal wound which would have healed in time, was in good shape. And he was a dear, dear man. He was 82, didn't look a day over 65, and had the sunniest, kindest disposition I think I've ever encountered. He was sweet, humble, caring and just earnest about life, faith and what he considered most important: God, family and helping people. He was a devout Catholic and prayed often, and was tickled pink when a pastor visiting another patient came in and prayed over him, as well. I was assigned to him all last week and he and I became fast-friends over the course of that week. We talked a lot, while I was giving him his bath or when I had time to hang out in his room. He was a WWII vet who was on the beaches at Normandy. When he came back he worked the rail yards and eventually became a yard-boss. He married young and was devoted to his wife until her death 8 years ago. Actually, he was still devoted to her and spoke of her often. His family was in with him all the time, which I think is a testament to the kind of man he was. He said probably 100 times last week that he thought he and I were two of a kind, which if true, would make me a much better person than I take myself for. He said he thought the world of me and, even though we'd only known each other for a short while, thought of me as a friend. He said "you don't make too many friends in this world, so you gotta keep the ones you do."

As I'm sure you've noticed, I'm talking about R.F. in the past tense. We found out yesterday at about 11am that he was being transferred to the local VA hospital at 1230 that same day. We found out so late due to a break-down in communication and after we had spent a good 45 minutes getting him onto a new bed, which required pulling his roommate and his roommate's bed out of the room in order to get the new bed in. At that time, we were chagrined due to all that wasted effort, but it wasn't that big a deal. I was going to miss him, but the VA hospital is closer to home than my work and I was planning on visiting him at least once a week. And, I was definitely going to take him up on the steak dinner he promised to take me and the wife to after he got out of the hospital. Last night, at about 6pm, his family called my hospital because his wound was bleeding profusely (which it hadn't been doing before) and the VA people had no idea what to do about it. He was eventually taken to the ER, but due to apparent indecision on the part of the VA doctors, it was too late. His pressure and heart rate dropped too low for him to recover on his own and his family, following what I believe would have been his wishes, declined to intubate him. He died early this morning. When last I saw him he was on a stretcher being wheeled down the hall, grinning but also a little teary-eyed. He told me that he loved me and I told him I loved him, too and not too worry, I'd see him soon. I guess I won't see him as soon as I thought. But on more than one occasion, his response to my "how're you doing?" was "I've got Jesus Christ so I can't be doing too bad", which leaves me with little doubt that I'll see him again, if only a bit later than we had planned. And I'm still going to take him up on that steak dinner.

His favorite restaurant was Cork'n'Cleaver - I hope they have one in heaven.


Holding pattern

Needless to say, things on the road to Orthodoxy have gotten a bit bumpy and the wife and I have decided to take a bit of a detour at present. From our many long conversations, which frequently turned into arguments (or at the very least hurt feelings on one side or another), it became clear to me that she isn't ready and I really don't know that she ever will be. Right now, its just too big a departure from the theology she has known and embraced her entire life and probably the best thing I can do in loving her is to yield to her discomfort, anxiety and resistance. So I have and we've decided to start looking somewhere else for a church home.

For me, this is a bittersweet moment. I am sad that Orthodoxy did not draw us in as I had hoped, but at the same time I feel a sense of relief that the tensions between us and the heartache this has caused is over. The joy that relieving this burden brought about in my wife (not Orthodoxy itself, but the burden of the disagreement we had over it) was sign enough that I'm making the right decision. But I also think some of that relief stems from my own trepidations about Orthodoxy. There were really only a couple of significant issues, but they kept on intruding. I was ready to move forward but scared of the possibility for error. I am worried about finding a church we can both feel comfortable with. We went to a Lutheran church on Sunday morning that seemed pretty good to both of us, so I think we should be able to find something. I'll have to do some more reading & studying on what's out there in liturgical and sacramental Protestantism.

I'm not sure how I'll reconcile the new perceptions and ideas that Orthodoxy has introduced. I doubt I'll ever be able to subscribe to sola scriptura if this road doesn't eventually take us back to the East. Similarly, I've found the more wholistic approach Orthodoxy takes to theology far more compelling than the legalistic language of Western theology. I mean, did Christ become Incarnate in order to die to open the door to humanity to participate in God's life or to simply move our names from one column to another on some heavenly scoreboard? I think the depth and beauty of that kind of thinking will be hard to find, though I can obviously "feed" myself with Orthodox writers. And, of course, the idea of the church being the Church will never be a possibility in Protestantism. While I maintain some hope that we will eventually end this detour, I don't want to hold on to that hope too tightly. I, of course, don't want to be disappointed if it never comes to fruition, but I also don't want to let it hold me back from trying to find a good church home, a place where we can get involved and feel like a part of something.

Thus far, this blog has largely been about my journey towards Orthodoxy. It first started as I struggled with my role as a youth pastor in a church that left a great deal to be desired and then, as that position ended, transitioning to being a student again, both in school and in the Orthodox church. I'm not sure where it will head from here but I plan on maintaining it. I have appreciated your prayers and words of encouragement and hope you will continue to keep the wife and I in your thoughts & prayers in the weeks and months ahead.


Gotta know when to hold 'em....

For no particular reason, things have seemingly come to a head in regards to the wife's and mine's exploration of Orthodoxy. We got into a little bit of an argument on Sunday over whether or not to start crossing ourselves during the liturgy. I've been doing it in my private prayers for some time, but out of consideration for her, I have not done it during the liturgy and wanted to start only when she was comfortable doing it together. We went to my mother-in-law's church service early Sunday morning before the liturgy for Mother's Day and then went to get coffee at a local cafe before heading over to St Nick's. We were having a pleasant conversation when I made the mistake of asking if she wanted to start crossing that morning. I've asked before and been rebuffed, but figured it was worth a shot. Things got a bit tense, which we resolved after church, and we ended up talking about Orthodoxy later that night. Basically, its coming down to the fact that the wife has stopped making forward progress in this journey, and frankly, doesn't want to go any further. She isn't saying 'no' to continuing to go to the Orthodox church and is willing to keep exploring, but she seemingly isn't able to get past any of the major issues she has with it. She hasn't gotten any more comfortable with the veneration of the saints and the Theotokos, is still troubled by the apparent lack of evangelism (only one person, a 13 year old girl, joined the parish this Pashca) and stumbles on the point of the sacraments. And the thing is, she doesn't really want to get past or accomodate herself to those things. There are also other problems that are probably quite parish-specific, namely, a lack of teaching and the fact that we haven't made any reasonably close connections with anyone in the parish during our time there.

So now I'm left wondering if its time to throw in the towel. I am not willing to join without her, primarily because we're probably going to start trying to have kids once I've got school almost finished and how would we raise them? And in the short term, we're both really struggling with the tension this is causing in our marriage. We know a guy from St Nick's who took 6 years of going back and forth before he was finally able to decide on Orthodoxy, so I still hold onto hope that even if we did stop our exploration at this point, there might still be a chance in the future. But I really don't know what to do. I'm not sure where we'd go, if I'm up for "church shopping" or if I'm ready to call it quits.


The Sacred Gift of Life - I

I have received and started reading both of the books I mentioned in an earlier post and so far, both have exceeded my expectations, especially Fr. Breck's The Sacred Gift of Life. I haven't gotten more than 50 pages into it and I'm already challenged and enlightened. Take this passage in the introduction:

To speak of the sanctity or sacredness of human life is also to speak of "personhood." One is truly a person only insofar as one reflects the "being-in-communion" of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity. This is a much misunderstood concept in present-day America, where the "person" has been thoroughly confused with the "individual." Individual characteristics distinguish us from one another, whereas authentic personhood unites us in a bond of communion with each other and with God.

This relational understanding of personhood is obviously different than the common conception, and is radically opposed to those who claim personhood is dependent on the capacity for rational thought. I have in mind Peter Singer (and those who agree with him) who argues that it is fine to kill an infant and the severely mentally disabled or injured because they are nonpersons due to their inability to "think." But if personhood is intrinsically linked to relationship, than no one can ever be a nonperson - we all exist in a web of relationships, be they familial or other. And once ensnared in that web, which cannot happen but at the moment of conception, all human life is instantly personal. This also has obvious bearing on end-of-life issues for those with a severe brain injury that has left them in persistent vegetative state. I'm anxious to see how Fr Breck develops this concept in later chapters.

In the Introduction, Fr Breck also offers a frank discussion on the difficulty of moral & ethical consideration in a modern context. This is due both to the developments in technology and medical science that the biblical and patristic authors did not and could not envision, and to the Orthodox focus on "moral theology" instead of "Christian ethics." This focus on ethics as a theological discipline requires a sea-change in current medical thinking on the purpose of medical care. According to Breck, "[h]ealth and wholeness have ultimate meaning only within the perspective of God's eternal purpose, the divine economy to be fulfilled at the 'second and glorious coming' of Jesus Christ. Medical care, therefore, should serve not only the proximate goal of restoring or improving bodily health; it should strive to provide optimal conditions for the patient's spiritual growth at every stage of the life cycle." Needless to say, I have seen little concern for the patient's spiritual, or even personal, growth in my facility. It would require a complete sea-change in modern medical thinking to move beyond the mere mechanics of health and the fear of death that seems to drive so many doctors and patients. And medical ethics is not something that can be left to the so-called experts, "[a]t its core, Christian ethics is a function of the worshipping, serving Church. This means that the work of doing ethics is a communal, ecclesial work for which each of us is responsible."

Chapter 1, which I have yet to complete, is focused on explaining the theological underpinnings upon which Fr Breck will later develop his arguments. And I have to say that it is one of the best summaries of Orthodox theology that I have yet encountered in any of my readings. He covers a range of topics, providing a wealth of information in a concise and easily read format. I will pull out some key points once I have finished the chapter, which is necessarily a bit long. I'm looking forward to working through this book slowly over the next couple of months.


Christ is risen from the dead...

Last week, just before I started my shift, a patient died. He had first entered the hospital with heart trouble, suffered complications and was placed on a ventilator. He came to us in fairly good shape relative to some of the other patients we get. There is this semi-conscious state that a lot of people linger in as they start to wake-up from the complications they suffered through (some for weeks on end) and were completely unaware of. They are "in there"; they try to respond to your commands, though often they fail due to sheer physical inability. And they try to communicate - their lips are moving and their expression changes, hands gesture. It is almost impossible to make out what they are trying to say because they are unable to vocalize on the vent and frequently lack fine motor control, so you can't read their lips (something I've actually become pretty adept at over the last several months). And, of course, they are generally confused and would be speaking nonsense and non sequiturs could they actually form words. As I said, people can linger in this in-between state - aware but not oriented, trying to communicate but not coherent enough to realize what they need to do to overcome the barriers. Some stay like this for only a few days, others for a few weeks and a few never find their way out. They remain locked in their own mind for reasons that are rarely clear. He was one of the latter, though I must confess I thought the family moved rather quickly to putting him on a terminal wean. I think they were talked into it by their doctor(s) and though it is fairly likely he would have never pulled out of this half-life, I wish they had given him a another couple of weeks. Miracles do happen.

I ended up helping the family - his wife and daughter - carry some things out to their car. It was a somber walk and one that left me reeling. What do I say? How do I offer comfort? In the end, I didn't say much. I told them I was sorry for their loss and that I had enjoyed caring for him. But in my mind, as I'm walking with those suffering the agony of their loss and the mixed feelings of guilt and relief, the hymn from Sunday's liturgy repeated itself over and over in my head. "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death..." And that, to me, provided some comfort, some degree of understanding. His death was not the end. Death is not the end and the pain is just for a night.



In the May issue of Touchstone, there is an interesting article on high school students that are anything but typical. Terrence Moore writes from his own experience with what are obviously very gifted and very blessed students, and stand as shining examples in a field of peers that are jaded, entertainment-minded, relativists. It is an article that completely belies my own experience working with youth and one that offers some degree of hope for the future of this generation. But, it also scares the pants off of me.

To illustrate his point, Moore introduces us to "Promise", a young woman whom he knows personally. She comes from a good home, is intelligent, faithful and a hard worker. But...

Promise has never set foot in a public school. Her parents discovered in their freshman year of college how little their public schools had taught them and how unprepared they were for higher learning. Moreover, they would never allow their daughter to be exposed to the drugs, sex, and crass behavior that are the norm from middle school onward.

It is true that high schools have largely been turned over to the social norms of sexual and chemical experimentation in today's youth and that this trend is pushing ever lower. I saw it in my students and I heard their stories. I don't blame any parent for wishing to spare their child from the deluge of temptations they will face in today's public schools. And yet, I cannot help but think that this separation from the vast majority of her peers will be to Promise's detriment. How will she understand her generation? How will she know how to reach them? If she can't speak their language and know the things that matter to them, how will she lead them, as Moore suggests she will? I don't for one minute think that a child must succumb to the temptations of their peers in order to better understand them. But without at least some common experiences, how will Promise forge a link with those in her age group? I saw those highly intelligent, moral, faithful homeschoolers in the youth group I lead - I saw that they never fit in and that their separation invariably lead them to live in completely different worlds than their peers. It didn't matter what they knew or how their lives could have been examples to the other students; no connection was possible. And frankly, it is entirely possible to traverse the perils of public school and still come out well-educated and having resisted the temptations of sex, drugs and relativist thinking. I know because I did it.

From here, Moore goes on to list more of Promise's promising qualities. She doesn't disrespect her parents, drink or do drugs, sleep around or brush off school. She feels sorry for girls who do, not because she is self-righteous but because she believes they simply don't know any better. Promise rejects feminism and "...is pretty and enjoys feeling pretty." (This point strikes me as tendentious - what does being pretty have to do with anything and how would Promise feel and behave if she were unattractive? It does not strike me as particularly counter-cultural to enjoy being pretty, what with the amount of emphasis today's culture places on feminine beauty.) Promise is also politically engaged and aware of the import of today's key issues and debates, which I certainly found to be quite uncommon among my high schoolers. All-in-all, Promise is a bright, well-rounded, Christian student who takes her faith and education seriously. But Moore goes on to conflate what appear to me to be clear issues of morality (abortion) with politics and here is where I have the greatest problem with his description:

Promise wholly supports the war on terrorism. This sweet girl will tell you without batting an eye that anyone who blows up a building or decapitates someone for a misguided faith is pure evil. Promise is glad that strong and brave men carry guns to protect this nation both at home and abroad.

Supporting the war on terrorism is not on par with abortion, which is the issue he discusses immediately prior to this paragraph. Having genuine political disagreements over this country's response to 9/11 and the war in Iraq are simply not the same as abortion and nor is there an explicitly Christian position on these points. Also, both men and women defend this nation at home and abroad and I find it odd that Promise should discount this fact and that Moore should forget to mention it. It seems to me that failing to mention the sacrifice of women in the police and armed forces implies more than just Promise's rejection of feminism, although I could be reading into it. But what worries me most is that second sentence. Moore points to this generation's inability to think morally several times, but I cannot accept that this statement is well supported by sound ethical consideration. Perhaps I'm mired in relativistic thinking, perhaps I did not make it through public high school and a state university with a degree in religious studies without being infected by the shoddy thinking Moore derides, but I seriously doubt whether, as Christians, we can ever describe another human being as "pure evil."

Is blowing up a building or decapitating someone for a rightly-guided faith pure good? Is it a mixture of good and evil? Or is it pure evil, as well? What if you're blowing up buildings for a misguided foreign policy? How does that rank? What troubles me is the conflation of "misguided faith" with motive. Those executing the attacks of 9/11 or decapitating Nick Berg were not doing it because they knew themselves to be supporting a false religion; they believed their actions were both in accord with and demanded by their faith. And in that, they were actually acting on good motives. Don't mistake me - I believe terrorism to be intensely evil and motivated by demonic forces, but that does not mean that those who engage in it are "pure evil." They were seeking what they perceived to be a good end, an end pleasing to God and beneficial to their coreligionists, and if their actions had focused on planting trees rather than murder, no one would accuse that aspect of their intentions as being inherently evil. Though there are times when our subjective motivations have nothing to do with the objective moral status of our specific behaviors, we all recognize that motive is indeed a salient point. Our society routinely and uncontroversially recognizes a legitimate moral difference between murder and self-defense, even in cases where there was no actual threat to the defender.

So the question really becomes 'can a person acting on subjectively good motives really be purely evil?' I think the answer is no, just as someone acting on subjectively bad motives (who somehow brings about an amazing good like curing cancer or ending world hunger) can be said to be purely good. Our society would want to turn our misguided philanthropist into a hero of heroes, a celebrated and honored person, to shower them with praise and adoration even though they intended to do evil. We would label them as good and forget about their failings. This is why I find Moore's, and by extension Promise's, unsubtle thinking on this matter so disturbing. To label anyone, even a hate-filled, murderous terrorist as "pure evil" is to cease to see them as human. It allows us to do anything we want to them because they have become completely alien. And in doing that, I fear we cross a line that we simply cannot cross.

Final final finally finished

As of Saturday, around 845 in the morning, I officially ended this semester. Now onto a blissful and school-free summer vacation. I may try to pick up some extra work over the summer to pad the coffers for fall, when I will have to cut back on my work schedule. In the meantime, I will be focusing on preparing for my brother's wedding, where I will be co-officiating, in the first part of June. And, much to my delight, catching up on some of the pleasure-reading that has been so overwhelmed by school the last several months. My first 2 books are The Sacred Gift of Life and A Feast For Crows. The first book is due to my own lack of preparation for dealing with the hard questions, particularly end-of-life and meaning of suffering questions, that I either deal with now or will have to deal with as a nurse. I want to clarify my own thinking on the matter by examining the thinking of the Fathers and the Church. The second book is the long-awaited continuation of what has turned out to be an amazing fantasy series. I'm normally into sci-fi, but my brother concinved me to read the first one and I was hooked. Its not your typical kind of elves & wizards fantasy writing; there is magic, a world very much unlike our own and a fair share of otherworldy creatures, but it focuses much more on political intrigue and the growth of characters as they work through a tremendous upheaval that draws an entire continent into war over a vacated throne. Its quite good.


Sexual ethics

Adam, over at Pomomusings, has posted a
of the sexual ethics presented in a book called Love Does No Harm by Marie Fortune. Here they are:

5 Guidelines for Sexual Ethics

1. Peer Relationship: Is my choice of intimate partner a peer, i.e. someone whose power is relatively equal to mine? We must limit our sexual interactions to our peers. Some people are off limits for our sexual interests.

2. Authentic Consent: Are both my partner and I authentically consenting to our sexual interaction? Both of us must have information, awareness, equal power and the option to say "no" without being punished, as well as the option to say "yes."

3. Stewardship of my Sexuality: Do I take responsibility for protecting myself and my partner against sexually transmitted diseases and to insure reproductive choice? This is a question of stewardship (the wise care for and management of the gift of sexuality) and anticipating the literal consequences of our actions. Taking this responsibility seriously presupposes a relationship: knowing someone over time and sharing a history in which trust can develop.

4. Sharing of Pleasure: Am I committed to sharing sexual pleasure and intimacy in my relationships? My concern should be both for my own needs and those of my partner.

5. Faithfulness: Am I faithful to my promises and commitments? Whatever the nature of a commitment to one's partner and whatever the duration of that commitment, fidelity requires honesty and the keeping of promises. Change in an individual may require a change in the commitment which hopefully can be achieved through open and honest communication.

All in all, these are not a bad set of guidelines. I don't think there is a whole lot in there to argue with - possibly the "ensure reproductive choice" thing and the part in the last one about how fluid our sense of commitment should be. It is also clear that number 3 doesn't actually require a pre-existing relationship. If I've got some disease, I could just be following simple human decency by putting on a condom; no long-term relationship is necessary. But for a secular set of sexual ethics these would probably lead, if followed, to some healthier choices regarding sexual activity.

These are, however, not written by a secular author but by a minister. And while the author's intended audience is not specifically Christian, "she believes these guidelines would be put to good use in Christian circles as well." Really? A set of ethical guidelines that fails to include any consideration of the biblical witness, the historical witness of the Church or any reference to God or Jesus could be well-used by Christians? I find that sentiment deeply troubling. Moreover, I find Fortune's assumption that an ethic of love that separates and subordinates the Gospel to itself is even possible for a Christian to ponder repellent. Yes, God is love, but we cannot extract that statement from the love God has shown us in Christ. We cannot attempt to shake off the rootedness of that reality in the narrative of God's activity in the world, first through Israel and then through the Church. That is precisely how we know God is love! We are not permitted to take that statement out of its context and try to develop an ethic, a theology or any other system of thought. If we do that, we immediately demonstrate that this is not something we are trying to say about God but about ourselves, about our own way of thinking, our own goals and desires. Which is why we can talk about "reproductive choice" as if it impacted only us as individuals, and not the child in the womb or God in heaven. It is why the sexual ethics we try to create for ourselves make no mention of any external moral set other than respecting the other person's freedom. It is only our choice and their choice that matters, and it is little surprise that Adam's post includes negative commentary on the propensity for the "modern" church to focus so much on convincing youth not to have sex. That is forcing something upon them, not respecting their choices and making them feel guilty about something that should be celebrated.

Needless to say, this is a dangerous game to play. It is true that the evangelical church's youth culture has seized upon abstinence as seemingly the end-all and be-all of youth programs. This is clearly imbalanced - the norms of chastity need to encompass more than just sex, but it is also obvious why sex is so important to youth leaders: it damages people. As does every sin, of course. But the difference is that most other sins do not undermine a future marriage relationship as much as premarital sex does. And a failed marriage hurts kids and thus the damage is perpetuated. So no, these are not good sexual ethics for Christians to use, as they are not Christian and do not take the reality of sin into account.