...are the ones that make the biggest difference



With my parents' recent move to Iowa, the upcoming election has taken on a bit of a new dimension. I never really got worked up over the primaries (or the general election, for that matter) but the wife and I have started paying a bit more attention this time around. This is partly due to the possibly historic role my kin may have in determining the fate of some candidate - a real if slight possibility given the neck-and-neck field on both sides of the race - and partly due to the utter banality of the Republican gaggle. In the past, it was fairly easy to ignore the primaries because the race didn't seem like much of a race at all. But now its like a dinner mystery theater; we're all trying to parse the clues and the polls that will point to whodunit. Or rather, 'whowinsit'. I have no favored candidate, no pick to commit to. I probably dislike Huckabee the least but I must admit part of me wants to see Obama win just for the sheer history-making spectacle it will be for a black man to win the presidency. The sheer history-making spectacle of a woman winning the office can wait for another candidate, in my opinion.

So all this election stuff is swirling around when news of the latest violence in Pakistan and Kenya makes the news, and this the violence of election politics. Who won? Who will win? Who will run? Will there even be elections? In other parts of the world these are killing questions it seems. But not here. Not in America or other Western-style democracies. These may be angry-making questions but today they rarely spill over into actual violence and much rarer still does anyone take a life in the asking. Why? Why are we so different than other parts of the world where elections and violence are hand-in-glove? Whether by specific design or the slow march of progress, our society and culture has disavowed violence in the political process. People resignedly accept even the most bitterly contested loss without raising a fist or a weapon. Whatever the failings of our political system and culture, and they are legion, this has to be one of its greatest strengths. The supremacy of the rule of law - how do we export that to other nations? How do we get the Iraqis to commit to that? How do we get Afghanistan to favor the national whole over the tribal division?

These are almost impossible questions to answer and there are clearly many pieces to the puzzle. Get rid of corruption, strive for a fair judiciary, promote a national symbol, eliminate other forms of public violence and...I'm not sure what else. But ultimately it comes down to changing cultures, even changing religious beliefs to a certain extent. Our culture gradually developed into what it is today - is there any way to speed up that process in parts of the world where violence persists? I would hope that our next president, whoever that may be, has some very smart people working on these kinds of questions. Bush certainly didn't ask them, much to the detriment of his purported mission of spreading democracy. At the very least, we can insist that our next peacefully elected leader get started on some answers.


The ravings

This semester for clinicals, we split between critical care and psychiatric nursing. Why they combined these two hugely disparate areas is well beyond me, but they've both been informative. I already work in an ICU, so the place I learned the most during the critical care portion was in the regional burn unit where I saw a young lady burned over almost her entire body do well and another woman burned over about 30% over her body eventually die because of her inhalation injuries. But the last 7 weeks I have been in the psych rotation and for that we spend time on an inpatient wing, where probably half the patients are on court-ordered 72 hour detentions because they are psychotic (in the technical sense, which basically means out of touch with reality) or suicidal. Or both, as it may be. The rest have usually signed themselves in for drug & alcohol detox or because they recognize they're getting out of control. Kind of in conjunction with that we also observe the "assessment team". Their job is to go out to ER's and assess patients that the police or the hospital have called about to see if they meet the criteria for admission into an inpatient unit. They also take walk-ins and do phone interviews.

This last week I went out with one of the assessment team to a local ER to evaluate a young man who had rather abruptly started acting weird. He'd had a recent diagnosis of a rather severe and life-altering illness and was started on some medications that may have caused this change in behavior. The young man, let's call him Ryan (not his real name, obviously) - Ryan's mother was there and the assessor wanted to talk to her first in order to get a better picture of what's been going on in the month since his diagnosis. For some reason she thought it would be appropriate for me to sit with Ryan while she talked with the mother. So I sit down and ask him how's he feeling. And that is when things got surreal.

At first, Ryan just seemed a bit hyper, which would not be all that unusual with the medication he had been on. But over the course of the 45 minutes I sat with him, it became clear that Ryan was far more than just hyper; he was full-on delusional. To call his delusional world elaborate would be an understatement. In his mind, he is the key player in bringing forth the Next Testament of God. The Old Testament was about God the Father, the New Testament about God the Son, and the Next Testament will be about God the Spirit. He does not know how it will come about but the reason he has been chosen is because he has "figured out the calculus" involved, he has seen the secret key that others in the past have missed. At this point, I have to point out that Ryan was a youth pastor who was also attending a Bible college before all this happened. So during this conversation, he's dropping Bible verses and talking about Ecumenical Councils and doing so in a rather sophisticated, even compelling fashion. He really believes what he's saying to me, believes it way down deep. So much so that he gives me a homework assignment! I'm to get all of the Casting Crowns CD's and all of the books by Ted Dekker and Austin Boyd. These will help me understand what is happening in the world right now, what God is using him to do.

As I'm listening to him there is a little battle going on inside my head, and it began with the simple question of what would someone listening to Paul or James or John have thought? To a first century Jew especially, but likely in general, they sounded crazy. To the Jew, the chance that God would reveal himself in a lowly carpenter who died a criminal's death would have had to sound just as preposterous as the "calculus" did to me on Monday. To a Gentile, the very idea of a single God may have seemed patently false. I don't believe this young man was anything other than completely out of touch with reality. And yet....

And yet I do believe in an active God, a God who moves and works in us and through us to change the world. A God who reveals more and more of himself to us, at least individually if not corporately as well. I guess it boils down to what if? What if these are more than just the ravings of delusionary man? What if they aren't? And who am I to decide?


Switched jobs again

School is still miserably busy. I've started in the psych clinical and this teacher apparently has a love affair with grading pointless papers and projects because I've got a ton of 'em. And two of them require extensive "contact hours" outside of class. They're all due between now and Thanksgiving, so its going to be a busy few weeks.

And, perhaps stupidly, I decided now would be a good time to switch to a new area at work. I'm now splitting between the ICU and the ER. The ER is definitely a very different environment and I'm not sure if its for me or not, having only done a week of orientation. Of course, my current ambivalence could stem from the fact that I have to work three Saturdays as part of my orientation, which is taking away precious time from school work.

Just about 6 more weeks of school. Thank God.



School is kicking my butt. I thought maybe this semester would be a little less with the busy work given that its "critical care." But that is not the case. I finished my first care plan this weekend, have 2 tests this week, a largeish paper to write next weekend and then a test that next week. After that, I might have a chance to finish my book review. Or not. They tend to toss a lot of things in at the last minute.


Evil and the Justice of God

A couple of posts ago, I indicated that I was reading Evil and the Justice of God by NT Wright and described it as a disappointingly slim tome. Can I change my answer to just disappointing?

The book is short; only 174 pages including the index with just 5 chapters. Some online reviewers have indicated that Wright intended to pursue a larger volume but eventually decided to offer up this condensed version for publication. Oh, would that he had stuck to his original plan. The book suffers not because Wright has too little to say, but because he has too much and fails to do justice to his arguments. He only skims the surface of a subject that should be dived.

The first chapter is entitled Evil is Still a Four-Letter Word. The brief introduction to the chapter is an interesting exploration of why Revelations describes a new creation minus the sea and gives a concise overview of Wrights views on modernity's understanding of the problem of evil. Which is, specifically, progress shall overcome. The modern western world believes in progress and the evolution of society. As Wright puts it:
"In this climate, the fact that we live in 'this day and age' means that certain things are now to be expected; we envision a steady march toward freedom and justice, conceived often in terms of the slow but sure triumph of Western-style liberal democracies and soft versions of socialism. Not to put too fine a point on it, when people say that certain things are unacceptable 'now that we're living in the twenty-first century,' they are appealing to an assumed doctrine of progress...and progress in a particular direction." (pg 22)
If we just wait long enough, the inevitable progression of our society will eventually eliminate evil. There may be bumps along the way but things will get sorted out in the end. Wright identifies three of these bumps that he thinks should have derailed this blind faith in human growth, but didn't. World Wars I and II are the primary event-bumps, while writers like Barth and Dostoyevsky, both of whom criticized belief in "the steady advance of the kingdom of God from within the historical process," provided the intellectual bump. This has left Western society ill-equipped to deal with the "new problem of evil" (the sub-title of this section). When evil does occur, then, we first try to ignore it until it rises up and makes its presence keenly felt. This willful ignorance makes us surprised when evil does present itself, which, third, leads us to respond in "immature and dangerous ways." One of the immature responses to evil Wright singles out is the dichotomy of blame; I am totally not to blame or totally to blame. Wright thinks, and I agree, that we need a more nuanced view of evil, one that takes seriously our individual and national complicities in evil but that also does not fail to take into account other people's (individual and corporate) evil actions. We have to be able to own up to our own failures while being willing to point out those of others. Adding fuel to our evil-blind fire is postmodernity.

Still in the first chapter, Wright's section on the nihilism of postmodernism is cutting but arguably betrays his stance as a modern thinker. I think he is correct in his argument that, while we "can't escape evil within postmodernity...you can't find anyone to blame either." By deconstructing all metanarratives, even the metanarrative of the individual self, postmodernity leads to a fluid, un-fixed understanding of "I". How can "I" be held responsible for my actions when the "I" of today is not the "I" of yesterday which committed those acts? Postmodernism further muddies the waters by deconstructing the myth of human progress. However, instead of replacing it with a more realistic view of humanity, growth and our future potential (in Christ), postmodernity spins a web of nihilism. There will be no progress, no change, no redemption. Instead of a nuanced view of evil, we have the mire of the status quo.

Wright thinks there are 3 elements key to the West getting a realistic understanding of evil. The first is coming to see that Western-style democracy is not perfect and certainly not a world panacea. We're having enough trouble doing it right ourselves to be foisting democracy off on everyone around the globe in disparate cultures. Democracy is likely the best form of government out there for today's world, but it may create as many problems as it solves, or at least proffer them up in a deceptively different guise. The second element is psychological; we must come to see the inherent ambivalence at the heart of man and that any individual can perform acts of great goodness and great wickedness. And some give themselves over entirely to the lure of wickedness. "What I think we must come to terms with is that when we talk about evil we must recognize, as neither modernity nor postmodernity seems to me to do, that there is such a thing as human evil and that it takes various forms." Which brings up the third element; the recognition that the line between good and evil, us and them, runs through each and every one of us as individuals. We must not make the mistake of moral equivalency, viewing each criminal act as inherently equal, but nor must we make the opposite mistake of supposing that the criminal acts of "our side" (or "me") aren't evil when done at the expense of the other.

Wright finishes the chapter by asking the church to start to try to make sense out of all of this. How can the church teach a nuanced view of evil in today's world, specifically today's America? I think most conservative churches would be very hard pressed to do this in our political environment, given their role in helping to create it. To turn to a nuanced view of evil, to recognize America's complicity in evil around the globe, would just be eating too much crow for some leaders and would not be tolerated by the more nationalistic Christians among their flock. Which brings up one of the shallow points of this work. I expected Wright to tackle these, and other pressing issues, in the subsequent chapters since he did not raise them here. He has started off on a great foot, but quickly starts to get tripped up as we shall see.



Baby registry

Over the weekend, the wife and I went out a registered at a Target and Babies 'R Us. Since we're going to wait until the delivery to find out what we're having, we ended up picking out a lot of stuff in greens & yellows. I realize now one reason so many people decide to find out the sex of the baby; much easier to register. But the thing that really struck me during these trips was how totally consumer-oriented this type of registry has become. Baby has become big business, and it is evident the moment the staff person hands you the checklist of things you'll "need" and "should" register for. The checklist contains dozens of items. You actually need, and I mean need in the conventional sense of stuff you actually require, maybe a third of them. Things like clothes, bottles, diapers, a crib, car seat - the basic stuff. But the list also includes no fewer than three different pieces of sleep furniture (crib, bassinet and portable bassinet) and their various linen requirements, as well as a long list of other items that the baby will likely outgrow within a few months. Knowing that most couples do not have more than 2 children, these items will have a short half-life in most families, ultimately heading for the landfill or the garage sale.

What was most disturbing is how easily we started getting into adding to our list, and this with a mother-to-be who has spent ample time around small children and has a good idea of their actual needs. All these items of convenience just seem so, well, convenient. Which points to a sad reality that many people in this country seem to be looking at their children as either accessories or time-management problems. Which is why so many of the wares in these stores are geared towards fashion & decorating and child-warehousing. Your kid starts to bug you, put 'em in their bouncy seat, fashionably colored to match your existing decor. After we got home, we started mentally reviewing what we registered for and realized we probably didn't need most of it or that what it was ridiculously overpriced. How would a young mother or couple with no experience know you don't need some of this stuff or that its a waste of money? For me, the takeaway here is that its never too early to start teaching your children lessons about what's important in life, and it surely is not a $250 crib bedding set.



I turned 30 on Sunday. I turned 20 during my advanced training in the Army down at Ft Huachuca - needless to say a lot has happened in the last 1o years. I don't feel 30, though never having been 30 before, I'm not quite sure what 30 actually feels like. In the last few months, as I've contemplated this milestone, I suppose I've been rather uneasy with what this means. I'm 30 and still in school - for an associates degree, mind you - not established in any career (though both will change next May when I graduate and become an RN), not sure of where I want to live, am not well connected in any church, have few close friends and am really nowhere near where I thought I'd be when I turned 20. There are, mercifully, things I am quite clear on and happy about - my wonderful wife and coming child are at the top of that list. But all in all, there seemed rather more to be sad, or at least not happy, about. The day has come and gone, and aside from a few fun new things in my possession, it was a day like any other. And instead of making me sad, it oddly made me hopeful. These kinds of milestones give us a rod with which to measure our lives. In the last 10 years, have I become more like the person I want to be? Am I making progress towards my goals? What more do I need to accomplish? What do I need to change? This birthday has given me a reason to contemplate things that I may have been too busy to focus on otherwise and in my self-evaluation, I see new strengths and new possibilities within me as well as areas that need continued improvement. But on the whole, I think I am more like the person I want to be than I was 10 years ago. And that gives me hope.

It doesn't hurt that we just finished up a week in Florida, getting home somewhat late Saturday night. We drove down, which afforded us several opportunities to be incredibly grateful. On the way down, just inside of Tennessee, we got rear-ended on the highway going 70+ mph. A young guy in a black car came flying up behind us and hit us as he apparently mis-timed his move into the left lane. I was able to keep the car on the road but unable to get his license plate. Thankfully, the damage was minimal, mostly just paint, and we did not careen off the road to an untimely demise or serious injury. But that incident came to pretty much characterize the drivers we encountered down south. Even in pouring rain with horrible visibility, people were still driving well over 70mph and hanging out less than a car length behind other vehicles. It is no wonder we saw 1 definite and 2 likely fatal car accidents on the highway in Florida. We intended to drive up and stay with my uncle in Louisville on our way back, but about 30 miles south of the city, our car started squealing horribly. It only got worse when we slowed down and got off the highway. At first, I thought it was the power steering pump, but then noticed 2 bolts just sitting loose on top of the alternator. We had to get towed into a repair shop, which was by all external evaluations, a rather seedy place ran by a couple of unkempt individuals. First impressions did not inspire much trust. But these men proved me wrong, dead-wrong, fixing the vehicle right then and there and not charging me a dime. They could have easily taken me for a new power steering pump and belts, but they stayed open late to wave off any recompense. But if you are ever in the south Louisville area and need some auto repairs, I couldn't recommend BKC Auto enough.

Aside from those 2 unfortunate incidents, Florida was beautiful. The wife's uncle owns a condo that is about a 100 yard walk from a pristine, white-sand beach. Just gorgeous. I got a sunburn in a very weird pattern on either side of my chest where I apparently failed to apply sunscreen, but that didn't stop me from swimming and enjoying the beach most of the days we were there. We even made a little side-trip to St Petersburg, which is a pretty nice city. I haven't been to Louisville in at least 10 years, probably more like 15, and got to see cousins and their kids that I hadn't seen in that time. Louisville is also a nice city - not too big but with a lot going on. My uncle is an avid sailor, so we may get a chance to head down there and enjoy some time out on the water sometime this fall.

I've received or purchased several new books that I'm either presently reading or will be reading shortly. They are:

Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror, by Anonymous. I'm about halfway through this. While many of the points about the Bush administration's failure to consider Afghani culture before the invasion and the West's consistent misunderstanding of bin Laden are trenchant and important, the author seems locked in a world where neither societies nor people are capable of any meaningful change. His is a rather pessimistic view of the human condition and the book is the poorer for it.

Evil and the Justice of God, by NT Wright. I generally enjoy Wright's books and essays, what I can understand of them, that is. He sometimes assumes his reader knows the positions and parties of various debates certainly more than I do, but such is not the case with this disappointingly thin tome. He is clear and concise, but I wish he would include fewer "but we don't have space for that here's" and more expansion on those subjects. I will likely give a fuller review after I finish it.

Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults and Swallow Citizens Whole, by Benjamin R. Barber. I have only briefly flipped through this book a couple of times, but with my growing awareness of how our consumeristic culture discourages faith, reasoned thought or mere satisfaction, I thought this looked like an interesting read.

A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini. I thought The Kite Runner was good and this is supposed to be even better. This novel covers a more contemporary period and I'm looking forward to seeing an Afghan's perception of the event in his country since 9/11.


The debut

I present the very first picture of the fruit of my loins.

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.us

Torture, pt 2

This is a little free-form, but hey, I've been busy.

If you're willing to kill someone, why would you have any problem with torturing them? Honestly, if you view someone else's life as expendable, which is necessarily how you must view someone if you are willing to sacrifice their life for some "policy objectives", why is their pain and suffering less acceptable than their death? It isn't, or at least it shouldn't be. If you're willing to consign someone to eternity, why should a few hours of pain trouble your conscience? Again, it shouldn't. So why does it? Why are people who are willing to support the killing of combatants and non-combatants alike, which is inevitable in modern warfare, unwilling to support torture? Personally, I think they lack the courage of their convictions. Or, rather, we see that their convictions about the taking of other human life is rooted more in fear for self than love of neighbor.

This may seem like a non-sequitur, so let me explain. If one is willing to kill, if one believes that the death of person A is necessary to save the life of the innocent person B, then on what basis would one decide that torturing person A or C (A's accomplice) is wrong? It clearly cannot be love of enemy, because the executing agent cannot simultaneously love and kill someone on the field of battle. So persons A & C are not spared torture because of love for their persons, since their deaths are viable options. If one is truly acting out of love for neighbor (the innocent B), how is sparing A & C pain, but not death, moral? You have essentially said that B's life is worth A's life, but not his suffering. On what basis is that calculation made? I can see no moral rubric for it; B's life is worth how much of A's suffering? Is there a time-limit? If we could strap A into some machine that would quantify his pain, is there a number over which B's life becomes forfeit, say 7 on a scale of 1-10? No matter how one attempts to negotiate that nebulous concept, it is clear that saving B is not really done for the love of B if one is not willing to torture A & C. So why do so many find it permissible to kill but not torture? It is irrational and on that basis, I can surmise only that it is a course dictated by fear. One is afraid that they will be next, or at least A will get to them somewhere down the line. B's life is entirely incidental to saving one's own self. Killing A can be justified, but I think the deep internal contradiction that is one's un-love for person B makes torture too messy and too direct. One is not the target & one doesn't love B, so a quick death is acceptable, but causing so much pain to someone for an essentially worthless objective is just too much.

So at least those who are willing to torture & kill are being consistent in their moral convictions. They understand the rubric and are unafraid to get their hands dirty. Whether its love of self or love of neighbor, the torturer is simply moving forward in a consistent manner. Death or torture; its all the same. Clearly love for one's enemy is non-existent. For Christians at least, this is the wedge. We are called to love both neighbor and enemy and not one more than the other, but both more than the self. The willingness to kill and to torture both betray a fundamentally consistent imbalance in love, weighting love of self, then neighbor and finally enemy.

What would the Christian's situation be if Christ had operated under that paradigm? (cont)


Big News

The wife is pregnant! And in the first month of trying, thank you very much. We told most of the family yesterday. My in-laws already have 5 grandkids, but this is the first on my side, so while the in-laws were very excited, my mom was positively explosive. The official due date is February 27th, 2008. Personally, I'm hoping the little tyke will stay in just 2 days longer and be a leap baby, which would be pretty sweet.

All tips, hints, suggestions, ideas and experiences with pregnancy and baby-related stuff is greatly appreciated.

Torture, pt 1

In the boardgame Cranium, each move involves responding to one of 4 different card sets. The "Data Head" and "Word Worm" sets require you to answer trivia questions and word-related items (like spelling a word backwards), respectively, while the "Star Performer" and "Creative Cat" involve variations of charades and pictionary, among others. I played Cranium with my former youth group once and we happened upon the Word Worm card that asks for the definition of "tortuous", giving three or four possible definitions. One was something like "twisty or winding" and another was "painful or difficult". The kids chose the latter definition, clearly confusing "tortuous" with "torturous", which is easy to do. I confess that I was thinking of that answer when the question was read. I never really thought much of that similarity until some blogs I've recently come across started discussing torture.

The first was Thom Stark's blog post A Free Iraq, which apparently offended a friend of his. He followed up with an update addressing his friend's views and was then subsequently invited to post a response to Death and the Maiden's question "What is torture and is it necessarily immoral?" Thom did respond, and so have several others (here and here), including one response by a professor who has studied aggression. To those who have not seen any of this, I'd highly recommend giving it a read - at the very least these are interesting and challenging perspectives, particularly to those Christians that believe torture may be morally permissible. Its after reading and pondering all of this that I've come to see how tortuous a logical path a Christians must follow in order to support torturous acts (bet you were wondering how I'd draw that together).

A second confession I need to make is that, in brutal honesty, I was not all that surprised or outraged when the Abu Ghraib abuses first came to light. Don't get me wrong, I thought it was despicable, juvenile and unbecoming a US soldier, but at the same time, perfectly in step with what I had experienced as a soldier on deployment. I was never even in an active war zone (though there were some threats, mostly from old land mines) but the stress of long days, separation from family, culture shock, the inevitable crap the military seems to foist on the junior enlisted and the sheer audacity of the local nationals to think they had the right of way at an intersection when I was clearly armed to the teeth and driving a 5-ton armored vehicle, let's just say it adds up. Now clearly, the last bit of that is facetious, but there's an underlying reality to it. The soldier is on a mission, a mission that has been given priority by command and the weight of official sanction, and it comes from the only people around you that look like you, speak the same language and long for the same home. In a soldier's mind the mission is paramount, like it or not, whether they believe in it or not. They've got a job to do and they're going to do it. But locals do not understand that mission and prioritize the living of their own lives, be that simple survival or going through the myriad social & economic tasks that define anyone's daily life. So they get in the way and become resentful of the intrusion of the soldier's mission into their life. And maybe they start resisting (violently or otherwise), which cannot help but raise the soldier's stress and start them resenting the people they thought they were there to help, which is what I found myself doing on many occasions. Its a series of short steps from standing menacingly with an assault rifle to intimidate possible enemies, to pointing it menacingly, to moving aggressively, to pushing, shoving, hitting all in the name of security. Starting down that path does not inevitably lead to torture, but its a healthy head start. So just based on my own experience in Bosnia, I was not surprised that soldiers would inflict this kind of juvenile aggression on prisoners.

The reason I wasn't outraged, though, had nothing to do with the soldier's experience and everything to do with the victim's. I've related some details of this in the past on this blog, but in Bosnia I was both privileged and damned to participate in the discovery of new evidence regarding previously unreported war crimes. The details of those events are not relevant to this post, though it is quite a story. The details of those war crimes, however, bear directly on my response to Abu Ghraib. Some of the documents we procured described in horrific detail the pointless and wanton torture of Croat and Muslims in a specific region in Bosnia. I say pointless and wanton because the torturers were not seeking any information whatsoever from their victims; they made them suffer for the sheer sport of it. I held in my hands accounts of men & women having their noses and ears cut off, their eyes gouged out, and their arms & legs broken before being driven out to a nearby river where they were shot and left to drown if they didn't bleed to death first. In light of that suffering, being forced to lay naked on the floor with some other men didn't seem all that bad. I bet, given a choice, any of those Croatians or Bosnian Muslims would have chosen Lyndsey England any day of the week.

As with many of the painful things I experienced in Bosnia, I tend to put these horrifying images of torture out of mind. I prefer not to think about it and to avoid those things that remind me of my time there. Which is why reading and writing about torture is actually fairly difficult for me. But, as with the public avowal of my commitment to nonviolence, it is time to start thinking & speaking clearly about those moral issues which impose themselves upon our era. Past eras have had to deal with slavery & freedom, religious liberty, women's rights and scientific advances that changed the landscape of the world. How we respond to terror, not only the terror of the jihadist or insurgent, but the officially sanctioned terror of the government, may well be our legacy to the future.



John Howard Yoder coined the term "Constantinianism" to describe the nature of the church that arose after Constantine's edict making Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire. The church and the state became enmeshed with each other, each supporting the other's mission and actions. The state used its coercive power to enforce the state religion on the populace, just as it had previously under pagan rule, and added a specifically missionary component to its dealings with outside peoples and nations. This explicit marriage between the spiritual and political lasted even through the Reformation. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli - all allied themselves with local authorities to propagate their version of the Reformation, even granting political leaders the right to appoint clergy. Yoder draws numerous avenues of critique from this fatal mixing of politics and religion but one of the primary points he makes is the improper understanding of human agency that this arrangement inevitably brings about. Christians are not responsible for making history turn out right. Only One person can accomplish that task; our task is to be faithful to Him. We cannot control the flow of history and any effort to do so is really an attempt to usurp God's control of his creation. Thus, quite apart from questions of violence, Christians attempting to achieve political control is always frought with peril because we will find ourselves in an ongoing temptation to (attempt to) yank the reins out of God's hands, often for very good, "responsible" reasons. Mix in the ultimate issue of causing the death of another human being that we are supposed to be loving and inviting into the Kingdom, and we can see that the tight rope of political power shrinks even more. Yoder thus stands for a principled rejection of efforts to take control and to instead put dynamic trust in a God who will act when he sees fit.

But it must be admitted that one thing I personally struggle with now is how to apply my commitment to nonviolence to my participation in our government as a US citizen. The average Christian throughout most of the church's history really has not had to think about how to direct the state to act; a monarchy precludes popular participation in the decision making process. At most, a Christian had to decide about their level of participation in those activities, ie, whether to serve in the military (though this really wasn't a question for many of less-than-noble birth or means) or whether to join a religious order. With the ascension of democracy in the West, especially a secular democracy, Christians have had to tease out a theology of the state and their participation therein. This is doubly true of Christians committed to nonviolence as many aspects of state power require reliance upon or participation in violent acts. How do we reconcile our citizenship in the US with our citizenship in the Kingdom? At what point must we draw a hard line? a soft line? These are vexing questions, especially when considered in light of Yoder's thesis described above.

One the one hand, there is the unavoidable call to live lives that witness to the reconciling love of Christ. This love is expressed and demonstrated mainly in interpersonal ways, through the building of direct relationships and in direct encounters. It is face to face and hip to hip. But when this call to witness is introduced into a democratic environment, we have on the other hand the insidious temptation to wield our power as citizens to force the state to act on our behalf. Needless to say, such activity by the state cannot help but be impersonal, devoid of personal relationships and encounters, except by those employed by the state on its behalf. Take the current situation in Gaza and Israel. There is the strong temptation to attempt to influence the Bush administration to take a line that (rightly) acts to counter the suffering of innocent Palestinians presently trapped in Gaza. Here again is that horribly attractive proposal to be "responsible." We have an obligation as witnesses to the Christ that reached out to the poor and downtrodden to reach out to the poor and downtrodden in Gaza, so why not get out government in on it? Or, taking another current example, there is a relatively strong movement aimed at getting the US out of Iraq and opposing any military escalation with Iran. It varies from person to person, but a common thread coming from pacifist Christian camps is that since violence is wrong for the church, then it is our duty to act to prevent the US from acting violently.

At this point, it strikes me as glaringly obvious that these pacifists have themselves fallen for the Constantinian trap. They are attempting to wield state power on behalf of the Kingdom. Even granting its nonviolent impulses, how is this truly any different from the problems Yoder addresses? The church is conflating itself with the state, trying to use a power other than Christ to influence the world in favor of Christ or on His behalf. Yes, it aims to use peaceful means to bring about these "responsible" acts, but it is not the means that really matter. We once again return to the issue of trying to control history, to make things turn out right.

And this is where I struggle. I believe, with Yoder, that we are not called to a retreating quietism. We are called precisely out of separatist movements into direct engagement with the world around us. But what are the limits of that engagement? Can we engage in local politics? state politics? Should we attempt to serve on school boards or city councils? Should we hold elected office? Should we attempt to influence the national course through protest & demonstration? Or through letter writing & phone calls to our representative? Or not at all? Where and when can we act through the state and when can we not?

Here are some others who are working through similar issues:
Our Christian Discipleship as Political Responsibility
Toward a Cultus Publicus
The King Reigns From the Tree



This afternoon, a patient transferred over into the neuro section I was working in. He is a young man - probably mid 20's by the looks of him - who had, in the middle of a fight with his girlfriend, put a gun to his head just above the temple and pulled the trigger. The bullet went pretty cleanly through the frontal lobe of his brain and out the other side, leaving an amazingly minimal amount of exterior damage. The mere fact that he is still alive, even on intensive life support, is, well, nothing short of miraculous. If he survives he could spend the rest of his life in a vegetative state, or perhaps, be consciously trapped inside a fragmented and broken mind.

Is his (initial) survival a miracle in the true God-acted sense of the word?


New job....sort of

There's this older episode of Scrubs where all the characters reflect on their best day in medicine. They start off with some funny moments or stupid moments, but eventually all come to think about this one particular patient and his young son. For me, the best moment I've had in medicine took place at my previous job. Most of those patients were on the upswing after a lengthy ICU stay, so both patients and families were settled in for the long haul of recovery. For families sometimes those initial moments of loss, fear and doubt are the hardest to deal with, and sometimes it is trying to see the light at the end of the tunnel as your loved one struggles through yet another day where progress is measured in millimeters, if at all. I walked into a room with a patient and his wife to answer the call light. This man had had a host of problems and infections, leaving him short one leg, severely weakened and with a bad case of C. diff (I won't describe it; let's just say its bad stuff). The wife was standing, looking out the window and I could tell she was crying. So casual-like, I start talking about the progress her husband has made, how getting well is sometimes a three-steps-forward-two-steps-back kind of thing with the elimination of a major problem causing some minor ones and how, once this problem was nipped in the bud, he'd start really getting back to his old self and going home. I spent 30 minutes in that room, which was 25 minutes longer than I needed to accomplish my task but not one second less than I needed to do my job. By the end of our conversation, the wife was smiling and laughing and I think finally able to see the twinkle of light off in the distance.

That is my best moment in medicine so far, so I'm not sure why I find it so surprising that I'm not particularly liking my present position. For the last 6 months, I've been working in the ICU as part of a student nurse program. Its been a great experience and I've enjoyed all the new things I've had the chance to learn. We have a diverse patient population, including traumas (car accidents and the like, including the occasional shooting or stabbing), post-op heart and cardiovascular patients and a neuro-ICU where we have stroke & brain injury patients. There's a fair amount of excitement with codes and bed-side procedures and always something new to watch or do. But pretty much everyone is unconscious or intubated, which makes developing relationships with the patient difficult, to say the least. And visiting time is severely restricted, not just because we're in and out of the rooms so much and with families things just get too crowded, but also because we do do so many bedside stuff that other patients' privacy would be compromised. So again, not much room to develop relationships or help them find hope. I really expected that all the technical expertise that goes into being a critical care nurse (and its a lot, let me tell you) would be fulfilling for me, but it just isn't. There are parts that can be quite satisfying, but overall, its just not making me look forward to work as I have in the past.

Thankfully, I've been able to change my position so that I will now split my time between the ICU and the oncology floor. If I really enjoy oncology, I may simply go to work there full-time. I'm hoping that oncology will give me the best of both worlds; most patients are still in relatively critical condition and oncology requires its own unique expertise, but most patients are also alert & oriented, which makes conversations a whole lot easier. I should start there in a few weeks, just as summer school is wrapping up.


Old man

On my way to work, I pass by a nursing home. It sits right on the corner of a large, busy street that is the main thoroughfare on this side of town, and a smaller street that fronts older homes and a few small businesses. The nursing home is, by any standard, a handsome building. It is a three story brick Victorian with 2 rounded turrets and a wide porch that wraps around the front of the building, filled with wooden rocking chairs. The trim around the many windows is done all in white and there are two large bay windows on the second and third floors that face out onto the street. It looks like a pleasant place to live and offers a similarly pleasant name; something with "sun" in it, I think.

While not well-known, but certainly not held secret, the third floor of this nursing home is an Alzheimer's facility. As everyone does know, Alzheimer slowly eats away at your memory and mental capacities, making you in turns forgetful, delusional and, finally, nearly vegetative, until your brain can no longer tell your body to keep on living or you die from something else. Alzheimer's patients have the rather disturbing tendency to go wandering, and given their deteriorating mental state, many will not know where they're going or possibly even who they are. Which is why all of the exterior doors on an Alzheimer's wing are alarmed and why most of the patients have bed and chair alarms to alert the staff if the person tries to get up.

It has happened a few times that on my way home from work, I have seen an old man in a wheelchair seated at the third story bay window, looking out over the intersection. Since I travel the smaller street, I have had a couple of minutes to consider him as I wait for the light to turn. He sits, unmoving, possibly asleep. There is no one else around him. If he is awake, he sees to his right (and mine on the corner) a gas station. Diagonally across the street he sees a low grassy hill that partially obstructs a large, squat church that clearly spent money on space and not aesthetics. To his left, across the busy street, is an old office building. The exterior of this building is completely covered in a grey mesh made of either concrete or metal. Whether artistic or meant as an insulative layer, from this distance, it makes the building look like a cold featureless box. And at this time of day, there are no cars in the parking lots of the office or the church. The traffic on the main road flies by while people wait idly for their chance to speed across the larger road on their way home. As the window faces east, he does not even get to see the beauty of the sunset, but instead, the steady encroachment of the coming night.

And how awful that night must seem to this man. The approaching end (and subsequent beginning) of another day spent in a place that has alarms on all the doors, more like a prison than a home. The approaching night of death. The approaching night of the complete obliteration of the self from an insidious disease. Who is to say which inspires the greatest dread? And what does he do as the waning day gives over to darkness but sit and look over a cold scene, seeing people still in the quick of life hurry past? Does he draw comfort from that? Does this view inspire some hope in him? Does he seek it out? Or does the staff simply park him there, thinking he enjoys it when, perhaps, it saddens or terrifies or does nothing for his diminished mind? And what would he say to me, to us, to a world that has seemingly forgotten him? What lessons, what wisdom, what knowledge is being lost?

I do not know. What I do know is that on the nights I see him, I go home and hug my wife all the harder and am just a little more grateful. And a little more afraid of the coming night.


My new favorites

My new favorite magazine and my new favorite show.

I think I heard about Make magazine on a tv show - can't remember which - and was lucky enough to find it at Border's. Each issue is practically a mini-book and has a bunch of articles on weird, interesting and practical stuff people are making on their own, either through hacking old machines or buying parts and making stuff from scratch. The last 20 or so pages are also filled with step-by-step instructions for projects you can do at home. I've been looking for a hobby and this sure beats video games, so I'm thinking I might try a few of these things out.

Cities of the Underworld is just plain awesome in almost every respect. Each show goes to an old city in Europe (so far, I don't know if they're planning on going elsewhere) and the host, along with his intrepid camera crew and local guide, delve into the buried past. Some of the locations are amazing and you see the foundations of modern buildings that were built on walls that are maybe 1500 years old. I guess they knew how to build back then. You get some nice historical background on the architecture, what happened in the city, why these areas were buried and so on. You also get the frenetic host's rather annoying habit of saying "And nobody knows this is here!" at least 5 times a show. Which is probably true of some of the locations, but in the Paris show, he said that in the midst of tunnel walls that were completely covered in modern graffiti, and I mean miles and miles of graffiti. Apparently somebody knows its there.

Check 'em out.



For most Americans, when you speak of war, one war in particular comes to mind; World War II. It is the paradigm of war in our national mind and you could hear its echoes in the rhetoric that so many promulgated after 9/11. We were (and in the minds of many, still are, regardless of our national exploits since the end of Hitler) innocent victims, dragged into a war we did not want by the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. But once the Japanese made that mistake, by golly, we were going to set things right, finish the job, walk the line and oppose those twin evils of Japanese imperialism and Nazi fascism wherever they dared hide. And there is, obviously, no doubt that the German and Japanese regimes were lead by people bent on not just power and conquest, but that they sought those gains on the blood and skulls of the innocent. In Germany, the millions who were murdered in the concentration camps. For the Japanese, the Rape of Nanking and similar atrocities committed against "enemy combatants" in occupied lands. We, the virtuous, aggrieved nation overcame them through the selfless (and it was absolutely that) sacrifice of our soldiers, the ingenuity of our scientists and the savvy of our leaders, demonstrating for good and all the power of good over evil.

Or so the national narrative of WWII seems to go, give or take a few points, in the national mind. There are many points about this narrative that could be debated, not the least of which were some of our tactics aimed against civilian populations or the use of nuclear weapons. But that is not my point. My point is that for most Americans, war is ultimately not about death, politics, liberty or even national survival; war is about hope. War, and the subsequent American victory we have come to expect (the war in Vietnam not withstanding) confirms in our national mind that good really will triumph over evil and that we are on the side of good. Wars then become issues of cosmic significance. They are as much about who we say we are and our hope for the future (both short term and eternal) as they are about the real-world political situation that entails armed conflict. They confirm our national identity, bolster our self-regard and help us to look past our obvious failings. And what else could you expect from a nation that has, almost since its inception, been conflated and confused with the Church? The Church/America is God's kingdom, God's agent of justice, God's prophetic voice to the world and the community of the chosen, the elect. Our victory is nothing less than God's victory, and what surer sign exists of God's blessing? I recognize that I am making a generalization and that this is not true for every American, but I think it is true for most. War may be regarded as a regrettable but necessary evil or a positive force for justice, but behind those statements is the sentiment I have described above. For America, war is hope.

The problem is, war is not that for the rest of the world. War is not hope, it is hopelessness. This is a conclusion I came to during my time in Bosnia, but Dan's post really made me think about it again. For most of the world, war is not about the triumph of good over evil or the vanquishing of some distant enemy; war is about lifelong friends and neighbors one day deciding to kill each other for some very petty reasons. War is about wanting what your neighbor has or blaming him for your low position, and so you set out to take what he has or to punish him for the inexcusable crime of being a Serb/Croat/Muslim/Hutu/Tutsi/Tamil/Timoran/Hindu/Buddhist/Christian/Kurd/Sunni/Shiite, well, you see my point. The list of excuses for killing one's neighbors seems endless and include ethnicity, religion, geographical origin, skin color - all the things that we "peacefully" deal with in America, but elsewhere, are perfectly good reasons to view those around you as expendable. But in many instances, this is little more than fratricide once removed and leads inevitably to despair and and an all-pervasive hopelessness. People cling to their hope, to be sure, as I saw in the Serbs who were willing to live on donated land, building their future homes a few bricks at a time as money barely trickled in from the government or their meager salary. But for most of them, the answer for their children was not to stay and rebuild, to heal the wounds of the past and to try to forge a new future with old enemies, it was to flee to Europe, to build a life and a future elsewhere. What is that but a lack of hope? What greater statement of hopelessness is there than to deny that a homeland, a language, an identity, a family is worth suffering for? That is the reality of war. No matter who wins, everyone loses. No matter what injustices are suffered, no matter what atrocities committed, no matter what horrible enemies are overcome, it ultimately leads to dissolution for both victors and victims. War is not about hope, despite what America seems to implicitly believe.

War is hopelessness and that is why I cannot fight.


Three years old

I just realized that yesterday was this blog's third year in existence. I might need to put together a little retrospective as I've covered a lot of ground in the three years since I started this thing.


I am a pacifist

For many reasons I cannot fully identify, a convergence of factors in my life has pushed me to reveal this little fact about myself; I believe in Christian non-violence. I do not "admit" this because I am in no way ashamed of it. My reasons for not revealing this prior to now have been relatively simple - I didn't want the baggage of the term, I didn't think it really mattered whether or not I made this fact known, and, admittedly, out of a certain self-centeredness. See, I didn't become a pacifist after I left the military, I became on while still in the Army Reserves, on deployment, in fact, and filed for a discharge as a conscientious objector (which is rather frustratingly still pending). This latter information, more than the pacifism, seems to bother most people. Nevermind that I served honorably, even admirably, and with a high degree of effectiveness in my military job. Nevermind that I was recognized for my achievements, that my enlistment was actually extended beyond my initial contract or that I precisely followed the Army's own system for dealing with these kinds of things (as opposed to going AWOL & fleeing to Canada) - an admission to actually filing for the discharge seems, in the minds of a great many Christians, to taint me as a coward, a hypocrite, a de facto Nazi and/or terrorist and an overall worthless piece of garbage not worthy of respect or consideration.* So, not wanting to subject myself to this kind of nonsense and to avoid the knee-jerk reaction of those who would use this knowledge to dismiss my arguments about war (especially our current national endeavors), peace and the marks of Christian love, I kept it to myself. I preferred to make my points, proffer my opinions and debate topics undercover, as it were. Which actually never made any kind of difference since people generally assumed that for all my resistance to this war or this bit of violence I ultimately agreed with them that war & violence are acceptable in general.

I not only realized that my debating strategy was ineffective, but I also realized, thanks to a re-reading of The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder, that my understandable aversion to being electronically spat upon is also an understandable aversion to bearing my cross. If I truly believe that a key component of the Gospel is a call to non-violence, and I do, then I should be unafraid to make that known. I should be honest about that not only because I should be prepared to suffer for my King and the message of His Kingdom, but also because letting people know about my commitment to non-violence is in itself a way of preparing them to ask some hard questions. Part of the Army discharge process for a CO is an interview by a chaplain and the chaplain I spoke with had clearly never been presented with even the possibility that Christians may not be able to participate in violence. He seemed genuinely surprised that such a view existed, outside maybe the Amish or some similar group. So to state my pacifism (and like Hauerwas, it is not a word I like) is to refuse to answer the questions as they are posed by our present culture by showing that there more possible choices than just 'A' or 'B'; there are, in fact, entirely different questions to be considered.

So, there it stands. I am a pacifist. I will tell more of how I got to this point in the future, as well as discuss some specific issues or works that I'm reading. If you have questions, suggestions or just want to debate, you can email me - littlefights@gmail.com, or leave a comment.

*I was called all of these things and more on Christian web-forums when I discussed my then plans to seek a discharge.


Last week was hard/weird

The semester is finally over. Last Tuesday I took my final and managed to squeak through the class with an 'A'. Which is no mean feat when 93% is an 'A' and your teacher, bless her heart and her obvious devotion to preparing good nurses, writes what can generously be described as only mildly-horrible tests. At least 10% of the questions on every test have two right answers. Not one answer is better than the other, which I'm told is a frequent occurrence on the RN licensing exam - you know, which is the first, best thing you should do when your patient is coding or something. No, these are questions like "A common symptom of liver failure is?" and jaundice and elevated serum liver enzymes are offered as separate answers (both are right, by the way). Normally we can argue these questions when we get our tests back and she will occasionally see our point, or the book's point, or her lecture note's point, and allow both answers. But there is no chance for that on the final since we don't ever come back to class. I was borderline going into the final, knew there would be at least a few questions that were just a blind guess and thought there was a good chance I would guess incorrectly between two correct answers, thus scoring poorly enough to drop my grade. I didn't find out what my final grade was until Thursday, so it was a somewhat tense couple of days.

So that was Tuesday, but the week actually started out on a much less promising note. We've been looking for a church here for some time now, and we decided to try a new one that is part of the denomination the wife grew up in (and for which the father-in-law still works). This church was also highly recommended to me by a nurse I work with. So we went. It was nice. Good music, good mix of ages and family situations in the congregation, casual but not too casual, people were friendly - all those little things that are nice to see on your first visit. Until the pastor got up to speak. In reality, there was absolutely nothing wrong with this pastor. He was finishing up a series on parenting and made some really good points about the role of parents in the family - setting up boundaries, consistency, fairness, communication. He was energetic, passionate, engaging and had the unfortunate quality of sounding, and even looked a little, like the pastor that fired me 2 years ago to the day. Bizarre coincidence. And a rather upsetting one. I know that whole situation wounded me pretty deeply and for reasons that are not always easy to articulate, but I honestly thought I had gotten mostly past that. I feel like I've dealt with it. I can generally think about it without getting angry or sad, and I frequently don't think about it for weeks at a time. The wife and I are in a pretty good place in our lives right now and I'm thankful to be here, doing what I'm doing. No, its not my absolute ideal, but it feels right. So I was caught completely off guard by the range of negative emotions just listening to this pastor speak brought up in me; anger, sadness, frustration, anxiety - all the tumult I felt back then was right back, center-stage. It wasn't like picking a scab off of a wound; it was like getting shot in the same place again. It kind of put a funk on the whole afternoon and left me and the wife feeling just wrong. Needless to say, I don't think that is where we'll end up.

So I go from the unpleasantness of Sunday morning, to an entire Monday of cramming for finals on Tuesday. Tuesday comes and goes, which is a relief, but I'm left the tension of not knowing my final grade for the class. I'm mostly an 'A' student and potentially missing one by a few points is very frustrating to me. I'm scheduled to work Wednesday-Friday because I had to juggle my school schedule to accommodate studying for finals. I show up Wednesday morning, everything is going fine until lunch time, when a code-blue is announced overhead. The way things work in my hospital is that when someone codes (ie, dies or gets well along in the process of dying), the floor nurse calls the operator, who makes an announcement overhead, which sends a designated ICU nurse, a respiratory therapist (RT) and a pharmacist scrambling for their respective supplies as they make a mad-dash for the elevator. Once on scene, the ICU nurse takes charge of the code until a doctor arrives. My nurse was assigned codes for that day, so when the call came in, we went running. Another ICU nurse and 2 student techs also came along to assist & observe (participating in a certain number of codes is required for a few different professional accreditations). We get to the room, which quickly becomes crowded by the 7 of us, another RT, at least 3 nurses from the floor and a number of doctors. One of the other students begins compressions, but she is a rather slight thing and we're working on a larger patient (a woman in her early 40's), so I am put in to take over for her. This is the first time I've ever done compressions, first time I've ever seen a code. And it is nothing like you see on TV.

The CPR is fast and furious, with RT's alternately bagging and trying to intubate while we compress like mad. No 1-2-3-4-5, breathe - they're forcing it in as we're pushing on the chest. Monitoring patches are put on, an automatic defibrillator set up and still the compressions continue. I could feel/hear her ribs crack under my hands, but no matter, you keep pushing, pushing, pushing. Ribs will heal but her body needs the blood. I compressed for probably 10 minutes straight, pausing only long enough for them to shock her or try to get the breathing tube in. The shocks were not dramatic - no exaggerated arching of the back, no loud thump or sound of electricity. Just a whine from the defibrillator indicating it had charged, followed by a "Clear!" and then the lady's arms twitching when the shock was applied. And then back to compressions. I was drenched in sweat when another student stepped in to take my place. We rotated through the three of us then, every couple of minutes, though by the end, none of us were lasting more than 30 seconds. My arms burned, my shoulder felt like jello and my whole body was drained. Still, you push. The entire episode turned into nothing more than pushing, shocking and injecting drugs in a kind of organized chaos - all heads turned toward the monitor, hoping, praying for a rhythm, anything other than the horrible, small wavy line that indicated nothing but random electrical activity in the heart. We worked for 35 minutes before the doctor finally called it.

And then it was over. The room cleared. We gathered our equipment and left. For 35 minutes every person in that room was focused on doing anything and everything to bring that lady back. People were handing up supplies, pushing drugs through her IV, adjusting the equipment, asking & answering questions, relaying information to people in the hall - just a hundred different things going on at once. And in the time it took a single man to utter a single sentence, it stopped. It was done and she was gone. The whole drama of life and death and all of eternity opening up for this person was over in less than a second. The quiet that ensued was such a stark contrast that you'd almost think nothing had happened, that we had all gathered in this small room around this metal bed for no apparent reason and now, realizing that our presence served no purpose, were leaving, back to our jobs and daily routines, befuddled by our pointless presence.

In my less-than-2-years in the medical field, I have handled at least a dozen dead bodies. I have washed them, removed IV lines, catheters and readied them for transfer to the morgue. I have put them in body bags, affixed toe-tags, packed up their belongings and carted them down to a large walk-in cooler in the basement. Most of these deaths were expected, even planned in a way. The families had decided to remove life support and on a set day and time, the machines were unplugged, the tubes removed and the person died. Sometimes quickly, sometimes they lingered for hours or days. But everyone knew death was coming soon and there would be no announcement overhead, no mad scramble for supplies or sprints to the elevator. That was the key difference - this lady still had hope, or at least there was hope to be had. It was a struggle to walk away from that bed, to renounce that hope. I came out of that room a changed man; now, more than ever, will I fight to keep that hope alive in those entrusted into my care by their families and Creator. I will push until all hope is gone.


Things that should never be said in church again

The wife and I checked out a new church on Sunday. And by new I mean brand new. It was started not too long ago by the former youth pastor at my in-law's church. I'm not sure what all lead him to quit his old church and start this new one, but I do recall something about his wanting to reach out to the pomo generation, do the emergent church thing or something like that. I wanted to go mostly out of curiosity because of that and because the church presently meets in a really nice movie theater. It was, admittedly, more than a bit disconcerting to walk into "church" and see a bunch of movie posters and gigantic cardboad cutouts of kids moview characters. But there were a lot of younger couples there, which was encouraging to the wife and me. We've been here close to 2 years and really haven't made any new friends not directly related to work or school.

The service was fine. The sermon maybe started a little rough but he got it together pretty quickly and came to a good, challenging conclusion at the end. The music was also good, with, I think, a good song selection, not too much repetition and worshipful without that overly forced worshipfulness that seems to afflict a lot of worship leaders nowadays. One thing it definitely was not was 'emergent.' It seemed pretty straight forward and evangelical to me, just with a younger pastor and congregation. There are a few other churches we want to check out, but its made the short list of those that warrant a repeat visit.

Couple of things that bugged me and the wife, though. There was the ubiquitous church bulletin with the little card asking for name, address, interests, 'faith response', etc. First, they asked everyone to fill out the card so that "we'll have a record of your attendance." A record of my what?! Am I back in grade school? Am I going to get a perfect attendance award at the end of the year? No. At least I don't think so, though that might draw more people to come. A nice little trophy or a plaque of some sort could be just the thing to fill the seats. I never got one in elementary school - now might be my chance!

The second annoying thing was that at the end of this otherwise good and challenging sermon, the pastor asked everyone to "journal our thoughts" on said little card and to drop them in the offering basket as it comes by. Now, this isn't a large card. It isn't even a 3x5 card. It was 3x3, maybe 3x4, but that was pushing it. And one side was completely covered in the name-address-faith commitment-interested in serving stuff. Heaven forbid you actually wanted to "journal your thoughts" you wouldn't have had room to do more than a line or two. Three if you wrote really, really small. And they immediately transitioned into a song that the worship leader asked us to stand up for. I'm not sure what kind of journalling response they were hoping for but I'm pretty sure they didn't get it. Don't try some new little activity unless you're actually going to structure things to do that little activity. So no more journalling in church. Unless you really need that 'A' to make up for a bad attendance record.


The Twilight of Atheism

A couple of months ago, I downloaded a lecture by NT Wright from "Open Forum", which is hosted by City Church of San Francisco. Also on the page is a lecture by Alister McGrath. I recognized the name and decided to download his as well. I listened to them both several times during my workouts and was struck by McGrath's discussion about Richard Dawkins, who is apparently a rather militant atheist. I remember picking up his book, A Devil's Chaplain while at Borders a couple of years ago and found it rather unimpressive from a cursory examination. McGrath is presently a theologian, but once pursued a career, and graduate degrees, in the sciences and came to faith as a result of his studies. He is well spoken, irenic and not a little funny in the audio file, so I decided to see which of his many books were available at our brand new downtown library.

I checked out The Twilight of Atheism and have been working through it for the past couple of weeks. It begins with an abridged review of the history of atheism, starting, surprisingly enough, with the early Christians who were accused of atheism for not supporting the imperial cult of the emperor or the Roman pantheon. He moves onto the French Revolution, the rise of modernism, communism and the ways in which the natural sciences became battle grounds in the alleged war between faith and reason. He highlights the works of 3 iconic atheist figures: Feuerbach, Marx and Freud, and examines their main arguments. He touches on some other figures, such as Nietzsche, Carl Jung and others that contributed to the rise and power of atheism in the last 2 centuries.

The book itself is rather short, only a few hundred pages, and the first half is devoted mainly to this historic review. The second half of the book, which I'm just about finished with, focuses on the present day situation of atheism, the waning of modernism and the rise of postmodernism, and the ways in which the church is generally responding. It must be said that McGrath, while a devoted Christian, is not above seeing the shortcomings and failures of Christians and the church. He offers a fairly lengthy discussion on the ways in which the Reformation actually laid much of the foundation for the rise of atheism and identifies the key weaknesses that still plague the mainline Protestant churches. He criticizes some of the early Protestant churches for creating a theology that effectively cut God out of the world in their zeal to eliminate Catholic ways of thinking and possible abuses. For instance, Calvin and Zwingli focused so heavily on the role of scripture in the life of the Christian that they eliminated the potential to encounter God in the natural world. Encountering God outside of the Bible could lead to a Christianized nature-religion, as did develop in parts of Europe and elsewhere. This desacralized nature in the minds of many Christians and McGrath argues it was but a short step to move from a distant God to no God at all.

I'd recommend the book, though there are some portions which are a bit sloppily edited; there are some redundant sections and the flow isn't all that great. The main thing I think I've taken away from this book involves the ways in which Christians have hitched themselves to the dominant cultural themes in their respective times. Simply put, we have to avoid doing that because as believers, we have a strong tendency to dogmatize. Modernistic Christians have built an immense edifice based on reason, rationalism and the pursuit of an absolute, objective knowledge. They have tended to treat God more as an object of study than a person to be worshipped and experienced. As the culture shifts away from modernism's ideals, the ties between theology & reason have become so tightly woven that the fall of modernism starts to pull on faith as well. The same is true of the current political and scientific strategies that many Christians have undertaken. If those scientific underpinnings change, as happened when Darwin initially came upon the scene, what happens to the church and the faith she holds? If we dogmatically link our theology to a specific scientific principle, then disproving the latter inevitably damages the former. I think we should still engage in apologetics, particularly in the natural sciences, but we have to do so with a fair degree of caution lest we inadvertently lay the groundwork for a future assault on the faith.


Unity08 - Can't we all just get along?

I received the January/February edition of the Atlantic last week - probably a little late due to it being a Christmas gift-subscription. This issue has a special focus on the state of the union, highlighting 4 critical areas: post-Katrina education reform in New Orleans serving as an experiment for the rest of the nation, Chief Justice Roberts' views on judicial temperament and his goals for leading the Court, a profile of a gene-mapper and his efforts to use this technology to help find new energy sources, and a brief exploration of Unity08. All of these articles are interesting, especially the education & court readings, but Surprise Party was probably the most intriguing, at least at first. Apparently a group of old-time political operatives and campaign managers got together for dinner just before the mid-term elections, voiced their concerns and frustrations with the way campaigns (and politics) are being run at present and decided to do something about it. The players are Doug Bailey, who worked for President Ford, and Jerry Rafshoon and Hamilton Jordan. The latter two worked for President Carter's campaign.

What they want to do is field a bi-partisan ticket, chosen by the first online political convention made up of anybody who gets on the website and signs up. Their goal is to retake the center of American politics by putting up centrist candidates who, due to the bipartisan nature of the ticket, will appeal to voters firmly in the middle. Not too hot, not too cold, but just right. Its a Goldilocks kind of political endeavor. They're hoping that America will be largely dissatisfied with the candidates the main parties pick, thus building momentum for their ticket and giving the middle a voice. They're also avoiding money from PAC's and businesses, and are instead relying solely on personal donations to fund the campaign. Due to the novel nature of their endeavor and their reliance on the internet, they think they should be able to do this on the cheap, which sounds reasonable for the initial stages.

The article is rather upbeat, painting a rather rosy picture with poll numbers, innovators that have gotten onboard with the group and even making comparisons with the feel-good Clint Eastwood movie "Space Cowboys." For anyone dissatisfied with the current political climate and the way money & special interests seem to trump common sense and whats-best-for-the-nation, Unity08 sounds like a winner.

At least until you visit the website.

A brief survey of the online forums reveals that all this come-togethery-feel-good-ness isn't quite working out as planned. The old, contentious and deep running issues still come to the fore. Will Unity08 be pro-choice or pro-life? Its looking to be pro-choice, with most pro-life members getting flamed or accused of religious bigotry (perhaps not too surprising given one of the major fundraisers is Roger Craver, a man who helped create and fund NARAL and NOW). The same is true of the issue of gay marriage. Many are willing to cede that the word "marriage" should not be used to describe gay civil unions, but most of those also want to eliminate the word from all legal references as well. Essentially, they want the government to recognize nothing but civil unions, regardless of the participants, and leave "marriage" up to those religious folk who choose to call their unions such. Those who have their doubts or concerns are roundly ignored.

Is Unity08 for or against troop withdrawals, time-tables, surges and all the other stuff swirling in debates about the Iraq war? You honestly can't pin it down to any one plan, but it seems to be landing well on the side of a near-term withdrawal. Personally, I think that's a good idea for reasons I may explicate in a later post, but I don't know how that's going to play to middle America, especially if there isn't a lot of sound reasoning behind it.

There are, of course, many other issues that need to be discussed, but from what I've seen, most of the participants are ending up left-of-center in their views, which does not bode well for Unity08's chances. It is also not clear how having a Republican president and Democrat VP (or vice versa) will result in any more bipartisanship than we currently see. Whoever is the top man (or woman this time around) still wields the greatest power and is still at least somewhat beholden to his party and its base. There is nothing to say or require that the VP will have any more power or say in the way things are run. If the President doesn't want to let them throw their 2 cents in, they will be sidelined.

Representative of this problem is the attitude of many on the website who don't even want to hear opposing views. One such poster requested a function to screen all comments from "those who aren't contributing positively to this movement." Many of the threads seem to be degenerating into little more than ad hominem attacks, petty stereotyping and the airing of old grievances. Is this any way to build a new political movement? One that aims to shake up the current system and retake the executive office for the center of American politics that seems to be largely ignored? It sure doesn't seem like it. I don't know how Unity08 can expect to overcome these issues, especially with a nearly non-existent presence of the founders & leaders in the web-forum. Since these forums are the only way Unity08 can build a platform or identify the qualities they want in a candidate, these seems tantamount to suicidal incompetence.

Ultimately, I hope Unity08 is able to shake things up a bit. I'd like things to not be so caught up in the extremes of either party. But I also seriously doubt that this kind of ground-up democracy can really work in such a polarized era. Unless the leadership takes on the burden of seriously trying to build a bridge and find constructive ways forward, I think Unity08 will end up as little more than an interesting historical footnote.


Does attendance = approval?

Driving home from clinicals this afternoon, I was hopping around the radio dial and ended up on a Catholic AM station. I would normally listen to NPR when I'm in the mood for talk, but they were discussing the new diet drug "Alli" and I've dealth with more than enough fecal incontinence to not need to hear about it on the radio. A caller revisited a topic the host had discussed in a previous show, wherein he told someone that it would be wrong for him/her to attend a wedding of a Catholic to a non-Catholic. The caller, who described her family as "very Catholic", was troubled by the host's statement because her son (himself apparently quite Catholic, as well) is engaged to a non-Catholic and she found the idea that she should boycott the wedding, and possibly the reception, to be "arrogant, harsh, legalistic and unloving." The host's response was rather lackluster and it wasn't entirely clear whether or not a Catholic marrying a Protestant or Orthodox is more acceptable in his mind than marrying a Buddhist or some such.

Initially, I favored the argument of the mother. How is it witnessing to the love of Christ to refuse to attend your own son's wedding? What kind of message does that send to the would-be daughter-in-law? I'm not one for an overly pragmatic view of things - what's right should be done regardless of how others perceive it - so the question is what's right? Is communicating disapproval of the marriage right? I agree there are some serious problems with the marriage of a believer to a non-believer, problems internal to the marriage, to the individuals and externally to the community of believers. So if the disapproval is correct, is this the best way to communicate that? Is showing love right? Of course, is that really showing love? If you truly believe that Christ is the answer to the most important questions and that the marriage relationship incarnationally expresses God's relationship with those who believe he is the answer, well then, it really isn't very loving to let someone go on thinking that they're okey-dokey without him. Denying your beliefs for the sake of some culturally-arbitrary definition of "loving" sure doesn't make the grade. But all of these questions are murky, with nebulous boundaries smudged by shoddy thinking and poorly grounded faith. I doubt that many people in today's America are really able to think clearly on these issues, especially not people of my generation. We've got too many different influences, most of them well-intentioned but still hopelessly wrong, to be able to chart a clear course. And if, by miracle or luck, we are able to faithfully and thoughtfully find a position we think corresponds to God's, it is highly unlikely that our arguments will seem convincing to many others. (I know this sounds pretty negative, but frankly, after listening to my peers discuss deep and difficult ethical questions surrounding the beginning and end of life, I realize that my generation not only doesn't have the intellectual and moral ability to think through these subjects, they don't care to even try.) So arguing, as the host and caller did, from a utilitarian perspective is, in itself, not very utilitarian; it just won't get the job done. One person is talking about hammers and the other about screwdrivers and they frequently don't realize they're on different subjects.

The questions raised by the caller made me think back to a few years ago when my wife and I attended a wedding of a Catholic to a non-Catholic (Protestant, in this case). It was held at a Catholic church, presided over by a Catholic priest and, contrary to what I thought was the norm, was over in less than 30 minutes. Probably more like 20. Anyways, the reason it was so short its because the Mass was not performed. There were vows, some music, an exchange of rings - you know, the traditional stuff. Except it isn't traditional at all. These elements were divorced from the truly traditional context of worship that culminated in the Eucharistic sharing of Christ, with the added significance of this newly forged marriage-relationship that is but a shadow of the relationship between Christ and His church. That service was not the spectator sport that weddings have presently become. It was an entrance into a sacrament, a new way of relating to God and to this wonderfully made spouse, experiencing like never before God's love for us. The ceremony I saw was essentially a civil proceeding being overseen by an official, who happened to also be a religious leader, who had been invested with the legal authority to witness 2 parties entering into a contractual relationship of a domestic nature, in front of a group of onlookers. Though both of these individuals were (and are) Christians and their marriage bears the fruit of that comingled faith, the ceremony itself was not Christian, not really. Though we were there as a community, we were not there to worship. Though we all (or only some)believed in Christ, we did not share in His body - either in communion or as a church.

This, I think, is where the host's argument should have been made. Thinking more broadly, the marriage of a Christian to a non-Christian isn't really "marriage" from the perspective of the church precisely because the joining cannot be made as, and in the prescence of, the church. It cannot be done in worship and communion. And if that is how marriage is supposed to begin - as a celebration of God's love and relationship with man - and if that is how it is supposed to be lived, then it is very difficult for me to conceive of any situation wherein such a wedding can have the sanction and blessing of the faithful. No ceremony or ritual can overcome the distance that truly separates these 2 people, or the church body from the non-believer. So participating in a religi-fied ceremony that takes on the trappings of the church's worshipful celebration without any of its content is problematic at the very least. Looking at things from this perspective, I tend to favor the host's view, though I see several difficult questions that our present cultural context raises and certainly agree that such a position can come off as harsh and arrogant.

Can Christians participate and/or attend purely civil marriage ceremonies? Is our presence an implicit blessing of that union? Or is it merely being a spectator and demonstrating our love for one (or both) of the parties involved?


The shadow

I was at the gym earlier today and while I was working out, I started listening to a lecture by NT Wright given at Open Forum on his recent book Simply Christian. In the opening remarks, Bishop Wright makes a point about the shadow that hangs over our existence. Even when things are working out perfectly, which they often aren't, there is always a shadow hanging over us. Be it death or the inevitable disappointment that things aren't quite as wonderful as they first seemed, there exists a certain hollowness in all of our endeavors that is engendered by the inevitable march of seemingly infinite time. He raises the example of a person who loves music, particularly the works of Bach or Beethoven, who deeply desires the opportunity to study the work of these masters in college. But as these studies unfold, the magic of the music is lost, its engaging mystery fades and the once-ardent passion is blighted, sometimes taking years to regenerate, if ever. I think that accurately describes my own feelings towards nursing at the moment.

With the start of this semester, I am struggling to find the draw that propelled me so forcefully through the previous three. My new job is, I think, one of the reasons for this dwindling motivation. I now work in a surgical-trauma intensive care unit as a student nursing assistant. This job not only pays more, but affords me the opportunity to practice many more hands-on nursing skills. With appropriate supervision, I assess patients, chart their condition, administer medicines, hang IV's and review labs & diagnostic procedures. I get to see the stuff I'm studying first hand. And I'm discovering that this work is very different than what I thought it was. It is quite challenging at times, with some patients requiring constant vigilance and activity to keep them from going bad, but in many situations, the work is actually quite tedious. We administer drugs, we monitor for complications, but their doesn't seem to be many opportunities to develop relationships with the patients or their families. There isn't much of a chance to alleviate fear or to offer support. Part of that, I'm sure, is due to my own lack of knowledge and experience in this setting. I can't tell a family member that things are looking up or that the patient is making improvement because I honestly don't know if they are. I don't know if certain complications are normal or extremely worrisome. I don't know enough to be able to offer an opinion that is worth anything. And while I know intellectually that this will change, that my knowledge and experience will grow and that this will afford me more opportunities to engage the human elements of nursing that I love, that day seems very distant right now. Right now I'm slogging through the entirely mundane elements of school and learning, focusing on the little details of conditions, medicines, charting, etc, that, when added together, make for a strong nurse, but when taken individually, as I am forced to at the moment, are disheartening and dull.

In a way, I know this is good. I am learning more about myself, more about what kind of nurse I want to be and what setting I will thrive in. But right now, looking at the calendar of 3 more semesters of long, hard work, it is a heavy weight.


Reluctant Saint - The Life of Francis of Assisi

I picked up Reluctant Saint at a used bookstore because, frankly, I had a lot of extra credit with them and needed to use it before they switched to a new system. It looked good, so I picked it up and put it on the shelf to read at some future point. Which I finally did over the Christmas break. Having read it, I would now gladly have paid the retail price for the book.

Spoto, who is apparently better known as a celebrity biographer (his subjects include Audrey Hepburn and Hitchcock, among many others), has also written The Hidden Jesus, in which he calls Jesus the "man no one knows." From that simple statement, one can get a sense of his more liberal theological views, which, thankfully, do not assume a bully pulpit in Reluctant Saint. For the most part, Spoto is willing to let the simple and devout faith of Francis explain his actions without interjecting his own interpretations. Spoto does offer his opinion from time to time, but generally his views offer only a slightly skewed look at what most faithful Christians would overwhelmingly support. There are bits of dross to be picked out, but the remaining substance has clearly been influenced by the amazing life of St Francis.

And Spoto writes well. His prose is clear and engaging, painting a very intimate portrait of a deep, troubled and holy man. He deftly sums up details and arguments that could easily grow tedious to the casual reader while clarifying the issues and showing how they were relevant to the involved parties. All in all, Spoto recreates a very present Francis, tracing through his conflicted youth, to the first inspired steps of a beggar-saint, to the reluctant and eventually rejected leader of a movement that would have a far-flung and lasting impact. I would highly recommend this book if only because the life that inspired many thousands of others to forsake all in pursuit of living the Gospel is still so very inspiring.

I have to admit that Francis' commitment to poverty and simplicity of life & action is something that is just as necessary and relevant today as it was during his lifetime. In a society of conspicuous consumption, where for many what we own defines who we are, what greater challenge to the world can there be than someone who intentionally rejects the pursuit of stuff? And having rejected all that the world says we so desperately need, goes on to serve those that the world has rejected and the One whom it rejected, and does so with quiet joy? I think it is that last point, the joy, that is actually what is so challenging about Francis. He was wracked by physical illness, frequently rejected by the world and eventually rejected by the very movement he founded, his personal hopes and dreams (I never would have guessed Francis made a failed effort at participating in a Crusade!) lay unfulfilled and yet he lived and died devoted to and joyful in his Lord. And it is joy that the world truly covets. Contentment & security is what drives the consumption machine either in an effort to mask the profound sense of alienation and fear that permeates the world or to alleviate it, if only for a few moments.

And Francis unequivocally, unambiguously states that there is no joy to be had in things, indeed, in the very pursuit of joy itself. Joy is a by-product of a life lived against the grain of the world. This is very challenging to me, not in the least because Francis' life of poverty does not lend itself to caring for a family. How do I take the lessons that Francis teaches and apply them to my own life?