...are the ones that make the biggest difference


Getting Crowded Out

It is easy to miss things when reading the Bible, especially when Jesus comes into play. Not only are His parables both simple and complex, revealing and obscuring, but even the shortest pericopes about His words or actions operate on so many levels. So too the stories we are given as background.

Take Mark 2:1-12. We are presented with a beautiful story about the faithfulness (and faith!) of four friends who scandalously break the law in order to help their paralyzed companion. Much can be, and has been, said about the amazing example of these four men who refused to give up in seeking the Good. They ignored social convention, physical obstacles and the law for the sake of love. What would our churches, communities and homes look like if we followed their example? This is an easy take away from this story...

Read the rest on Jesus Manifesto.


New church - where do you draw the line?

With our recent move, the wife and I (and son) have started the process of looking for a church. After deciding against Orthodoxy, which sounds negative, I know, but isn't meant to be understood that way. Ultimately there were just too many little things that we couldn't quite reconcile ourselves to. But after we decided not to become Orthodox, we tried out a few different churches and ended up in a large, non-denominational style congregation. It was certainly a far cry from Orthodoxy, but it was starting to meet our needs and we had hopes of getting involved. Unfortunately, the time demands of school were too much and we didn't end up connecting with anyone for some time. But over the last 5-6 months prior to the move, it had started becoming more and more like the church I youth pastored at (here are some references here here here). Our time in Orthodoxy had given us a stronger appreciation of the intentional nature of worship. Singing pop-music to set up a sermon ain't it.

So we were going to be looking for a church no matter what. Now we're in our new city and not 100 yards down the street is an Episcopal church. We decided to try it out first and have gone for a couple of weeks now. The worship is liturgical and reminded us a great deal of the Lutheran churches (Missouri Synod) that we had checked out before, excepting that the music is much more simple. I last took choir in middle school and the Lutheran hymns were all over the map melodically, which I couldn't even come close to keeping up with. The liturgies have been led by a team of three women priests. The head priest (is that the vicar? I must admit some ignorance of the Anglican terminology) is a male but is presently on a summer sabbatical. I admit that the idea of women priests is still a bit unsettling to me, and not just because of our time in Orthodoxy. I tend to be a traditionalist in many respects and the issue of male leadership is plainly discussed in the Bible in several places. But so too is the equality & priesthood of all believers. I guess I'm fairly ambivalent about the issue at present.

However, the priestess who gave the sermon both today and last Sunday did a phenomenal job, They were on the short side, but I found them both challenging and encouraging. Today, for instance, she spoke about the congruence between our times - with all their uncertainty and present natural disasters striking so close to home*, and the uncertainty of Jesus' time, particularly with the Roman occupation. In sending out His disciples, Jesus sent them out "prophetically unprepared" - no money, no bags, no extra clothes or walking sticks - so they would see both God working in them and in their most meager activities. What may seem just like pebbles disappearing into the roiling sea, may be used in mighty and mysterious ways by God to bring about His Kingdom.

In my distinct pleasure of the simple liturgy, the quality of the homilies and the architecture (say what you want, I still think the design of our worship space is important!), in the challenge of confronting an issue I had not adequately reflected on previously, still ringing in the back of my mind are the larger issues confronting the Episcopal church in this country. I obviously disagree with electing an openly gay, divorced bishop who presently lives with his partner. I also find the disrespect the American Episcopal Church has shown to the larger and more conservative Anglican communion hard to stomach. But I also know there is a fair amount of theological diversity in the local bodies, so this congregation could be fairly conservative or at least middle of the road. I guess I'm just not sure where to draw the line. Is being in communion with Gene Robinson enough to prevent my communion in this church? Or should I be more local minded? So what are the local issues that could potentially cross the line? It seems that a lot of the issues I have dealt with previously, questions of authority, tradition and worship are once again coming back to me, but in very different forms. This congregation seems to care deeply about the things I care deeply about - outreach to the poor, positively affecting the surrounding the community, sharing Christ with those who do know Him. Are issues of sexuality sufficient to overcome those things? Where do I draw the line?

*My brother lives in Cedar Rapids and his home was hit by the catastrophic floods. He was ordered to evacuate Wednesday night and hasn't been able to get back in to check the damage. On top of that, he recently had surgery and so he's somewhat physically limited. Please pray for him & his wife, and the entire region.


Moments of Significance

**Some of what follows may seem critical of a family member, but it is not intended to be taken personally. These are general comments on our culture and the way it treats the significant moments of our lives.**

My brother-in-law got married this weekend. Overall, the weekend went surprisingly smoothly. The only blemish was an intense thunderstorm that struck Friday night during the rehearsal dinner, which really only soaked people (such as myself) who had to run out to get the car. The rehearsal dinner was relaxed but poignant, and the wedding service itself was beautiful. The words of the pastor were encouraging, gently challenging and, above all, seeded with the Gospel. The musical choices were excellent and the two singers have wonderful voices. The reception went well; the food was good, the toasts personal and humorous, and a video prepared by my brother-in-law (he is an all-things-technical whiz) was both moving and personally revealing. I look at my brother-in-law, and his new bride, in an entirely different light after seeing what he prepared.

There were, of course, highlights to the weekend, but there was a moment in particular that stand out to me.

I, a nephew and the bride's brother, were ushers, and as such, were tuxedoed and invited into the wedding party photos. I, of course, give no merit to the suggestion that there is any kind of luck, ill or otherwise, associated with the groom seeing the bride before the wedding. I do, however, see some special significance to the moment that the groom sees his beautiful, white-clad bride walking towards him in the seconds before they are to be joined. That is a moment that is shared by everyone in the room, and to me, it is one moment that most clearly reveals the analogous relationship between a man and a woman and Christ and the Church. The bride, the Church, being presented in the company of heaven, blameless and pure, to the groom, the Bridegroom, for an eternal union. I remember clearly seeing my own wife in this powerful moment; in fact, it is about all I remember of the wedding ceremony itself. My wife was lovely and beautiful and radiant in a profoundly unique way that will never be repeated. It is a singular moment in our wonderful marriage. But my brother-in-law and his fiance chose to experience this significant moment in a different, less communal way. And they did it for pictures.

The meeting was arranged in a park. A lovely park on a clear, if windy, early summer day. The men arrived about an hour earlier for their photos, then the women. The bride and groom met under a domed gazebo, alone except for the photographer, as the rest of the party waited in the seats of the ampitheater that surrounded them. They proceeded with several photos there, followed by many more photos of them and the wedding party at various other locations in the park. Photos of them in each other's arms, kissing, gazing at each other. As I'm sure you've gathered by now, this bothered me. Not only did I think they were missing out on a truly unique moment in both their own relationship and their relationship with those attending the wedding (friends and family alike), but they were missing out on it for mere memorabilia. And memorabilia they got in spades - 2 sets of engagement pictures, the pre-wedding photos, ceremony photos, family photos immediately after the ceremony and then more pictures of the couple downtown after the reception. It seems to me, and I could be wrong, that their choices reflect a larger cultural pathology to prize the artifacts or narrative of a memory more than the living out of the memory-making experience. We do not inhabit the moment; we provide commentary.

There are numerous examples of this. Scrapbooking, for instance, which is a hugely popular hobby among women particularly. What is the point except to frame and narrate specific memories? How many pictures are taken with the explicit appraisal of how they will appear in a scrapbook? So too are the elaborate social rituals we engage in. Whether its the ten year old girls running up to each other squealing, the group of college-aged friends bar hopping or fifty year old men on the golf-course, so much of what we do with and for each other is not about the actual relationship. Rather, its about defining and narrating the experience of it. I had a good friend in college who moved to California and started hanging out with a group of women. I could tell she wasn't particularly happy there or with them, but she found the narrative arch of 'Sex and the City' compelling enough to compare her group of friends with the show's characters. By using the ready-made identities and relationships of the show, she was able to find some meaning in relationships she would not otherwise have maintained. The story of their friendship, even a borrowed story, became far more important than the friendships themselves. The story is all that matters! Going back to the event that inspired this post, look at the wedding industry. It rakes in billions of dollars a year on dresses, decorations, locations, wedding planners, cakes and extravagant gifts not to celebrate a union, but to tell the story of the "happiest day of your life!" It is another borrowed narrative that we impose on ourselves.

The intent is to tell the story of the event, to present the narrative to others and, most importantly, to the self. And the stories we choose to tell are frequently provided to us by a culture steeped in narcissism, greed and perpetual instability. This is why we have to keep finding a new story to tell. Each new event requires us to once again frame and narrate the story. It seems to me that we are incapable of believing in the event without having a story to relate. It is almost as if the moment becomes ephemeral unless we can provide some narrative or artifact to represent it. The nihilism inherent in consumerism and materialism, the support structures of our Western culture, prods us ever forward into finding another story to tell because without them, we come face to face with our own insigificance.

Which is precisely what we must do as Christians. We have to confront and accept our own insignificance in the grand scheme of history. We will have our roles to play, but Christ must increase and we must decrease. We are but grass, here one day, burned up the next. The story of Christ, which we take as our own in our repentance and baptism, makes us both eternally significant and temporally insignificant. The events of our lives matter but only because they are imbued with eternity. This is why the martyr can lay down his or her life so willingly. It is not because heaven awaits, but because the Kingdom is already present. My life has meaning only in the presence of the King. Without Him, all the trappings of this life, even those moments of profound happiness and joy, are but brief steps in a steady march towards destruction. In embracing His story, our story can only take a back seat. We give up the meaning of our life in exchange for the meaning of His life.


Tell Your Elected Officials to Support the Ban

I would strongly encourage anyone reading this to contact their representatives in Congress and advocate for the US adopting the cluster munitions ban. The ban is receiving worldwide support even among some of the top users of cluster munitions, like Great Britain. The US, China, India, Russia and Pakistan, however, are refusing to become signatories of the measure even though the ban does not prevent the future use of cluster bombs that utilize some kind of self-destruct mechanism in the case of bomblet failure. Some cluster munitions have as high as a 70% failure rate turning their impact sites into de facto minefields that lead to thousands of civilian deaths or injuries every year. Yes, the US says its working on improving cluster bomb safety measures, but testing for these devices frequently occurs under conditions that are very different from the battlefield. And with as many as 1 billion submunitions stockpiled the US is highly unlikely to decommission those stores in favor of purchasing new, possibly safer weapons. Please let your representatives know that the US should sign the ban.

Here are some links:

Children Are 40% of Cluster Bomb Casualties
The Politics of Cluster Bombs (good statistics towards the end)
The results of cluster bombs in Lebanon
E-MINE page on cluster bombs


Started my new job

I started my new job this week. Its basically all orientation for the next couple of weeks - nothing too exciting but its giving me a good feel for the organization. I was pleased to hear that the hospital system for which I work gives away almost $500 million in care every year. They are a nonprofit, so they turn profits back into the community by providing care for the poor and disadvantaged. That is an amazing thing.

I was, however, dismayed to hear that the unit I'll be working on will be giving up its transplant patients to a newly formed unit that will handle all transplants, including the intensive care patients that my unit formerly handled. The change hasn't take effect yet but it will by the end of the summer. Frankly, the opportunity to get experience with transplants was one of the reasons I chose this hospital over some of the other offers I had, so I'm disappointed that it won't be happening. I'm sure I'll still be getting good experience but I'm hoping there will still be some variety in the patients. Its a general surgical ICU and without the transplants, it could be little more than 'guts and butts', so to speak.



Recently there was some degree of controversy over President Bush equating Senator Obama's stated willingness to meet without preconditions with the leaders of American enemy-states, like Iran, with the (attempted) appeasement of Hitler. I didn't really follow the back and forth between Senators Obama and McCain, and the President, but I heard about it, especially on conservative talk radio. I'm not an avid listener but I do punch around the dial on occasion and of the three programs that are aired locally; Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, all have accused Senator Obama of being naive and part of the "blame America first crowd." They also argue that this kind of high-level engagement will make America less safe. This latest appeasement controversy has only increased these kinds of accusations. I'm sure I've also heard at least 2 of the 3 say the leaders of Iran, Syria and Hamas are without hope of redemption or reconciliation. "They only want to kill us!" and "Talking to them shows weakness!" are sort of the catch-phrases of this new attack on Democratic contender.

I am troubled by this kind of rhetoric in a number of ways. First, the argument that meeting with the Iranian President, for example, will make America less safe. What exactly can anyone do that will make America more safe in regards to Iran? They know the US is mired in Iraq and that it will take at least a couple of years to withdraw should a Democrat win the White House. And that starting next year. They're sprinting for the finish line of becoming a nuclear power and America does not have the military capacity to deal with Iran in any fashion. Any strike within the country would almost certainly lead to an all-out offensive on US troops in Iraq by insurgents, if not an all out war with the Iranian military. Plus, the drastic reduction in Middle Eastern oil production that would come with such a conflict would tank the US economy. What option does the US really have right now? Standing tough and refusing to engage may offer up good sound bites, but it is far from sound reasoning. About the only thing we've got left is serious diplomatic engagement. The status quo may not make America less safe, but neither does it offer the chance of improving the situation. Here I think we see the failure of militarism to adequately ensure the peace of the world and the safety of America. Christians cannot rely on the government to ensure our safety precisely because it is the government that is putting us in danger. Christ is our only security.

The other two arguments contradict my Christian understanding of the world. I know there are Christians (ie, Calvinists) who hold to the idea that people are totally depraved and there are indeed those who are beyond redemption because God has willed it thus. I am not one of them. The Gospel is the Gospel to the whole world, not just Americans, Europeans or other people amenable to US foreign policy goals. As Christians, we can never say that someone is beyond all hope, for Christ is our hope. We can never say that there can be no common ground between us, because we share the common image of our Creator. Christ died equally for me and Ahmadinejad. He hung on that cross for you and Hitler. We may be scandalized by that realization and even find it repugnant to our ideas of fairness and justice, but it is the reality to which every Christian must submit. To deny it is to deny Christ Himself. I realize that these commentators are speaking in secular, political terms, but they borrow the language of faith and we cannot allow their language to co-opt the grammar of the Gospel. Furthermore, this kind of political language has a subtle effect on our attitude towards these people. What is the point of loving your enemy if there is not the possibility of making them a brother? What is the point of enemy love if your only option is to kill them before they kill you? To people of faith, this kind of language is inherently dangerous and antithetical to the Gospel.

My final point is on the "blame America first" thing. I am honestly puzzled why this should upset any Christian in America. We always have to look to our own failures and sins, and repent of them before we can begin looking around at other people. Why is this good for us as individuals, to remove our planks before looking for another person's mote, but not good for us as a nation? Why are we as individuals to emulate Christ in humbly submitting to God (not finding equality with God something to be grasped) but as a nation to eschew introspection, honest self-appraisal and repentance? Once again, the political narrative that is being presented is directly antithetical to the Gospel. Our nation is not perfect, indeed, it is downright sinful in many, many respects. Our actions in the world can be and sometimes (perhaps frequently) are sinful. Why is it wrong to admit this? Why is it (relatively) easy for us to admit to personal failure but so incredibly hard to admit to national lapses? These political narratives directly contradict the narrative presented to us in the Bible. Rather than humility, they preach pride. In place of repentance, they preach continuing in our sins. What will it take for Christians to see this?


I am (finally) a nurse

Well, not technically. I still have to pass boards in a few weeks but I'm finally done with school. And it is anticlimactic, to say the least. I went to our pinning on Thursday where we got our nursing pins in an entirely slipshod, off-the-cuff ceremony that lasted all of 20 minutes. From the big deal the faculty made about the event I was anticipating something much more elaborate. Or that the speakers would have either put together some prepared remarks or actually followed the order of events that was in the program. Silly me.

I am, of course, happy to be done, happy to be moving forward with my career. I recently accepted a position in surgical ICU at well known teaching hospital that comes up with some crazy experimental surgeries. Stuff like intestinal transplants, which is frickin' nuts. The job requires us to move to a new, bigger and cooler city, which is exciting. My folks came out from Iowa to spend the week taking care of my son and packing. We move next Friday and are about 70% done with packing already. Overall, I'm happy, excited and a bit scared.

I'm scared that my new job will be too much for me, that the move will be a mistake, but mostly, I'm scared of not having something to be working for. The last three years have been spent with a single-minded purpose, a very specific goal that required intense focus and lots and lots of hard work. I'll go from working, being in school or clinicals, and spending almost every spare hour studying, writing a paper or preparing a horrifingly long care-plan to just working three days a week. What am I going to do with those other 4 days? And I don't just mean 'how will I fill the time?' I've got a wife and son to spend my days with and tons of reading I've had to put off. But I won't have an immediate goal on which to focus, no overriding priority that gives me some kind of direction. And that kind of freaks me out. For a long time, my life has had a very specific, externally imposed structure. Now I've got to kind of come up with one on my own and I kind of feel like I've forgotten how to do that.


Facing the future

With the introduction of my son into my life, I have been thinking more and more about the future. In what kind of world will my son grow up? What themes and events will dominate his life? What will he see as the looming crisis or greatest opportunities of his day? What will his grandchildren ask him to tell stories about and what will mine?

I am one of those that would respond negatively to the pollster's question about the state of affairs my children and grandchildren will inherit. But, of course, that is far too simplistic a question and the answer space far too limited to answer it adequately. I am negative about the future because I see a great many conflicts in the years ahead. If we do run out of oil, or at least demand far outstrips a difficultly obtained supply, then conflict is inevitable. But our world, particularly America, is shaped by oil. We have grown into its energy contours. The physical structure of our nation (and nations) is shaped by it - roads, highways, the location of grocery stores, jobs, all have been determined by our dependence on the car and its dependence on oil. Perhaps the car's need for oil will change. Perhaps a new biofuel or fuel cell or some other new technology will be developed and that will be all well and good. But that, by itself, is no solution. At least not to other problems.

The physical layout of our nation has created separation from each other. Garages mean people can enter and exit their homes with minimal contact with their neighbors. Gross consumer capitalism has rendered public spaces into little more than shopping experiences and there is no place for true, public community. Where can people gather? Where can new ideas be expressed, debated and discussed? Historians have traced how the coffee-houses of Europe and America played vital roles in revolutions and political changes because they offered opportunities for discourse. Does Starbucks, as pleasurable as the coffee and ambience it offers may be, provide that opportunity? No, and not because it is some corporate giant preying on the poor coffee growers of South America (though this may be the case). It is because as a culture we have become far more insular. We expect privacy. We demand it, in fact. We don't tolerate interruptions. And without interruption, without being open to meeting someone or hearing something new, there is no opportunity for growth, for dialogue or change.

I think this disconnection, this desire to be private, to seek our own personal fulfillment and to remain uninvolved with other people is the greatest crisis and opportunity of my day and will greatly impact my son's life. And this is because this culturally manufactured desire is antithetical to true human desire. We desperately want and need to be engaged, to be a part of a community, to grow, to change. Our fulfillment is tied up in the fulfillment of others but our culture does not want us to see that because time spent talking is time spent not-shopping. And its horribly messy. New relationships, new ideas - these are not tidy creatures. They are not as immediately gratifying and comforting as, say, a new ipod or shiny new car. Nor are they as gloriously edifying as making a silent statement to the world's deaf ears about my individuality and unique thoughts and desires. We can only make such statements to other people who are right in front of our face. But we are apparently quite afraid of such proximity.


I have a son

As of March 4th, I have been officially inducted into the role of father. My son was born after about 18 hours of active labor, 3 hours 17 minutes of which was exhausting pushing on the part of the wife. We ended up having to get induced since we were overdue (41 weeks) and the baby wasn't moving quite as much as he had been. The labor was long and initially quite painful for her - which is why the man or woman who invented the epidural deserves the Nobel Prize and an annual salary of at least $1 million, as well as a grateful hug from every man on the planet who is able to not sit by in complete uselessness as his wife struggles in agony. I was fortunately able to sit by in complete uselessness while my wife struggled with discomfort and pressure. I tried to help, and God bless her she says I did, but I felt awfully ornamental.

Unfortunately, the little tyke came out with a giant caput succadeneum, a scary rubbery blue and breathing rather poorly. The neonatalogist came down, took one look at him and promptly admitted him to the NICU thinking he might be septic. Blood cultures were drawn, he was given some fluid resuscitation and he was started on an aggressive course of antibiotics. With this, my largely superfluous role during delivery transitioned into a somewhat more utilitarian role since 1) I know what all the means, 2) I know the right questions to ask and 3) the title "doctor" no longer impresses me. I saw him about an hour after delivery and he looked better. The next morning, he looked great. So good, in fact, he didn't even really look like a newborn. The conehead was gone, his color was excellent and he was very active. All the cultures came back negative and the rest of his labs looked good, so he was able to come home after 2.5 days in the NICU.

Now, people say having a baby changes things. They can, and do, describe in horrifying detail the ridiculous roller coaster you are about to jump onto. You listen and smile and nod and think "yeah, this is going to be a big change" which is akin to comparing the Grand Canyon with a big hole in the ground. Just like the Grand Canyon, having a baby is marvelous and deep, but looking down into that sheer abyss right in front of you is also terrifying and you cannot help but ask yourself half a dozen times an hour "what did we just do?!" This became especially acute when the true definition of colic finally came home to me. For those who do not yet have children, you will learn to fear this word as I do. And mine is just a "little colicky". But at the times he is not crying or sleeping, he is incredibly alert and attentive. His hands are always exploring and his face moves through a dizzying array of expressions. I have been told by those more experienced with children than I that this means he is intelligent. Right now, it makes him incredibly cute and gives him personality.

He is a unique, little creation, an image-bearer, a person, a self. He will turn into someone very different from me and I get to be in on the direction he takes. I get to be in on his discovery of the world and himself. And I get to be in on the discoveries going on in me that only he could reveal. For instance, one night when he was tenaciously clinging to wakefulness, I spent about an hour walking him up and down the hall so he wouldn't cry and the wife could get some much needed sleep. I too, was tired and growing frustrated that every time I stopped he would begin to wail. As my frustration and fatigue were reaching a peak, I had a revelation about my own behavior. How many times has God walked me back and forth after my own repeated failures? How frustrating my obstinence, how grating my cries? And yet all I receive from Him is love and mercy. I saw my son in a new light at that moment and the nature of our relationship changed. What awesome responsibility and what a privilege of delights is fatherhood.


Xenophilia - I

[This post, and subsequent posts in this series, deals with something I have been mulling over for a while now. It is partially due to the prominence of immigration and immigration reform in the presidential primaries and partly due to my reading and rereading of Ezekiel over the last few months, which has a lot to say about God's attitude towards foreigners and aliens. That is also to say, Ezekiel has a lot to say about what our attitude as Christians should be towards foreigners and aliens.]

Deuteronomy 26

When you have entered the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, take some of the firstfruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the LORD your God is giving you and put them in a basket. Then go to the place the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name and say to the priest in office at the time, "I declare today to the LORD your God that I have come to the land the LORD swore to our forefathers to give us." The priest shall take the basket from your hands and set it down in front of the altar of the LORD your God. Then you shall declare before the LORD your God: "My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, putting us to hard labor. Then we cried out to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with miraculous signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, O LORD, have given me."

"My father was a wandering Aramean..." Or, "My father was a lost Aramean..." Or, "My father was a perishing Aramean...." When we have come into the land that the Lord had given us, we are to say to the Lord, "My father, our father, was lost, wandering, dying in the desert. He was a stranger, homeless, without shelter. Until you gave him and me a home. Until you saved us. Until you gave us a place to live, land to grow food, water, livestock. Until you pulled us from our despair and fear and loneliness and gave us a place to worship you. We were aliens. You made us citizens. You made us at home."

Whatever the Hebrew people were or however they started, their identity was forged in Egypt. It was from Egypt they were rescued and it was during that deliverance that God set them apart and called them His own. During their flight, the Law was given, their relationship to God was defined through the covenant and God revealed more of Himself than He ever had in the past. The Hebrew people are a delivered people. They are a rescued people. They were homeless and oppressed until God stepped in.

That by itself, both humbling and revelatory, does not tell us very much about God. The simple fact that He rescued a specific nation or ethnic group, gave them some land and established a relationship with them does not inherently tell us who God is. In human terms, a king will gladly intervene to save his own people. A father does not hesitate to help his children. But God reveals much, much more of Himself. From the very beginning of His relationship with the Hebrew people, God informs us that He has a very different take on things.

Exodus 22:21 "Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt."

Exodus 23:9 "Do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt.

These are two short verses, but they say so much. First, God does not want His chosen people to act like other people. They were oppressed in Egypt, other nations oppress foreigners in their midst, but the Hebrews are to treat the alien as they would another Hebrew. In Exodus 12, as the Hebrews prepare for the Passover, the Hebrews are explicitly told to allow aliens among them to participate so long as the household is circumcised. Presumably, these Exodus 12 aliens were other enslaved peoples, but it may have also have referred to Egyptians. God is not vindictive and is not interested in setting up another system like the one from which He will deliver the Hebrews. The Hebrews are to act differently.

These verses also imply a kind of parallel relationship between God and the Hebrews, and the Hebrews and aliens. God extended His kindness and mercy to the Hebrews, they should extend it to the aliens. God desires that the world should see the behavior of the Jews towards foreigners, and, knowing that the Jews were themselves saved from an oppressive foreign power, understand that the Lord extends the same salvific embrace to them as well. God has helped the Hebrews. The Hebrews help us. God will help us. The way the Jews are to treat the foreigner, the alien, the oppressed and powerless, is meant to speak to those people in a way words could never express. It is an invitation-in-action to relationship with God, who is just and merciful.

This point is underscored by Exodus 22:22-15. Do not take advantage of the widow, the orphan or the poor. If you are in a position of power you must deal justly with them because God is compassionate! It was compassion that was displayed to the powerless Hebrews in bringing them out of Egypt and it is compassion that they are to show to the powerless. They must enact God's compassion as a message both to each other and to outsiders. There is no boundary, no us and them. And it is precisely Israel's failure to do this that so inflames the prophets.



When is it ok to vote for my own identity?

In the run-up to Super Duper Tuesday (as much fun as that was, moreso now that not a whole lot was actually clarified by it), I listened to a fair amount of political commentary on the radio and on TV. In fact, one of my new favorite shows is Morning Joe on MSNBC. Most mornings I sit on the couch quietly slurping my cereal and watch CNN or Headline News. A few weeks back, I turned on Morning Joe and have been hooked ever since. I imagine the luster will fade once the elections are over. Most commentators have been making a big issue over voter identity in this race. When Obama was the underdog, most commentators believed blacks would support Clinton believing that Obama's race was not enough to turn the tide in his favor in that group. Women were expected, and apparently generally are, supporting Clinton, presumably because they're women. Evangelicals support Huckabee because he used to be a Southern Baptist preacher and is still a conservative Christian. And Romney carried 83% of Utah's Republicans. The Mormon majority state voted for the Mormon candidate, which is unsurprising.

But in the weeks prior to yesterday, there was a great deal of snotty condemnation of the fact that a good percentage of the Christians in the US won't vote for Romney because they are suspicious of his Mormon faith. Mormons can vote for Mormons, women for women, blacks for blacks - that kind of identity politics is fine, but when it reverses itself, somehow that is unacceptable? Why is a woman voting for a woman solely because she's a woman less sexist than a man who won't vote for a woman because she's a woman? Why is it racist for a white person to refuse to support a black candidate but not racist for a black person to refuse to support anyone but a black candidate? Why is the positive accepted but the negative condemned when they are just two sides of the same coin?

To me, this points to another failure in our political process. People do not tend to vote with a rational understanding and weighing of the issues. They do not closely examine their own values and then pick a candidate who most closely agrees with them or who will support what matters most to them. They vote with their gut. They vote with social pressure. And all too often that makes for very poor politics.



Or "My Xbox Broke A Month Ago and I Haven't Missed It At All".

I was listening to Talk of the Nation on NPR on Monday afternoon and caught the end of an interview with Kay Hymowitz on an article she wrote recently for the City Journal, which was also adapted as an editorial for the Dallas Morning News. According to Hymowitz, young men in their 20's are experiencing an unprecedented wave of freedom that they are exercising by playing video games, seeking meaningless sexual gratification and otherwise acting like adolescents. Hence her term "child-men". The articles make a strong case for her point that today's young men are being socialized to be boys fixated on entertainment and self-centered pursuits. Marriage, now coming later than ever for men and women, has lost its civilizing and maturational influence on this generation. Instead of raising children, many young men are instead spending countless hours playing games, both with women and video games. If you only have time for a quick read, go with the Dallas News editorial. For the full article, check out the City Journal page. I have points of disagreement with her, but that is not what caught my attention on the radio.

What caught my attention is the simple fact that I, too, play video games. Or at least I did. See, about 4 weeks ago my Xbox360 took a dive. Many thousands of Xbox360 owners have had trouble with a manufacturing defect that produces the dreaded "Red Rings of Death" (the term is a take-off on the Window's classic "Blue Screen of Death" which appeared whenever your computer crashed). Basically, the lights around the power button turn red and this means your Xbox360 is dead. Microsoft extended the warranty for three years for every Xbox for this and is providing free repairs. My Xbox did not suffer RROD. Rather, the video card apparently died. Which means the system boots up and logs in, which I can tell from the sound effects, but there is no video output. Just a blank screen with some swimming dots. Obviously, this makes actually playing a video game rather difficult.

I was initially quite upset since I was in the middle of some campaigns on different games. That's kind of like having to leave a theater half way through a movie you were enjoying. I didn't like wasting money on the games that I could now not finish. And I especially didn't want to waste $100 on fixing the stupid thing for what is obviously a defect but would not be covered because my warranty is expired. But I forgot about it after a couple of days. School started, we finished up getting things ready for the baby (now just under 4 weeks off if he comes on time), I started reading more, poking around online and engaging in some discussions, talking to friends and family more often on the phone and generally just enjoying life. Until I heard Kay Hymowitz on Talk of the Nation talking about Child-Men. And I realized that, to a certain extent, I am one. Or maybe I was one. I wasted a lot of time playing on that stupid thing. Time that could have been much better spent talking to my wife, studying, praying, exercising, helping other people, writing - any of a hundred different things that had casually and thoughtlessly gotten sucked up by a white box sitting next to my TV. Hearing her talk about these guys, and hearing something of myself brought up in the article, made me realized that I not only didn't miss my Xbox, I'm glad its gone.

I realize there are probably some readers out there who have no idea what a change this is for me. For a very long time, video games were my outlet. Over the last 2.5 years especially, with school as busy and stressful as its been, getting lost in a game was one of my primary stress-relievers. And now I see just how dependent I was on that mind-numbing experience and I'm seeing how so much of popular culture is similarly stupifying. We waste so much time, energy and pieces of ourselves in pursuit of...nothing. It brings to mind my high school Latin teacher when he taught us the meaning of nihil - "less than straw". The Latin mind could conceive of nothing as insignificant as a piece of hay. And that is exactly what today's culture wants us to do; we seek insignificance.


Dating Jesus

Saturday morning, the wife and I went to a local coffee shop to study. Me for nursing school and her for a licensure exam at work. Towards the end of our study session a group of maybe 10 people pulled a few tables together right next to us. There were a few young women among the group and the rest were men of varying ages. They opened with prayer, always a welcome development when a large group gathers near your study area, and proceeded with their meeting. I had assumed it was a Bible study, but it turns it out was a group of ministry leaders from various college ministry organizations (Campus Crusade, Intervarsity and the like) and representatives of a few local churches with college ministries. They were coordinating ministry and outreach events for the coming semester. Frankly, I was delighted to see that kind of cooperation and cohesion among these obviously competing groups. Youth and college ministries can be especially numbers-driven due to the need for a "critical mass" of students in order to be attractive to outsiders. Kids generally don't like hanging around a fun-filled group of 5 when 2 of them are leaders. So for them to pool resources and forgo competitive ministry programs is, well, very Christian.

I didn't follow too much of the beginning of their meeting. I was engrossed in my "Caring for the Complex Family" text and they were talking about doing a few of the same things they had done last year. But as my interest in the Complex Family waned (directly proportional to the temperature and remaining volume of my coffee, I might add), they started tossing out new ideas. My attention was soon diverted to eavesdropping.

They had a variety of ideas. Most seemed generically conventional for Campus Crusade, based on my experience with the organization at Arizona State. Big, fun, invite-your-friend kind of things with a recognizable speaker or good band. Events with lots of energy and skits. Some of the ideas seemed more suited for a younger crowd but I assumed they knew their audience better than I. The one idea that really caught my attention, though, was presented by a college-aged female. Rough sketch: a skit based on the dating game wherein one of the bachelor's is Jesus, or answers exactly as Jesus would, and at the end of the game the young woman picks him. Excuse me, Him. They kind of tossed it around a bit - maybe the young woman is someone from the crowd, or maybe they just focus on the kind of love we all allegedly want, or all of the bachelors portray some aspect of Jesus. Or maybe they actually set up some kind of contest where someone actually wins a fantasy date, either as a package they can take their significant other on or they actually take the guy or girl from the skit. It went around for several minutes.

My initial reaction was "As a guy, I sure wouldn't want to date Jesus." You know, liking women like I do. So it seemed their strategy was going to alienate at least half of the crowd right then. Other thoughts ran through my head - what if what these college kids want from "love" isn't what God actually offers? How do you choose who gets to be the bachelors and how do you avoid using sexual attraction as an evangelism tool? And why do these oddly perverse notions of the romantic Jesus stay alive? Then an older gentleman said he kind of doubted they could actually know how Jesus would answer dating questions. Another pointed out the obvious difficulty if the person from the crowd chose a non-Jesus bachelor. Other flaws in the plan slowly became apparent but, overall, they seemed to like the general idea and thought maybe a good speaker could adapt what was happening to an evangelistic talk and no matter what happened, use it somehow.

I kept thinking is this what evangelism has come to? Dating Jesus?

As we left, they were on to other ideas and I interrupted the group to proffer a couple of suggestions. But I was still disquieted by the shallowness of their ideas about evangelism. Big-time fun does not equal conversion and on the rare occasion that it does, how much spiritual depth does that person actually experience? How does feeding the obviously jacked-up cultural norms of dating help bring anyone to relationship with Christ? What are they thinking?!

But (and this is a big, big but) then I realized something. They're actually doing it. No matter how shallow or ineffective their ideas seemed to me, they were at least committed to doing it. They were willing to take the time and energy to prepare and plan, to generate ideas and to figure out ways to put them into action. And they were willing to put themselves out on that very uncomfortable limb and plainly deliver the Gospel, no matter the context. And frankly, I'm not. I haven't shared the Gospel with anyone in the last 2 1/2 years. I fully believe that drive-by evangelism is ineffective and irresponsible, but at some point relational evangelism has to transition into actual evangelism. So far, I'm pretty good on the relational part. I think its time to work on the evangelism part.

So here's to that group. God bless them and the work that they do. God bless their endeavors and may they, and You, forgive my arrogance. God grant me their heart for reaching out to the lost. And maybe grant us all some better ideas.

Unless, that is, You like The Dating Game.


What I Learned in Nursing School (in progress)

I've been thinking about doing this post for a while, kind of a "top ten" list of what I've learned. But I'm not sure I've got 10 things to post and school is still a work in progress, so I'm treating the list the same way. Here is my unfinished, in-progress list of the top things I learned in nursing school.

The best physicians generally aren't good doctors. This of course isn't a hard and fast rule. There are some doctors that I work with who are expert surgeons or diagnosticians and who are also very caring and compassionate human beings. But they are the exception. By and large, the doctors who are the best at what they do plainly stink at how they do it. Family needs or questions are ignored or demeaned and patient needs, insofar as they don't correspond to the doctor's specialty, are treated as secondary when acknowledged at all. For that reason, even if they are the best in the operating room or during a code, they aren't the people I'd want taking care of me. If my prognosis is poor, I'd rather have someone treat me and my family with dignity and respect instead of having a doctor that might give me a few more days of life while treating us like inconveniences.

It is amazing what you can adapt to. When I was young, cleaning up after the dog would send me to the bathroom fighting a fit of gagging and dry heaves. The mere scent of vomit would set me off and the actual sight of puke was almost more than I could take. Rotting garbage, a dead animal, moldy food - the odors were just too much. But now, oh boy, now you could be shooting out of both ends and it wouldn't faze me excepting the knowledge that I'll be the one to clean it up. Also, the...uh...texture and aroma of certain bodily functions can be diagnostic. So I'm definitely over my weak stomach and at odd times find myself sniffing gently in the hospital hall trying to figure out who's got the C. diff and who is just gassy.

If someone says they're going to throw up, its best to take them at their word. And to get out of the way.

Hospitals really do smell funny. I noticed it the very first day I started working in one but forgot all about it until I went in to one to visit someone. Once I was out of my scrubs and just a guy off the street, that smell hit me full force again even though I'm in a hospital 3-4 days a week. That reminded me how bewildering and intimidating the hospital can be for people who aren't used to it.

What we can do to you far exceeds what we can do for you. And the reason, more often than not, that we are doing all of these things to you is because of your family. They can't let you go even though there is no hope for recovery and keeping you alive is only prolonging your suffering. Why? Guilt and fear. Guilt about what is left unsaid or undone, about past wrongs not made right and deep-seated fear about all of our fates. It is generally the conflicted, wounded families that experience so much ambivalence and confusion in the face tragedy. So please, right after you're done reading this, go apologize to those you've hurt and forgive those who have hurt you. Reassure them of your love and forgiveness and remind them about God's. It just may save all of you untold suffering and emotional pain at some unfortunate point in the future. More importantly, it will change that relationship for the rest of your respective lives. And tell at least a few of them in explicit detail exactly what you do and do not want done should you end up laying in an ICU with machines keeping you alive. Maybe, just for fun, put it in writing.


School starts...

...tomorrow. My final semester in the nursing program, thankfully. I'll graduate in May, take boards in early June and then finally get a job and have something resembling free time again. The other day someone asked me if I was excited for the semester to start. I told them I'm excited for the semester to end. This has been a three year journey that I had never anticipated or even contemplated. After getting thrown a curveball by being fired as a youth pastor and still having huge and unanswered (at that point) questions about "what is church?", the wife and I ended up in Indiana and my starting to pursue a career as a nurse. Its not exactly my passion, but it will pay the bills, provide a great deal of freedom and mobility to pursue my passions outside of work, all the while offering untold opportunities to help people in very significant ways. All told, not a bad compromise.

This next semester is maternity and pediatric nursing. I've got zip experience with either one, with the exception of having taken care of a few kids with bad colds in the ER over the last few months, so I'm looking forward to getting into a different area. And with my own little one due in about 6 1/2 weeks, I should learn some valuable skills in taking care of him and helping the wife through labor and delivery. I've also been told by my classmates who took this section last semester (and who are now due to be taking the black hole of critical care and psychiatric nursing that I was taking) that the teacher is good and the class not overly demanding. Again, a lovely compromise that I am grateful for. Another bonus - I only have one day of clinicals, instead of 2 like most semesters, so when the wife finally pops I'll be able to miss a week without it impacting my grade (missing 2 or more days knocks 3% off your final grade for each day missed). So I'm looking forward to school starting, not least for it being my last semester. It promises to be a very engaging 16 weeks, personally, educationally and professionally.


The Presumption of Malice

Given the obviously partisan nature of politics in this country, which seems to have only worsened over the last several years with acrimonious debates about the war in particular, it is no surprise that people at one pole tend to take a negative view of the people at the other. Many a lefty takes a dim view of a righty's stance on the war, social programs, abortion, the economy and a host of other issues and vehemently vice versa. For the most part, though (I hope), this negativism is not personal. I think pro-abortionists are wrong but I don't think they are for "reproductive choice" because they find it quite a lot of fun to kill unborn children. I think the pro-Iraq war folks were and are wrong, but I don't think they find it quite a lot of fun to kill brown people or destroy other countries. The list goes on and for a large majority of Americans, I think we tend to look at those we disagree with in a generally neutral light. But there is an increasingly strident minority that does not. For these people, there is an inexplicable presumption of malice.

I think that presumption operates on a principle inversely similar to Occam's Razor - the reason that is most morally objectionable is the true reason someone supports this cause. This methodology seems to be gaining traction in both parties. I'm not talking about the generally negative speech that emanates from both party bases. Its no surprise that Rush Limbaugh or other conservative pundits credit most Democrats/liberals with stupidity, or that left-wing commentators accuse Republicans/conservatives of greed. No, this moves even further afield than that. In general, I don't count comments directed against particular politicians because I don't put political pandering and manipulation beyond just about anyone seeking national office anymore. Maybe I'm a bit cynical but I think the very nature of the political process in this country has become schizophrenic. We demand a degree of perfection and consistency from candidates that is impossible. There are certain ritualistic performances and statements that candidates have to comply with in order to be politically viable. Take the near worshipful view that all of the candidates have towards 'the troops.' I have no doubt that there is a degree of respect for the military in all of the candidates but not every single solider, sailor, airman or marine is a paragon of virtue. Not every combat action taken by an American has been honorable. Not every soldier is fighting for our freedom. Not every one in the military wants to be making the sacrifices they are making. And yet you wouldn't know it from the candidates' statements because you wouldn't know them as candidates if they didn't make them. Because a candidate changing their message or their views in response to polls or focus groups is no surprise, I personally don't think calling the kettle black is unacceptable. Rude, distasteful and occasionally over the top yes, but not altogether out of the question. Accusations of perfidy are par for the course precisely because of the corrupting nature of American politics.

Of late, however, I have heard comments that presume malice on the part of entire swaths of the American public. The two examples that stick out in my mind were made by those on the left but I know that there are just as many voices on the right echoing the sentiment. The first one that springs to mind was heard last week. A woman made the blanket assertion that we pro-lifers don't really care about the unborn child, rather, we're against abortion because it is a way to control women. By opposing abortion we, primarily, undermine the economic freedom of women who would be forced, in an abortion-free society, to forgo education and job opportunities to gestate and presumably raise their unwanted children. Opposition to abortion is then apparently a way we sexist misogynists can make up for, I dunno, women getting the right to vote or something. The second comment was heard just this morning. Two African-American female commentators were discussing the results of the New Hampshire primaries and suggested that a large number of conservative independents may have switched over to vote for Sen. Obama because they think "a black man can't win the popular vote." Helping him to get the nomination would then ensure a Republican victory by racist conservatives.

Personally, I find this kind of political speech disconcerting and reprehensible. And, most importantly, un-Christian. No matter how strongly we feel about an issue, no matter how staunchly we disagree with someone else, I don't think that we, as Christians, can ever presume malicious intent. If a pro-lifer came out and said "I oppose abortion to keep women down" or "I voted for Obama in the primaries because this country won't elect no n******", then these people have identified their own malice and revealed the ugly depths of their own hearts. But we as Christians have to do better than that. We are called upon to love our neighbor and, at the very least, we have to love them with the language we use to describe them. I think we have to give everyone the benefit of the doubt until they prove otherwise. Which is why, from here through the election, and probably beyond, I'm not going to sit back and let other Christians speak in this manner. If I hear or read a presumption of malice I'm going to call them on it. I'm going to call them to the higher standard we all know we are obliged to live up to. Who's with me?