Saturday, July 31, 2004

Size Matters (Christianity from the Outside, 3.0)

Tuesday Steph and I drive down and head straight to Catalina; I am trying to be in Long Beach the Monday and Tuesday after that (a week from tomorrow) and hopefully hook up with the so cal blog contingent. I have emails and phone numbers. Things are still tentative, unfortunately.

I've had a good week, though my anxiety is creeping in just a bit and I need to get on it. But I've had more freedom this summer from my ocd than maybe ever. Thank God for exposure work.

I had some ideas kicking around in my head over my last vacation: it feels good to sort them out here. Thanks for reading if this grabs you.

Size Matters

Physicist Richard Feynman, in a popular essay on religion and ethics, questions the veracity of human religion due to the size of the universe we find ourselves in. It is a powerful point. Two intelligent complaints can be posed to anyone who believes in the special creation of humans and who claims to have found her creator/God: one, the universe really is very, very big compared to the earth, and two, there is a multiplicity of religious points of view. While there is agreement among major religions on some points, there are great differerences; this is an interesting issue which I'll have to pick up another time. What I want to focus on here is the first problem: does religion, Christianity in particular, make any sense considering the size of our present cosmos?

I find this a perplexing problem, and right away I have to admit I don't know very much about the limited information science itself is able to tell us about our universe. But I do know one thing: it appears to be unimaginably enormous. We inhabit such a tiny plot it is chilling. According to Brent Tully, the visible universe is 28 billion light years across. Compared to the national debt these days that doesn't sound so big, but consider: it takes light eight minutes to get from our sun to Earth and that light is coming a long, long way, many times the size of our own planet. Eight minutes divided into 28 billion years is...I don't want to do the math. But it's damn big. Our solar system inhabits a miniscule portion of our galaxy, which is one of billions. Billions of galaxies. According to Simon Driver, our sun is one of about 70 sextillion detectable stars; this is apparently around ten times the number of grains of sand on all the beaches and deserts of the earth. And stars are much, much bigger than sand grains, and they are very, very far apart.

Also, as Tully notes in his fascinating (and at times speculative) essay, the majority of the matter in the universe is invisible, the now famous 'dark matter.' Scientists barely know what that is yet, but they know there is a lot of it. And we don't know what is beyond the edge of our universe, if anything, or if there are many other universes, perhaps an infinite number.

All this seems to strengthen the cosmological argument! In a sense, perhaps it does. Where did all this come from and why does it all work the way it does? But what about Judaeo-Christianity and the special creation of man? Why would God intentionally place humans on such a scant, insignificant speck of his universe? Who is the rest of the universe for? Not for us? Really, why not?

If plankton could think (outside of Bikini Bottom) I can imagine a group of them swirling in a bubble of sea foam. And they would reflect on the water around them and believe they had been specially placed on that particular dot of ocean, which was made for them, by their great krill god. But if they knew how big the sea and planet around them was!

Of course, the plankton still might be right. But this is why the church fought poor Galileo: what do you mean the earth isn't the center of the universe! Of course it is! In Genesis God places man in Eden as if that little patch is the pinnacle of creation; for a human body it surely beats what we know of the rest of the cosmos. But if I were going to make sentient beings in my image, I wouldn't make them infintesimal, the size of dust specks, and put them afloat in a remote corner of Lake Tahoe. It's as if God built a universe the size of Disneyland and then put the really significant part, the emotive and self-reflective and even eternal part, that which he would eventually die to redeem, on one of the hairs on the swinging leg of the Caribbean pirate sitting on the bridge. Why?

The fact is I just don't know; this piece of plankton can only speculate. There is something which might be useful here called the anthropic principle. In my mind, this relates closely to what is known as the teleological argument, though the two differ. The anthropic principle notes that if just one of many constants in the universe (macro or micro) was just slightly different than it is, life, or life as we can imagine it, could not exist. In some sense then, the universe seems made for life to evolve. The teleological argument for God's existence, or the argument from design (which I still find powerful) notes the enormous balance, complexity, and inter-connectedness of the universe and argues for an intelligent creator. I won't discuss either of these much here, but in terms of the size problem, could the size of the universe be related to the anthropic principle? Did the universe have to be this big for humans to drive up, get out of the car, and poke around the yard?

That no one can answer, at least now now, but it brings us to another riddle and one the church frets over needlessly. Did humans evolve naturally (but still miraculously) from the environment or did God actively intervene by circumventing, surpassing, extending natural laws to produce our bodies and minds (as appears to be the case in Genesis)? Imagine being a tiny observer inside a woman's womb and watching a child form. Impressive. If you missed the moment of conception, if you were looking back and your entire span of comprehension was one hour of the pregnancy, you could see a fetus slowly growing but not understand how this process began or where it was headed. That is analogous to our position as observers of the universe. And as far as we can tell, babies are made and develop without circumventing natural laws. It's amazing, but it happens. There really is evidence, though I agree not decisive proof, for evolution. What if the evolutionists are right? What if we evolved via natural selection, after the apparently random rise of life from non-life; as if the universe, astoundingly, conceived us? What if biologists get to the point where they can describe, even recreate, the origin of life without having to resort to supernatural force ('and at this point in the process, God spoke, a miracle happened')?

That does not mean God does not exist, that he did not design this improbably enormous universe with us, or the possibility of something like us, in mind. Perhaps the odds against the formation and evolution of life are so long (and many seem to agree on this) the universe had to be this big for life to occur anywhere in it; hence my use of the anthropic principle. But many would say I'm reaching. If one is God, why create natural laws which demand such a vast cosmic womb-nursery? Again, I don't have an answer.

It's also possible we're not the only life forms in space; though it also seems highly unlikely we'd ever make contact of any kind if the universe is at all as Einstein understood it. It is useless to speculate on what those other beings think of God and creation, if they think or exist at all. But perhaps there are other inhabitants in the immense universe besides us! Other sentient/reflective and even worshipful species. Maybe we're just one small, though very troublesome, group.

Additionally, the fact is we live in space-time, and most likely God as creator doesn't. If God exists outside both time and space, the length of the universe's life span would not exist for him, the size of the universe would not be a barrier for him. It would have neither age nor bigness nor smallness in a way we simply can't comprehend. The stars have always looked impressive; we see this ourselves when we look up at night, but also in the Psalms and in Paul and in other literature, even Kant. Perhaps God wanted to leave a testament to himself which only grows in power the more we know of our cosmos. As the unimaginable vastness becomes more apparent, its creator begins to truly appear frightening; the term fear of God begins to make sense. It could be said ancient man had a smaller view of God simply because he had a much smaller view of his universe.

Finally, Jesus said people would stumble over him and his message, and they do. He was born in an out of the way town in a conquered nation; despite miraculous signs and messianic expectations he was ultimately unrecongized and executed. He taught in parables, riddles really, and in Mark especially, he attempts to conceal his power and his role in history from society at large. So what makes us think we'll find a big blinking sign in space saying 'made by Jesus, hecho a Jesus'? I've mentioned Occam's razor before, and I continue to admire its analytic and predictive power. Basically, Occam's razor says the simplest solution is the most probable; or the least complicated cause and effect series is the one most likely. It says a lot more than that, as you can tell from the link, but it's not infallible; it's not a law by any means. While it would be nice to be sitting on a sphere, with a ceiling a few thousand miles over us, with lots of lights shining (like Truman) and imagine God outside the building, the universe is much more complex and staggering in its size.

I admit the size of space might argue against the probability of our special creation and redemption, though to do so implies God thinks like us; it is no proof against it. God could have reasons for this huge universe we know nothing about; maybe he simply enjoys its grandeur and beauty, but I can't think as God thinks. Isaiah surely had this right! As always, and I'll say it again and again, I believe because of the new testament, and especially, the gospel record of the words and actions of Jesus. Other lines of thought can lead me toward belief in something; only in the gospels have I found belief in someone. The concrete, radically individual Example. I really don't know why the universe is so spacious and apparently impersonal (though we have no idea what might live beyond our own solar system); I only know one who claimed he came from beyond it all, even made it all, and who is recorded as bypassing its irrefutable laws on a regular basis. That last part is crucial: if even one of the miracles attributed to Jesus was genuine...ah, then I have to admit I know even less about the cosmos than I'd like to pretend. The phrase 'he walks on water' is used now to describe someone apparently perfect, without flaw; the fact is one who could do that might or might not be perfect, but he surely would have a power and an awareness beyond anything I could envision.

Friday, July 30, 2004

Grasshopper (2.0)

Oh, what the heck. I have the time and I'm on a roll. Be sure and read 1.0 which is right below this post first, but here goes. It's really cool that I just was contacted by an old AGO'er and sent him this link. Howdy to the Webhead.

The other great AGO story which involves Paul (and yes, I admit, involves me) was when Paul was notified, after he had been activated, he would be getting a swirlie. Am I sharing some secret stuff here? I don't think so. Swirlies aren't in the book which has all the secret stuff in it. I know this because my pledge class took the hinges off the ritual closet door and memorized the secret stuff we weren't supposed to know. We slipped each other the grip and the password and whistle all the time. If that had been known, we would surely have all been dinged. But back to Paul.

A swirlie is where a bunch of guys pick you up, carry you to the bathroom, and stick your head in the toilet, say about brow level, then flush it. After this they set you down and scatter while you try to dry your toilet water hair on their clothes. I got a swirlie. Lots of guys did. I don't remember why Paul was destined, but for some reason or other, in true Paul fashion, he wanted to be the one guy ever to escape the swirlie. How could one guy get away from thirty other guys? This, like the great Alpha caper, was when I was living at home and not active in the house or in school. So Paul and I had a plan.

At the end of every Monday night meeting there is circle up in the front yard. You put arms around each other, sing the AGO song, and then pray (truly, I miss circle up; I hope to do it again someday, and 'chug' Mountain Dew for my marriage or a child). Right after this is when the swirlies, rare phenomenon that they are, come. Paul got together some other non AGO guys he knew (and this prank kind of breaks the prank rules because we used non-AGO guys and a non-AGO truck) and here's what we did:

A crew of us waited down the street with water pistols and firecrackers in the back of a pickup; I had binoculars (if we did this today in that neighborhood we'd be shot by gangsters and then the police). When I saw Paul begin to pray through my binoculars (wearing his scuba hood as a decoy to the plan) we drove slowly up the street. When we got to the circle up, all those guys with their heads down and eyes closed!, we lit and threw some firecracker strings into the group and fired the water pistols. This was Paul's signal. He leaped into the back of the truck and we were gone. I think I had a mask on so I wouldn't get recognized.

A few tried to follow us in cars or motocycles, but they were so caught off guard, so dazed, there was no way.

Paul did get his swirlie, at retreat that same semester, a true serial swirlie, where they flushed him from toilet to toilet throughout a two story house. But he had scrubbed all the toilets beforehand real well, and I think he felt kind of proud at all the attention.

Well, I've shared two stories now (as much about me as Grasshopper!) but the fact is he was a unique person. For one thing he was constantly self-improving. He took classes in horsemanship, scuba to the rescue level, karate, sailing, he lifted weights to put muscle on, and he must have read the entire Bible more than once. He'd crouch in the back row at Bethany, Dennis or Matt up there preaching away, head down, immersed in Ezekiel or Hosea. I don't know if he understood all he was reading back then, but that was just Paul. He needed love and attention as we all do, only more than most of us, and he never quit pushing ahead, hoping always I think, to find it.

Except once, but I've shared enough about him already without his knowledge.

And there are other stories I just can't fit here: how he managed to get an internship with Duncan Hunter in D.C. (an entire blog in itself), a library of Congress card, a reader's card at the Huntington, a role as an extra (standing there, holding a spear) in a Barishnakov (sp?) ballet. Nothing could stop that guy. When he got the D.C. job he had no suit clothes, so he had everyone in the fraternity donate stuff, no matter what size we were, as long as it was something from C and R. This was when C & R had that policy of free lifetime alterations ('in case you add an inch here...lose an inch there'). They tailored all that stuff, for free, onto Grasshopper's narrow frame. Amazing. Some of those clothes were enormous. I don't know how he convinved them. Paul also used to carry with him, since he was a teenager, what he called his 'book of records.' It had every certificate he ever earned from every place he had ever lived; it was like a sixty page organic resume. He used that many times I know to do things he wanted to do, go places he wanted to go.

Another old high school friend, a guy from that same creative writing class, got in touch with me via one of those reunion boards just about a month ago and told me Paul was married last summer to a Japanese woman (he would be 41 I think, maybe 40 then). Apparently he lives in Japan and teaches English and has some kind of radio show on the Bible.

The last time I saw him I was teaching as a lecturer at CSULB, probably seven years ago, and Paul came to my office and talked, and talked, and talked, about himself. And I just couldn't do it anymore. I couldn't mirror him or meet his needs and had felt that way for a while. Perhaps I should have worked on it more; the relationship just didn't feel two-sided. But I truly am glad to hear he's doing well, is alive and married and living abroad where he probably belongs.

So there you go. Grasshopper lives. Knows Jesus. Has a spouse. Even a radio show. Incredible when I think of all he's been through. Thanks, guys, for bringing me back into some memories I enjoyed retelling. It reminds me the darkest times are not all dark.


Grasshopper (1.0)

ah, how good it feels to blog. I have been blogstipated. Ouch. My wife has been off all week and we've been hanging out; now I have some time to myself this weekend and I hope to post every day!

A couple people, Karen and Scott, brought up Grasshopper/Paul. I'm not in touch with him now, but I knew him well for a decade, and his story deserves to be told. This then, is Grasshopper's story, or what I knew of it. There's so much to tell, I can only get half out in the first post. Blogethics.

I met Paul in high school in a creative writing class. From the beginning he needed to do things to stand out, be different (so do many high schoolers) and my girlfriend and I used to call him the sunshine boy because he always sat next to the window in Pikop's English class and pulled the shade up to feel the sun. Cool enough. Soon we learned Paul was into health food. Really into it. Whole grains, natural peanut butter, salads, fruits and veggies. He ate incredibly well and he did it on his own, meaning his parents didn't teach him. I really don't know how he learned so much about health food, but his core personality, his individuality and tenacity, were already well in place.

Another thing Paul did was run. Far. He wasn't on the track team and didn't play any sport. He was even skinnier than me then. But he used to go out into the riverbed behind his house in Lakewood, near Del Amo and Palo Verde (is this the San Gabriel?) and jog, sometimes all the way to the sea and back (this would take him much of the night). He marked his progress by bridges, which overpass he was running under, and I know this because I went with him on occasion. More after high school when I was doing martial arts than before because his physical conditioning was extraordinary. And the adventure of those runs. I can still remember the smell. The anxiety as we approached a bridge: who was under it? This wild fantasy we had that somehow we might meet girls out there, at night, jogging in the riverbed, or run past some house where girls were skinnydipping in their backyard pool. Never happened.

And the wire. We found this cable which ran all the way across the riverbed; it had to be a couple hundred feet, and it hung at least forty feet, or more, above the concrete below. We climbed onto it a couple times, and tried to climb across it, but we never got more than a few feet. I know I never got out to where if I fell it would kill me. But it wasn't much later Paul called me one night to tell me he had climbed all the way across, alone, at night. And that was Paul. No one there to see him; he risked his life just to tell a great story, to overcome a challenge. To prove himself? I don't know, but if he was after that, I suppose he did just that.

His home life was very hard; Paul's father was a complete abusive asshole. He had been some kind of government agent, was retired, and hated Paul even when he was a kid. Paul told me he beat him when he was younger. What I do know is that once when I was at Paul's house I came out of his room, around the corner, I walked almost straight into his father. For a moment his dad thought it was Paul coming and the look on his face was complete rage and hatred and disgust. When he realized it was me, he softened right away, but I'll never forget that look.

It doesn't strike me as unusual that I began to hang around with Paul as a teenager because he was in as much pain as me. He was like a cup, filled with water; only the water was despair and nothing else could get in and not much came out. So he never stopped moving. I was doing the same thing, only in my head. But Paul took his despair and learned self-hatred and channeled into two things: constant talking, and extraordinary actions. He redefined what I thought was possible in American life. Like Thoreau did later. Or Snyder or Kerouac. Only Paul hurt even more than those guys.

After high school Paul said he was kicked out by his father. This seems likely. I know he had already bought a backpack and had a plan; I think he had even cut out the shape of a hitching thumb in glow in the dark cardboard. But that summer Paul disappeared. He hitched and rode trains (having been taught by a hobo) to Alaska to work in the canneries. He'd stay in a town, like Concord, CA for a while, then continue north. He showed me the newspaper clipping where he almost froze to death in the forest in Washington and was taken in, I think by a church. When he came back he flew to Hawaii, one way, got off the plane and just got a job. He lived there for a while, with locals (what his parents later called 'peasants'), learning pidgen and surfing and I don't know what else. Eventually he came back and somehow or other began college.

And this was when Paul began to follow me in a way. He majored in English. And he pledged AGO at CSULB, the Christian fraternity where I met my ex. I think he wanted to live cheap in the house. But this was the mid-eighties, when college students believed in Reagan and the BMW, and Paul was so far from fitting in I can't even tell you. Walking around, constantly telling his stories, not wearing shoes and eating celery. Very non-J. Crew. But he pledged. I think I had already dropped out of college because of my ocd and panic attacks and was living in despair at my mother's, but I know I helped Paul get in. The problem of course was keeping him in! The guys named him Grasshopper because he never wore shoes, and some guys liked Paul, most thought he was okay; some hated him. I really don't know why, except that maybe his pain rubbed on them, reminded them of how fucked up they also felt. But an actual conspiracy arose against Paul his pledge semester.

And in this Christian fraternity, like all fraternities I guess, something is held a few times a semester called a ding vote. The ding is anonymous, and if a pledge's actual name is written on a piece of paper by two (or was it three?) people, he's gone. No discussion. No reason or appeal. I knew Paul was going to get dinged and I knew by whom. How to save him? I came up with an idea I'm still proud of; I wonder now if it wasn't God.

To understand this story, I have to step into fraternity land a bit. Each fraternity in the nation has chapters at different colleges, and of course there is rivalry. Apart from hazing and the active member/pledge division, the prank rules supreme in the fraternal world (well, non-Christian fraternities have a couple other deities, ethanol and the pudenda, but we'll set those aside for now) and to pull a prank against another chapter is the height of fraternalhood. But this is very hard to do. And usually these pranks are small: oh, Alpha (the UCLA chapter) still has our paddle from 1985, like that. The houses exchange contraband like prisoners of war from time to time. I knew Paul was ding dung dead out of that house, where he was living incidentally, unless he did something big.

So he and I went to UCLA. Alpha. The founding chapter of AGO. The monastery on the hill. And we hung out with the brothers. I may have showed Paul the grip or may have introduced him as a pledge, either way we had to be very low profile as of course the guys were suspicious. But Paul and I looked so innocent then. And while we were watching a movie with the Alpha guys I unlocked, barely, one of the windows downstairs. Later, after dark, Paul and I came back and we stole everything. All their trophies, their mugs, paddles, I can't even rememer what all. Stuff they cared about. It filled our car. But at least Paul was ready for his big night now.

Every Monday night the fraternity has dinner. And as soon as everyone sits down the actives start going 'yawn, yawn, yawn,' saying that word, loud. Because they're bored. Then the president of the house will say 'pledge so and so (every pledge has a name, mine was shut-up) please entertain us.' They called on Paul or maybe he volunteered, and he had stashed all that stuff someplace in the house (I don't think I was there) and for his pledge entertainment he began bringing out Alpha's trophies and mugs and paddles and stuff one by one. The house went berserk. It was the single greatest coupe in AGO history that I know. And astoundingly, despite the hatred against him, Paul wasn't dung out that night, though I think he came close and the same guys tried to kick him out later. If I may say so, he was a good guy and deserved to be active. Really, we were just a bunch of kids in sportcoats and ties.

I'm still proud of that story. Eventually Alpha came wimpering for their stuff, which I guess was all given back. But what a night. Me and Grasshopper. It was a time. Part two in another installment.


Tuesday, July 27, 2004

The Pinkest Eye

many thanks to Dave and Mike for asking to see me (and Steve).  The thing is I'm back home early.  I have pink eye.  I've never had it, and apparently it's no big deal unless you wear contacts, which I do.  The urgent care doc at long beach memorial took technical pleasure, I think, in describing what could happen to my eye if I put a contact on it anytime this week.  Something about corneal lesions and surgery.

And I didn't bring any glasses on the trip!  Meaning my poor wife drove me home in my myopic fog yesterday.  All the way home.  I'll see my eye doctor this week (the medicine they gave me is working very fast) and then we're driving back next week to actually scuba dive and visit some more, on Catalina and 'over town.'

So let's try again.  I don't know if I have a contact number for Dave?  Throw me something via email?  I can't promise, but I will try.  I know we all have families.  It's not like, hey, I'll meet all you guys at in and out any night this week!  You know, the single days.  But how wonderful to have this problem.  Gee, how will I see all these cool guys when I'm down?  I love it.

Steph and I did visit the church we were married at and say hi to the priest.  It's our first trip back since our wedding four years ago. 

And I have to say, we had a pretty good trip overall.  Right now things feel very nice.  I am quite grateful for this.

But I have to run.  My doggies are still at my mom's house and we have to get them and make her lunch as partial thanks.  More on the trip later.  And pictures also.


Sunday, July 18, 2004

So Cal. Bound (and Christianity from the Outside, 2.1)

I haven't been feeling well the last few days, a sore throat and fatigue, neither of which seem to be getting worse.  Allergies?  Maybe.  Tonight Steph and I are driving to Tahoe to see Long Beach Short Bus, remnants of Sublime; she knows the guitarist from high school and she and I have met Eric the bassist a few times.
And tomorrow, we're off! (if we can get our shit packed!)  Sunny so cal.  Actually, it's pretty sunny where I am, but you get the idea.  First my brother's in Ontario, then Two Harbors, Long Beach, back to Catalina, and then home.  And maybe back again the first week of August!  I have lots to do to get ready as S is working.  I want to try and hook up with the so cal contingent of this blog, maybe even get the guts up to show up at Bethany for one of the hip services, but these trips are very whirlwhind and we have lots of family to see spread all over the place, plus diving with Mikey.  If I get time to catch up with anyone Long Beach way (Mike, Dave, Steve F.)  I'll email first and see if it's doable.  But no doubt, I would dig it. And if not this trip then the next.  No matter what, I'm very thankful for this blog community.  Very very muy muy tres tres.
The laundry beckons.
First, though, I want to say I've had just a few thoughts about my last post.  Mike responded with Pascal's quote, and it's a good one, and it's an idea others have shared throughout Christian history.  It's also ominous in a way.  In the gospels we see that some have ears to hear, some don't.  Jesus teaches in indirect fashion so as to confuse, even piss off, those who oppose him and yet he reveals himself to those who truly want to know him.  And where does one get the ears?  From the self?  From our upbringing/environment?  From God?  All of these?  Are we really all pre-destined?  I have no idea, and I'm not about to take that one on in this lifetime.
I'm not actually ready to respond to the 'why have faith' thing yet, but this has come up:  since we all live in what Captain Picard (and plenty of scientists) call the 'space-time continuum,' or simply 'space-time,' and God declares himself to be truly 'Other' throughout all the scriptures (certainly, in Jesus' case, he breaks all kinds of natural laws, like reanimating the dead; this seems to suggest he's outside the time bound world as we know it).  I mean I'm willing to reject dualism; maybe we can't exist as persons without some kind of body; maybe the resurrection is, in some sense, just that.  But regardless, God, or those who say they're talking for him, declare him outside this massive (truly massive) space-time stream we inhabit.  Alpha and Omega.  As it was, is, and always will be.  I AM (as opposed to the entropic and mutable universe).
So if God is outside the material world, yet able to be inside it, or at least to observe and interact with it in some truly unknown way (and truthfully, what we see as reality is such a small part of what is, any physicist will tell you this) it would make sense that he couldn't be 'seen' like a toaster oven.  Now why the universe is constructed this way I don't know.  But there are many observable wonders in the natural world which defy logical deduction, even defy one of my favorite principles of all:  Occam's razor
Genesis tells us that God walked in the garden with Adam.  If I held to the literal historicity of that book, my life would be easier at this moment, but for many reasons I don't at this time.  But what Genesis does tell us is that at one time God showed up (in the afternoon anyway) to commune with his creation, but that the creation disobeyed somehow, and since then the two have been estranged; though the ot and the nt show us that God made entries, through people generally, into the human universe, and finally made reconciliation possible through his son Jesus.
The library of theological problems I'm coming close to is ponderous.  But looking at just the one thing, why can't I see God?, there is some reason to expect his physical absence.  Whatever he's made of , it's not what we're made of.  Why faith is elevated to the point of righteousness, or justification, why faith in the unseen is what God requests of most of us...that's for another day.
Be well all.  May not blog for a while, but my wife will probably take pictures I'll share on return.  The two areas I really want to be working on are dependence on and communion with Jesus, and loving behavior to others (including working my ocd exercises to bring that demon down); on both of these, all of this, I've been lagging.  My anxieties have remained low all week, but I know better.  Well, at least God is drawing me, though I remain a bent and trembling little compass needle, in the right direction.  
Peace and blessings through Christ,

Friday, July 16, 2004

Things Not Seen (Christianity from the Outside, 2.0)

Two things before I begin:  one, the last week and a half have been great for Steph and I.  Since Tahoe.  I’ve been relaxing, not obsessing!, and I’ve felt close to her and fortunate to be with her.  My gratitude for this is indescribable.  Sincere thanks to all who prayed and may continue to pray.  My disease isn’t over, but it’s moving.  And the other is that I picked up a book by N.T. Wright.  It’s a little one, called What St. Paul Really Said, but I knew in the first 50 pages I was onto something.  This is the kind of scholarship I need to read.  I grew up hearing, and sometimes reading, very irrational discussions of Christian essentials.  What I’m finding in Wright is a new level of specificity, of scholarship, far beyond Chesterton and Lewis and the popular apologists.  I guess it’s like anything else, if you want your car fixed look up a real mechanic.  I’m also finding voices online (mostly via Dave’s website) that are intelligent, humane, and concerned with authentic Christian love.  Why I had to hear and experience so many bizarre religious twists as a child and young adult I don’t know.  But here I am, preserved as Jesus said I would be.  And now for something completely different.
Things Not Seen
Christianity from the Outside, 2.0
I have placed faith in Christ, though I continue to question; I’ve said that before.  I figured it would do no harm to draw those questions out here, in the blog, look at them and work at them as I could, knowing I would always need to have faith alongside reason.  And this point seems like a good place to begin.  Why do I have to have faith at all?  
This is really the first objection which could be raised against Christianity, against any religion, ‘from the outside.’  Right now I’m eating a bowl of granola and typing on a Gateway keyboard.  While the existence, and ultimate nature, of those external objects is the subject of intense and long-lived philosophical debate, let me assure you that I believe they do exist.  In my mind as they appear to me, and outside my perception, as what I believe Kant called the M.  Quantum will tell me their ultimate reality is empty space, quivering energy and matter, perhaps string vibration.  But whatever their final description, I believe they are real.  I can see them, touch them, taste them (though I haven’t yet licked the keyboard).  They are.
So where is God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit?  Why can’t I see him?
This is a truly troubling issue.  The fact that God is invisible to me does not mean he doesn’t exist.  To say so would be argument from ignorance.  But neither do I see his direct effects, as if he were an x-ray or an emotional state.  Yes, there is potential evidence that God intervened historically in Jesus.  And some feel God has changed them internally (many from different faiths worldwide feel the same; they know Krishna, the Virgin, the ancestors, Jesus, Allah, Jehovah, St. Jude, have heard them also; this belongs to another essay in this series).  But why is it that I can’t simply see direct evidence of God’s plan?  Why is faith required?  Why do I have to believe in things I can’t see and can only sometimes feel?  If this is the creation, where is the creator?
These are powerful dilemmas.  The conventional Christian answer is that since the Fall, whatever exactly that entailed, humans and God have been utterly estranged.  But this idea is elsewhere:  in ancient mythology, the human and divine could not interact directly; to do so would mean death to the mortal.  The one girl (whose name I forget) Zeus seduced who demanded he make love to her in his immortal form died from the experience.  The Hebrew scriptures say the same:  no one can see God and live.  Even Plato says this in Symposium:  humans and gods cannot interact directly, intermediaries (such as Love and the other spirits) are required.  The skeptic could argue that this is all too convenient:  of course you can’t see Cupid; if you did you’d be smoldering ash (or as in Psyche’s case, thrown from the palace).
Welcome to the grave, universal tragedy inherent in human intro-speculation.  Even Chris Cornell of Audioslave sings about it.   It is the lament of Shelley’s Frankenstein.  To deny God leads inevitably to the existential crisis.  To affirm him leads us back to this problem.  And I have no easy answer.  In Lewis’ space trilogy he packages things neatly; the earth is the ‘silent planet.’  Silent because it is fallen and under the control of an evil angel (eldil was it?) as opposed to the other planets in our solar system whose creatures still have direct access to angelic beings, even Jesus.  Lewis addresses this question much more poignantly in Till We Have Faces.  But of course these are fiction.  What we have for fact is a beautiful, though dangerous, ordered and disordered world.  And God is nowhere to be seen.  At least for most of us.  According to the ot he directly reached out to a few people; other religions also contain revelations, though not many in first person.  I know I have never seen an angel or anything like it.  
Russell, Huxley, even Robert Frost in his poem ‘Revelation’ harped on this a century ago when they asked ‘where’s the evidence?’  Skeptics continue to do so, just check the Secular Web.  Paul’s brief argument at the beginning of Romans, that we are presented with the splendor of the natural world and that this must lead to knowledge of a creator, is weak in my opinion.  What about human suffering, natural disasters, the apparent lack of purpose in most tragic human events?  The cosmological argument is not without merit, but it could just as easily be called the cosmological question.  And I think it must have had more power in a pre-scientific society such as Paul describes.
While I wish I had a response ready to his problem, I don’t.  In short, I’d say my answer is the gospels themselves.  In depth, it would have to be the entire Christian apologetic canon.  But I will make an effort to respond; this could take one day or one year!  I'm sure others have done this in print; perhaps I will find something.
Blessings to all,

Saturday, July 10, 2004

Sweeping with Greg

Following the dream analysis at Karen's site, I thought I'd share a very lucid dream I had last night, just finished really. Steph is taking classes this weekend, so more time to blog (last night, feeling lonely as she worked all day and then took a night class, I reached out to a couple we don't know super well, went to their place and had a great time; I'm grateful and proud of myself).

I really do want to share this dream, though I'm not completely sure what it all represents.

The Dream

Ah yes, what Freud calls manifest content.

I never knew Greg Rhodes well. I think many of you who read my blog know who he is (Dave T. certainly). He was campus director at Crusade when I started there. I remember he and Laura as a young married couple; I do recall feeling teenager-sad when they announced they were leaving Crusade and coming to Bethany to do ministry. In a way, my ex and I followed him there, along with a few others. And then of course Greg was at Bethany the entire time I was, rising in the ranks, all the way to his senior pastorship. We had a few conversations over the years, nothing very personal that I recall; certainly we haven't spoken in a decade. But for some reason, last night, he was prominent in my dream (and very real to life; that slow calm way he talks...all that).

In my dream I was back at Long Beach State, but I was older, as if I were going back now to take classes. And I was hanging out in the library, though it didn't look like the actual library there, just a little one floor small room place. And Greg worked their, I believe, though I could tell he was still a pastor. I was walking past the desk, and he asked me if he could ask me a question; I remember, even in the dream, feeling like I was hurting, and being surprised he wanted to talk to me.

"Troy, I'm thinking of starting a counseling group at Bethany; I'm wondering what you think of the idea."

It was like being at work when someone asks my opinion about an area I know well, or he thinks I know well.

"That's a great idea, Greg, cool; can I be in it?"

I can't actually remember who suggested I be in the group, me or him, but the next thing I remember we're walking out together, then he offered to give me a ride to my car; this being CSULB, my car was probably a mile off. But we didn't drive to my car. We kept cruising and talking as we went off campus instead. All I remember now is that the conversation felt nurturing, fulfilling, soothing. The next thing is that we were actually at Bethany. He was going to give me a tour of the new building (and I already knew from the website the church is expanding). It was very strange inside, like a long, wide hallway. Along the walls were these huge, stainless steel display boxes covered in glass, like oversized movie poster frames at theatres. There were things in them I don't remember. And as I walked the length of the room I commented,

"Nice, nice, everything looks great."

When we got to the back of that long room I was standing on the carpet and I looked down and it was that same old blue carpet, missing in places now and very worn. And I stood there on it and said,

"This is the same carpet that was here was I was in junior high."

And the feeling of the old and the new together was very powerful.

But the coolest part is coming. Apparently people were working on the inside of the room, and at the back was some kind of small, unfinished stage. It was dusty and dirty, and Greg picked up a broom and started sweeping. It felt natural that I do the same. The two of us were just hanging out, sweeping the dust into piles and off the platform. Again, it felt good, right, clear. Working together. And then I noticed Ken Thomas watching.

Ken, or KC, was a very good friend to me years back, when he was still with Kari and I was still with my ex. Ken appeared moved to see me doing what I was doing; I came off the platform and we started talking. There were tears in his eyes, and I wish I could remember the dialogue clearly enough to write it, but I can't. All I know is he was talking about his two year old son (much older now) and how much he missed me and loved me, he and his son, and how good it was to see me back; something like that. And he was crying, and I was crying, and it was like the tears of the giant killers in Phantastes: all beauty and release.

And that's all I remember.


The latent content.

Of course I have no simple answer. That I was back at Bethany and it felt good seems important. That Greg somehow respected me, wanted to talk to me and spend time with me, is significant; he was always older than I and in a staff position; of course he currently pastors Bethany, and probably was acting as a representative of the entire place as I used to know it, maybe of my church and Crusade past. How strange, though, after all these years, for him to show up in a dream. There were other pastors I knew much better, and who had powerful impacts on me. It must be that he represents Bethany, the church, as it is now. Like dreaming of returning to the home where you grew up after thirty years and having your third grade teacher waiting at the door to greet you. The parents, the people you really knew then, are older or gone, but that one teacher remains.

Final Thoughts

As I said when I first started this thing, the blog is narcissistic. But so is talking about myself to other people. Many of us simply call this sharing. So thanks for letting me share.

What I do want to say is that while I wrote those essays on what the gospel is not and made a good case for my own confusion, I don't remember learning those things at Bethany, in all fairness. The list of leaders there who were directly supportive of me is long: Brent S. (crying in his office more than once over the years), Dan D., Mark R., Eric O., Marc A., Chris S., Matt H. (though we had a couple issues he would be welome in my home any time), Keith W. (I remember standing in the lobby in shock the Sunday after my wife left me and Keith calling out across the room, "God is going to use you in a special way in his body because of your experiences, Troy.") Selah. Now I really am crying.

The list of peers who supported me is longer and their work even more impressive. I remember sleeping on Scott's floor for months after my wife left because I couldn't be in our apartment alone; and Randy T. and Scott and others, six or seven, showing up to help me move out of that place because I just couldn't do it myself; and Natalie R. bringing food to my house, and me eating at the Ficke's, and sobbing in my garage with Rob T. For in those days, friends, I had one wolf constant at my heels and his name was death. What did Anne Sexton say? "It's not the why but the how?" Many of those around me didn't even know the fact. From the summer of 1990 until the winter of 93 or so, whenever I wasn't occupied by school or working at a fervid pace (and even then), I knew what Styron, using Milton, calls the Darkness Visible. The urge, like a final lust, for self-destruction. But I will speak of this another time. It's Gandalf reading the ring inscription at Rivendell.

The fact is the Lamb saw and sees still the lives of those who helped me, and their deeds are etched on the vaults of heaven by the Voice himself.

It's true I left the church, but for my own reasons. I can think of three times the names I have listed here, back to Paul K., John B., others.

Has Bethany had its share of politics? I'm sure. I know Brent and Greg had some falling out years ago, and that's all I know. But hey, I'm on vestry at my parish; I teach at a college. The college campus, where everyone is full of themselves and no one can get fired, can produce unmitigated, long-lived, and vicious campaigns. Welcome to the human race. The fact is I was nurtured at Bethany and heard the gospel there many times. It was good, even in my dreams, to be back.

"Now, Greg, where's my broom? There is dirt I need to sweep away."


Friday, July 09, 2004

Tahoe and Sundries

It has been a while since I've blogged it seems, and now I have several things to cover. I'd like to redo my blog so my margin is a little wider, my font a little smaller, something like incidents and accidents, so I can write more and it won't look as long! But here goes:

First, I did get human contact last weekend, and I needed it. Sat. I went with a buddy (who teaches at Solano but whose parents live up here and are good friends of S and I) and his brother to shop for their dad, then he and I hung out bit together, then we had a(nother) wonderful dinner at his father's. Mint juleps and beef soaked, practically, in lavender and grilled. These people, besides being dear friends, family really, eat and drink in the old school style, and I love it. A couple theological issues came up for me in the day's conversation, but I'll file those for another post.

What I learned was that while the blog is a great place to gather my thoughts, even to release feeling, it provides only marginal support. I just can't see who is reading, and then if I don't get a know what I mean. I throw my guts out there (there must be a blog lexicon term for this, what, I'll let you know if I think of one) and then check back to see who commented, and wait, and worry if my share was understood, all that. Yes, the blog is awesome. I'm a true blogaholic practicing my disease. But an hour in REI with friends does much more for the loneliness I sometimes feel up here. Lesson learned. Part of it of course is that I'm really in scooter's community, and while I knew some of you guys, respect and admire you, I was never close to any of you but scooter. Just the age gap, probably. So it's not like I'm blogging with the deepest sources of support in my past. Not yet anyway!

But I want to devote the bulk of this bulky blog to Tahoe. Steph planned an overnight getaway for us, and I needed it more than I knew. We put the dogs in kennel (lovely thing really; if it weren't for Mikey our dogs probably would get rescued by someone better equipped) and we headed up Wednesday morning. It's less than an hour away, or about an hour to stateline. Why we don't go more I don't know, but we will now.

We kayaked Wed. morning, along the west shore and into Emerald bay. The wind picked up so we landed at a little natural beach, had lunch, chased off the predatory canadian goose that wanted our pringles, and vegged in the sun. That was a cool beginning. Seeing the lake from kayak is highly recommended (we rented, don't own one yet) and when the wind picked up and began to blow the surface out, we got small waves and whitecaps, I mean it was dazzling. And while Emerald bay is beautiful from the road high above it (very worth the drive if you go) it is just as beautiful from the beach. The peaks and ridges that rise around are sublime.

From there we paddled back, checked into our room (with a balcony facing the lake, that lake wind blowing through the whole time; I miss coastal breezes!) got dressed and went on our night adventure. We had dinner at Llewellyn's (sp?) at the top of Harvey's; this was important for two reasons. One, is that it's the nicest, or at least most expensive, restaurant I've been to; we set a new record for a dinner bill, but of course the food, and martinis, were superb. I had souffle for the first time; they bake it special if you order at the beginning of the meal. I also had the best escargot I've had, with the teeniest bit of gorgonzola and sun-dried tomato. It was exquisite.

So the meal was great, but there's more. I am afraid of heights. It's actually the source of my fear of flying. When I worked at the long beach flying club during college I went up a few times in the kites/planes they use to teach flying/dying. And I was of course scared peeless, sweating, almost paralyzed, buzzing around at 3000 feet. Too bad really. But once I got below, say, 500 feet, I relaxed. Now that is of course the most dangerous altitude to fly at (I always had instructors with me) yet I'd relax when we got low. And this is what bothers me about jets; they go so damned high!

Anyway, we had dinner on the 19th floor. I did this on purpose, as an exposure exercise. They sat us right next to the glass at first, and I felt like I would fall out of my chair. Steph couldn't see out the window so they moved us to a little table where we could both look out. The view was stunning, but all my fear/vertigo was raging, and yet raging while the waiter explained the dinner specials, and yes, while I ordered a martini (but not before I'd been up there a bit). This combination of my fear with one of my favorite activities, going out to dinner, was quite useful. After a while I relaxed, had a great meal, and grew as a person. I'm very proud of myself. Eventually, I want to ride the gondola up heavenly. But that's after a few more exercises like the restaurant.

Then we went to Ceasar's and saw the Reverend Horton Heat. What they call psycho-billy. Oh man. I'm a casual fan; I have one cd. But I've seen few crowds this wild , at least in recent years. Have you ever seen people mosh to johnny cash's 'folsom prison blues?' If not, try a Rev. show. I expected him to be completely insane, but the rev. is actually fairly demure on stage. It was the fans that were insane. I actually found myself bummed out by the pit energy; I am getting old. I just wanted to stand there and watch the show without getting beer thrown all over me or getting knocked over. lol. Besides the mania in the pit, the rev. really did put on a good show. Jimbo, who plays/slaps an electrified stand up bass was right in front of us, and watching him was worth the price of admission. The wierdest thing is how much the rev. sounds and looks like George W. when he talks. Around the eyes...the way he laughs. I'm not kidding. If there's some strange swaggart/jerry lee cousin connection in Texas no one is talking.

After that we went home, ears ringing. The next day was even better. We hung around the room enjoying that wonderful breeze until noon then checked out and shopped a little, then began driving around the lake. We toured the old Pine Lodge, a historic building on the west shore, we drove completely around and went down the 50 into Carson City. What a town that is. Vegas in 1950. Luckily, we found a very affordable and good place to have dinner. Then back up the mountain to the east shore of the lake. And the best part of all was that we pulled over at one of those scenic vistas, wish I could remember the name, and climbed around on the boulders, even down to the lake itself. Steph took pictures of the sunset, and the wind blew, and I was more relaxed and content then I've felt in months.

It was a great two days for us. Like rolling the clock back to our early years. I felt sane, close to my wife, very poweful having faced a fear I've had almost as long as I can remember. And the beauty of that's incredible. If you do Tahoe (after visiting my place on the way!) climb out of the slot banks and take a day driving around that lake. Get out on the water anyway you can. I plan to do so again.

It was so enjoyable, dropping my anxiety, feeling hopeful, being with Steph. I read so many romantic posts on the other blogs here, and sometimes I feel jealous. But I really did have a great two days with Stephanie. Well-deserved for both of us. Catalina is coming up, and I hope that goes well also. Keep you all posted.


Saturday, July 03, 2004

June Film Review

In case you guys are out of netflix ideas, here goes:

The June Film Review:

Baran: B+ /recommended. A human glimpse inside modern Iran.

Behind the Sun: B+ /an honest portrayal of blood feud, and some gorgeous cinematography.

Citizen Ruth: B- /this film centers on abortion debate issues; it's funny, but also dark; certainly will cause discussion/reaction. Dern handles her role well.

In America: A- /recommended for its optimism and poignant familial themes.

Hated: C /a passable documentary, but the most sickening footage I've ever seen. My least favorite movie of all time.

Spun: B+ /an original, and very adult, film about meth sub-culture; should be NC-17 for sexual content; troubling and stark, but well-acted and intense.

Fahrenheit 911: A- /recommended. Okay, this one is at the theatre, and such a controversial film deserves its own post; as a 'lib', I have issues with Moore's method and precision at times, but the film is very moving. One negative review asked 'do we really need to see what war looks like?' Yes. We're in one. Some powerful footage, whatever your spin. At least see it to form an opinion.



Friday, July 02, 2004

Hard Day

I really appreciate Mike's comment on my last post, because for some reason that was the first entry I've regretted after I sent it. At least I felt disquiet. When I looked closer at the uneasiness, I realized a couple strange things: one, I really am not an expert on the nt and feel like I should be one before I talk about it; and two, I don't feel like a very spiritual person. Jeez. One good thing is that blogging forces me to go back and look at what I wrote and learn from it myself! But I started comparing myself to the (imagined) lives of those I know read my blog. Christians all, and all Christians longer than me, more faith than me, blah blah blah. You get the drift. The ceaseless internal critical voice I still fight, and perhaps spiritual war as well. In either case, I think I should write more posts like that in defiance of both!

The fact is, after a few really good days last week, my anxiety has crept back in. Summers are tough. True, I don't have to go to work, but my son is with his (other) dad all summer, my wife is picking up extra shifts at work (four straight this weekend) and since she works 12 hours at a pop, I just kind of hang around the house. In my town, that's tough. I've been up here more than three years, and the winters don't bother me, the snow doesn't bother me (got me a shovel and a subaru) and even the drive two days a week doesn't bother me. What bothers me is the lack of people up here, and frankly, some of the people who are up here.

The forest is very beautiful, but my town is mostly retirees and everyone is spread out geographically. And there really is such a thing as foothill culture. My wife sees it more at the hospital up here than I do, but subtle racism (if there is such a thing), hard right politics, the terminal high school's all over this place. My little episcopal church (and even that's 20 minutes away) has some very odd (to my urban eyes) people who in fact have very good hearts. It's good for me to see and learn that. But they're mostly older, live in all directions, and they all work! I'm essentially a stay at home mom all summer, without kids or neighbors.

That even sounds bad when I read it. For me, it's not good. I grew up alone much of the time, and I don't relish it now though I do enjoy some time to myself; how else would I blog, read? My son is starting 7th grade and we don't want him to switch schools, and I hated the valley. Meaning if I keep tenure I stay in the Sierras, and we'll probably be here until he graduates high school. So the solution is to find people, find hobbies, and take it one day at a time. Errands and things to do make the day go fast. It's largely about structuring time.

Anyway, I need to do my exposure/relaxation exercises (and if those sound mysterious, look here. My ocd issue isn't germs and washing, but it's no less disturbing. And then I'll come up with some other pasttime. More wood floor. Maybe work in the garden. I could be stuck in a cubicle; freedom is something. Steph just called and said I should go to the pool. I forgot we (our community) had one.

Anyway, thanks all for letting me share.


Thursday, July 01, 2004

What the Gospel Is (Christianity from the inside 4.0)

After spending so much time talking about what the gospel is NOT (very Cat in the Hat) in terms of mistakes I made on my own journey, I would feel remiss if I didn't address what I think the gospel is, or what it is to me. This is awkward, as I realize I'm not only preaching to the choir, but the choir director, the worship leader, the sunday school teacher.... And this is the first 'sermon' I've preached since my conversion; I'm rather frightened. Still, I would like to do this. I'm no Biblical scholar or theologian, and my plan is to keep things as personal, and brief, as I can.

Humans face two special problems:

First, it has struck me as profound for at least a decade that humans all have consciences and yet violate them. This is the dilemma of the self-reflective animal. Do the Stellar's Jays around my house feel guilty for eating eggs from other nests? For keeping smaller birds from food sources? It doesn't seem so. But humans, all healthy humans (sociopaths aside) have intricate moral barometers. Also, it is an untrue allegation that modern psychology tells us guilt is irrational; the books which argue this belong on the shelf next to the 30-day wheatgrass diet. Good therapy shows us that guilt is important. It can be healthy; it is an extension of empathy (ah, I knew that would hurt this person, but I did it anyway!) Good therapy also shows us that guilt can be destructive; it can quickly become shame which drives the individual away from relationships and into self-abuse and neglect. We are naked in the garden. And it hurts.

Second, we all die. This bothers me a great deal. When I was a kid there was (and probably still is) a book called Freddy the Leaf. Freddy goes through his little leaf life cycle and then shrivels and falls to the ground, to become fodder for the tree to make more little leafs. Ah, but no more Freddys. I hate mortality. Perhaps this is my neurotic bias, my inability to look into the existential void, but I hate death nonetheless, and I hate none more than my own. To know my spirit will join some cosmic energy pool, or my atoms reappear in a philosopher-king a thousand years from now, these make no difference to me. I want my memories, feelings, ideas, passions, experiences, my essence, to live on. I don't want to die. It feels absurd that I should have to.

Now these are two very different problems, and they could be discussed at length. But I begin my discussion of the gospel here because this is where the gospel really does begin. Jesus promises two things to those who trust him: final forgiveness and eternal life. No wonder it's called the good news! Could this simply be wish fulfillment, as in Feuerbach? Think again.

For the good news also has some very bad news. Jesus says at the end of time he will judge the world and only some will receive life (Luke 3 and Matthew 3, Mark 8 and 9, etc.) The rest, most perhaps, will be burned like garbage. If this is true, how does one get into the elusive Kingdom? What is the narrow path?

According to Jesus, it is two things: faith and love. Or perhaps one thing: faith which is expressed in love. In John 11, just before Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, Jesus says to Lazarus' sister Martha, "your brother will rise again." Martha answers, "I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day." This was a point of theological contention at the time; some Jews believed in an afterlife or resurrection, some Jews didn't. Jesus then says the most amazing thing he could have said: "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" This would be akin to say, Scott and I debating the Keynsian economic theory as I suddenly turn to Scott and say 'I am Kensian economics! Do you believe this?'

But note two things: one, Jesus says that those who believe in him will never die, or will not ever actually die. And two, he directly asks Martha, "Do you believe this?"

That is the good news. This is the threshold of Christianity. It's in every canonical gospel and in Paul as well; in fact, probably in every nt book.

Note that Martha doesn't answer, oh , yes, I believe you will raise all the dead at the end of time, or something like that. What she says in response is "I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world." She places faith in Jesus as her Messiah (I can assume Martha was Jewish) as God's son on a unique divine-historical mission. Believing, trusting, Jesus is who he says he is, even if we only understand part of what that means, that's the gospel.

But there is a second part. James' epistle was written off by Luther as 'a right strawy epistle' or something close. But Luther was of course reacting to a false gospel he himself previously held. Fact is, the language in James is close to things Jesus himself said, even its tone (considering James was Jesus' brother, this makes sense). Look at the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25. I remember Keith Green, the 70's Christian singer who died in a plane crash, wrote a song about this parable and was accused of teaching 'works salvation.' In fact, a man I respect and a friend from my past told me once 'that's why God took him.' Well, I'm already afraid to fly anyway.

James' point is that faith in Jesus is not just mental belief; real faith is reflected in choices, I assume at least one!, based on that belief. And Jesus says that loving action is central to how, at the final judgement, he will evaluate those who are truly in his church from those who simply inhabit the building. Both the sheep and goats (indeed, both groups in all three parables in this chapter) 'know' Jesus in some sense. But it is the sheep who take in the stranger, care for the sick and those in prison, feed and clothe those in need. This is both an exhilitaring and an ominous parable.

I was driving behind a bus once and there was a sign on the back which said "Say this now, Jesus please come into my heart." I'm not kidding. I'm told one can convert to Islam by simply saying, "There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet." I assume in both cases one must mean what one says. But if I believe that Jesus is who he says he is in the gospels, that must result in loving action on my part. Loving gestures are what Jesus wants. How many tragic men say they love their wives, believe it, but ignore every need the wife has, perhaps even abuse her, hit and belittle her? Sure they believe they love her, but how would you judge their belief?

Haven't I heard of sola fide, faith alone? Haven't I read Paul's powerful argument regarding faith salvation in Romans, in Galatians? Yes. But there is no way the nt can be represented any other way, including St. Paul, but to say that the gospel is two things: one, believing Jesus is who he says he is and trusting him with my vast guilt and my eternal destiny; and two, in gratitude, in recognition, of his personhood attempting to become a more loving person, no matter how shoddy, ineffectual, or inconsistent my efforts. How can that kind of forgivness not move a person to loving gestures? The gospel isn't knowledge, it's belief, trust, it's charity.

You can roll it some other way, but I won't smoke it.

If anyone reads this and isn't sure he or she is saved, go back and read a gospel or part of one. Look at how Jesus talks about himself. Do you believe him? Yes, good, that's faith in Christ; now talk to your spouse in a different tone when he or she comes home tonight because you have been forgiven; spend a few minutes more listening to your child's day because you can now talk to Jesus about yours; speak out against injustice when you see it because Jesus cares for those who suffer. That's faith in action.

I myself have faith in Jesus. Do I live this magical love-glow life? No. Just keep reading my blog! But I have to say that every small step I take toward acting like a sheep and not a goat drives my faith into me like nothing else.

When Jesus says in John 14 that he has prepared rooms for us in his Father's house, he also says, "if it were not so, I would have told you." That's it. The gospel rests on the credibility of one person, but one person who forgives sins and raises the dead. I live in guilt, hurting those I love every day, and will know death. But according to Jesus, my guilt has value because it has led me to him, and my death will not be the end, but the beginning.