Thursday, March 23, 2006

On Holy Ground

It all began with one member of our group telling a run-over dog story.

He arrived to EFM visibly upset, though he said he was over the worst of it. B is an intense and bright man, wonderful at heart, who converted to Catholicism about a decade ago and then moved to the Episcopal church when he and his wife semi-retired from the Bay area to Sierra foothill country. I like B. He has a long resume as a recreational sailor and even a racer. What I saw that night was a heart-depth his strong will and mind had hidden.

He was coming home from his twice a week trip to the Bay and when he pulled into the driveway of their ranch home he saw his wife screaming in horror from the front porch. It turns out the front wheel of his SUV had run over their dog, was in fact on his dog, wheel on belly, as he stopped moving to try and figure his wife out. When he realized what had happened, he had to roll back off the dog. This would be traumatic for anyone; for some, it's almost the same as running over a child. B is one of those.

He went into hysterics, and it was his wife who thought to wrap the dog in a blanket and call the vet. All B remembers before they got the dog in the blanket is the dog pulling herself towards him using only her front legs, her back legs and belly dragging on the ground. They put the dog in the back of the SUV, still, wrapped in the blanket like a sling, and his wife drove to the doggie hospital while B lay in the back holding his dog. He said he prayed as he has never prayed, prayed that his dog would live, would be healed, would be okay.

The first vet only stabilized the animal for shock and then sent them to a true animal emergency room. There they dropped the dog off, left it overnight for treatment and observation, and went home to sleep. The next day when he visited the dog it came out, walking on all fours, wagging its tail. Sore, but the x-rays showed no internal injury. Bruising, but no broken bones or damaged organs.

That is a fascinating and moving story. I don't know if it was an answer to prayer, a miraculous healing, because the trauma to the dog was so sudden and I know other run-over dog stories where the dog survived without serious injury; of course, some dogs die. But his account began the group talking, or maybe something else did, and we all shared experiences we had in our Christian lives that we couldn't explain, beginning with me.

I've told my story before but it's worth telling again. Steph and I were at church a couple years ago and a young man and his family came to the service for prayer. I had never seen the boy and I haven't seen him since. He was wearing a military uniform and was shipping out to Iraq. When the deacon asked if anyone wanted to come forward to pray, Steph stood up next to me and I thought, well, I better get up too. I hate the war and certainly felt moved by what I was witnessing, was willing to pray, but mostly I was caught off guard.

We walked up to the front of the little church, the same place I walk and stand when I usher two or three times a month. A group laid hands on the young man and I put my had on someone's shoulder in front of me.

It was then that I felt it. I cannot assure the reader it was supernatural, but I have considered every other possibility and can say I have never had another experience like it before or since: I felt a weight on my shoulders, a heat and a weight, more heat than anything perhaps. As if someone was right behind me, hunched a fraction of an inch from my skin. I almost shrugged my shoulders to see what if anything was touching me. It was quite physical. We prayed for a minute or less, and I continued to feel the heat and weight, like a mantle or blanket. I don't know exactly when this ended, but I do know when we stopped praying (that may have been when it went away) I looked behind me and Steph and I were on the outside of the circle. I believe not even a person standing right behind me could have caused that sensation unless they had both arms spread and were actually so close I could feel their skin heat through my own clothes. It was something I didn't tell anyone about for along time, in fact, I told no one except my blog until that night at EFM.

Next came my friend S. S has been in our parish for more than fifty years, sixty maybe; I believe she was baptized there. As a historical Episcopal parish, we're pretty conservative when it comes to the day to day miraculous and S is no exception. But she told a story from ten or fifteen years ago, when the parish was having prayer for healing services (this service was gone since I came five years ago). When she went to the altar rail for communion she looked at the woman next to her and S swears there was a light coming down and shining, illuminating, this woman as she prayed. S says that the she knew the woman from a yoga class and knew she desperately needed prayer, but she never saw her after the prayer service and never found out what happened to her problem (whatever it was; S didn't say).

Of course my skeptical gear kicked in and I asked if there was light outside (no, night service) if any light from inside the building was shining on her, but S has been in this parish since before it had air conditioning and my question really was foolish. She is quite sure there was no naturalistic explanation. Just a light coming down from above onto this woman.

Then C spoke. He said that at his confirmation he felt the distinct presence of the Other, but my skeptical nature is so strong I can't confirm that this was supernatural in origin, nor am I stupid enough to deny that it was. However, he had one other experience. C has been Episcopal most of his life and very involved in the church for decades. Once some years ago at Christian retreat he said that while he was watching a woman speak to the group he saw her glow. I of course wanted to know every detail I could, but he felt he saw her 'shekinah,' that she began glowing when she began speaking and that she stopped glowing when she stopped speaking. I believe this took place during a time when silence was imposed and so he only asked her about it later. The speaker herself hadn't noticed the light. C is from a business background, also Episcopalian, also skeptical. I asked him a number of searching questions, but he is quite sure he saw what he saw.

What is to be made of all this? Why don't Christians see miracles every day? I don't know, though I do know that Jesus looked down on those who, after he fed the multitude, sought him out just because of the miracle. What he wanted was spiritual, not physical, hunger. Paul complains that 'the Jews demand signs and the Greeks wisdom.' He felt the crucifixion and resurrection message itself should be enough. Apparently he also saw a light so bright it blinded him, according to Luke at least.

What struck me about these accounts, including my own, is that none of us were in any particularly agitated or expectant state; the miracles we experienced were not the kinds of things we see happening often, or at all, in the NT. There was at least one other share where D felt that at his first confirmation he perceived 'an energy' between himself and the altar and that a woman in the choir also felt something and wrote him a letter about it. But the three I told here in detail (not in any way to detract from B or D's accounts) are the ones that struck me most as empirical experiences at the time.

Do other religions have these same moments? I don't actually know. Others must have miracles in their literature or described from their services, but I only imagine. Obvious myth doesn't count; I'm talking about concrete experiences witnessed first-hand. I remember one story about a 14 year old girl that Joseph Smith insisted marry him against her initial will; she saw a bright light the night after he confronted her and she felt convinced she should go ahead and marry Smith after her vision, but this is told more than second hand and obviously the circumstances make it impossible to attribute to Christ. Just because God wasn't involved in that event (if it actually happened) in my view doesn't mean he isn't involved in other places. Her story does not mean my own experience was purely psychosomatic or imagined.

And that's why I labeled this On Holy Ground. I'm not talking about outcomes which might be chance, or inner urgings or hunches, or a belief that God orders the events in the human universe (I have a very hard time believing he does on the day to day scale) and that this or that was 'God's will.' These experiences, drawn from decades of combined spiritual living, stick out to me in my doubt as something I can't easily dismiss. I wish I could say they've solved all my doubt issues, but not yet at least. Still, I haven't forgotten what I experienced and what I heard.

***

Been doing a little posting here. It's quite possible I misunderstood Brad's post on therapy, but I remain convinced: the church should embrace every tool to help the suffering that it can, including the technology that comes out of therapy. That therapy is not enough in itself seems obvious to me after having done so much; certainly it's possible to have every therapeutic tool and no ethic, no genuine love. Christian ethics have to surround every piece of the process, and I've seen that happen even with non-Christian therapists! But no doubt, the texts we call the Bible do not possess everything we need to live life effectively. Psychotherapeutic method and process is one of those things that while informed or shaped by Jesus' vision, isn't included in the books we have.

***

This is more than I have time for. Papers to grade and a novel to read by Monday night for my Sci. Fi. class (Stoker's Dracula, my first time). Be well all. Hope to be back sooner rather than later.


Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Winter's End

Garrison Keillor, of whom I have long been a not so closet fan, begins one of his books by saying he once wrote two really great short stories, his best ever, then lost them while travelling with his family. Since then, he's been trying to find that level of art in his fiction. It's a joke of course, but I feel the same. More than a week ago I wrote what I thought was a pretty artful post I called 'turning winter,' and when I went to post it blogspot blipped and zip zap gone. All I have is the first couple paragraphs.

Oh well.

It has been snowing at my house for almost three weeks. We get little breaks between storms, but the temperature has not been going much above freezing, if at all, and each storm has brought a foot or more. My yard, my deck, completely buried. It looks like we'll get a break this week finally, with temps getting into the forties for a couple days. We don't get four true seasons in the Sierra the way the midwest gets them, or the northeast, but we do get bouts of real winter weather. This last has been intense. As much snow as we get in a season, almost, in three weeks.

My back hurts from all the shovelling.

Also, I spent four days in Long Beach attending a wedding of an old friend of Steph's. This was very nice. S and I love to dance, and we did plenty that night. The woman who got married is also the mother of Mikey's cousin, a girl the same age he is, and it was great to see her getting a wonderful stepfather. When she read her letter to her parents at the reception we wept openly.

Sometimes in this world, things do go right, at least for a period of time. The woman who was married was addicted to meth less than a decade ago. To see her so healthy now, with a wonderful relationship with her daughter and new man...this is true beauty. Of course, life presents that unpredictable mix of joy and despair, the alternating sense of all-things-rightness and the certain knowledge that the world is full of tragedy and irresistable discomfort and routine. These things change place in my own head and heart in less than a day sometimes.

***

I know I may have been out of my range in my last post, but hearing Bush hold a press conference this morning on the radio I am struck again by his apparent arrogance, his bristle when challenged, and at the danger of his ideas. His incompetence is hidden under astounding conviction; he seems to believe his own changing stories. Meanwhile, more die. History will judge. Even if Iraq becomes a democratic bastion for free thought in the Arab world, the fact remains we invaded a country which posed no threat to us in response to a very real attack from another faction. Hussein was not up to much when we finally did go in; his great atrocities having occured earlier in history, and we took him out in the midst of almost unanimous international outrage which turned sympathy for the US after 9/11 into hatred. Also, it is quite possible Iraq will not become a pro-western state when we finally do stop occupying it.

Was Hussein a terrible person? Yes. Do civil rights need to be enhanced in the Arab world. Sure. But was this the way to do it? Time will tell.

***

Since I was out of town for four days I have lots of work to catch up on. This semester is easier than last, but it doesn't mean I don't have plenty on my plate, with church work, EFM, my career and family. My faith, like my mood, continues to vacillate for no apparent reason. I have not forgotten my need to dialogue with my own skeptical self, to understand what I can, to believe my faith is not based on rationally plausible constructs, to integrate what science now tells me about the natural world.

I mentioned a while back that my brother was going to connect me to a NT professor. He did so. And when I emailed with this person one thing he complained about was the anti-intellectualism in evangelical circles. Perhaps this spreads across much of American Christianity (though not all by any means). According to him, Christians hear about a new book by Crossan or Ehrman and shake their heads at the poor misguided souls who wrote them (others would go farther, and simply consider these scholars tools of the devil in open rebellion against God). This anti-intellectualism goes even farther in attitudes towards science (again, not for all; no one less than B.B. Warfield, long ago, considered evolution compatible with what he felt was innerrant scripture).

Science does take its own leaps of faith. While debate is ongoing, the Miller-Urey experiment, included in textbooks all the years I was in school as proof of the replication of organic building blocks from non-organic compounds, is now under criticism from scientists. Life may have begun not in Darwin's pre-biotic warm pool but near ocean vents, or under many feet of sea ice, or even in outer space. The fact is we don't know what the ancient earth was like, nor do I believe we know how non-organic matter became organic matter; this has never been replicated in a lab or observed in nature. We have good guesses, dare I say theories, but there are many gaps and non-understood portions to our evolutionary model.

This is fine. Science has to proceed whether it knows or even can know all the facts in a puzzle. Yet evolution is presented as absolute, unquestioned science. This is odd for me. Yes, the circumstantial evidence for shared ancestry is very strong, and I don't have religious problems with this, but science, while believing itself to be ultra skeptical and fully empirical, does not play out that way when it comes to science textbooks at least.

Still, Christians go too far when they dismiss evolutionary science as hogwash. Those who have written against the theory of evolution so far, Johnson and Behe, are powerfully contested. We may very well have evolved even without supernatural intervention (but how can this be known?). But does that mean evolution had no higher purpose, served no larger creator? That science cannot answer. We can see the suffering and random death scattered throughout earth's biology and say no, God does not exist or he is not good or he is not involved with us. We can also look at the place evolution has taken us, the human mind, as well as the physical and chemical order of the natural world, and say yes, we have evolved, and not by mere chance, to know God himself.

The fact is we don't know how God made things if he did make them. I've said it before, but scientists who focus on the suffering in biological life and what appear to be random mutations have to also face the nature of the human being, our need to live beyond death, to be loved unconditionally, to have what Francis Schaeffer calls an infinite reference point. Are these proofs of God? For some, yes, for me, I'm not so sure. On some days! Mostly, I get back to the gospel record, the place my interest truly lies.

My experience with NT scholars is that two good minds look at the same data and simply have a different experience. One sees the Son of God, one an itinerant apocalyptic; one sees strong evidence for the miraculous in Jesus' life, while another doesn't; one sees overarching themes of love, redemption and salvation, another sees the disagreements between the writers. I'm talking about good scholars, not those with open agendas (though who approaches the gospels without one?). There are individuals who actually consider themseves Christian in some sense, like Crossan and Schweitzer, who deny the resurrection and the miracles.

Does this mean I should join a monastery, wait, forgot my family and need for a love life...throw myself into my faith with more faith and worry less about a rational support for my religion? Maybe, but that just isn't me. I need to keep looking at both sides. I am very, very grateful to be in the church I am, the Episcopal church, which encourages higher criticsm of the bible texts (and they are plural) and an open mind toward science; but also with the priest I have, a very modern-minded Christian, yet still a Nicene creed man nonetheless. I don't know if I'll go anywhere he hasn't gone in his thinking or isn't willing to go, and his faith is quite real. This does give me hope.

It feels good to blog again, even if I presented yet another ramble. I must write about the night in EFM when we all shared supernatural experience. Most in the group had one, including me (and I've shared mine here before). Some were quite compelling. All my religious, skeptical speculation is so much gesturing in the dark compared to a few experiences I heard that night I cannot explain. According to Hamlet, himself a thoughtful soul:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.


Benjamin Franklin writes that Jesus began a great religion, the finest he knows of, but that he doubts Jesus is divine. He may be, and Franklin says he hasn't actually bothered to research the question. But then Franklin notes he'll know soon enough. Meaning Franklin's own death will answer every religious question humans have posed, including the Jesus question, one way or the other. For a Christian, I know, this is an ominous point of view. For me also, it's one I just haven't been able to accept, humorous as it can look in some lights.

I don't know what, if anything, Franklin would add now.

***

I'm doing better in other ways, my anxiety and depression are better, the exposure work I'm doing (not as much as I should, but still doing) for my ocd is already paying off. It's an amazing tool. Some day I'll write something organized up here about tools for depression and obsession. I do believe my experience could help those who still suffer as I still sometimes suffer though to less and less degree.

Now back to the real job! Peace and God's love to all who read.


Wednesday, March 08, 2006

What Really Worries Me

This is not a political blog; I don't know much about politics. Nevertheless, in the past I've expressed my belief that invading Iraq when and how we did was idiotic because it has hindered the actual war on terror and will likely end up leaving something in place in that country which is far from the western style democracy the current administration envisions. Our administration has assumed a free vote will result in a civilly free and open market society. More so, that those in Iraq will soon discover the soft luxuries of western living on a broad scale, tivo and personal computers and fast food; that they will embrace the societal plurality, the cultural freedoms, we value (freedom of religion, speech, the press). This in turn will lead to alliance, at least amity, with the west. Time will tell; this is a grandiose vision.

What really worries me is that I have a son who will soon be fourteen. He is the most beautiful human being I know. He is conscientous, sensitive, and intelligent. He has thirteen-year-old dreams for his life, healthy dreams, normal for his age. Steph and I have tried to give him the emotional environment we did not have, and overall, I think we've done pretty well.

When I read about our administration's recent sale of nuclear weapons to India I am puzzled. Still more, in light of the hard line stance the administration is taking with Iran. Just today the news is more bleak than ever. Our own nation has essentially unlimited nuclear capability; our western allies all have these weapons and we're expanding that fact in India; we've given them to Israel, but if Iran develops a bomb, or begins to, it seems we're ready to bomb or even invade their country to stop them. In short, kill people.

And what would be the consequences in the Arab world if we did that? If we look like bloody imperialists now (and to millions we do) what would we be then? The only bright side, if there is one, is that key European allies support the hard line with Iran. At least we wouldn't look any worse in Europe than we already do.

Now I realize Iran's government is not exactly pro-western, but frankly, the Arab world is trying to join the global community and they will feel nukes are going to be part of that, especially with Israel having nukes so close to their borders; they will see them as defensive to the Israeli threat. Are we going to bomb each Arab nation into oblivion as their technology and thirst for these awful weapons expands?

This is all very, very scary. For me what is going on in Iraq is scarier than bird flu or the ice sheets melting. It is an obvious fact that warfare needs to devolve from human culture as it has in Western Europe (after centuries of killing each other; I leave out the tragic exception in Ireland and of course the violence in the east). Will it? I don't know. But I have no doubt violence should always be a last resort. The current adminstration, none of whom have been in combat that I can recall, have shown their willingness to sacrifice American lives for any number of reasons; worse, to minimize political fallout they have put whatever spin on their actions they can, and while troops are getting blown up by roadside bombs every week or day in Iraq (in underarmored vehicles) that country descends into greater and greater violence, and when we leave will almost surely end with a government which favors Iran and Iran's larger goals in the region.

Since when has violence applied from without been an effective ideology for change?

And I come back to my son. In six years he will be registered with selective service. If we have wars running on several fronts through the region, unless allies in Europe and elsewhere kick in troops to manage Iran, will there be a draft? Will my son's life be ruined or taken? I know I'm getting ahead of myself, and it's too early to worry about trouble I don't have, but this fear seems more rational than most of my fears.

I think, frankly, the current administration will go down in history as short-sighted fools who cost our country thousands of lives, billions of dollars, and whose actions led to the deaths of tens of thousands abroad, many of them civilians. Only great luck in Iraq will show them otherwise.

I end with two quotes. A few years ago, reading some column or other about invading Iraq (not the best citation, I know) it was said that most in the administration wanted to go to Bahgdad, but 'real men want to go to Tehran.' Really? Then get your middle-aged ass into uniform and learn to load and shoot a rifle and line up. I wish I knew the provenance of that quote; if actually used, it is arrogant adolescent stupidity, the kind that has gotten beautiful young men killed for millenia.

The second is from Matthew's gospel, chapter 5,

"Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called sons of God."

(For an interesting rant on all this, besides a brief and weak foray into gospel criticism, try Kurt Vonnegut's article HERE).

I do not want a son sent off to fight and either die or kill and suffer permanent change for oil when our government has allowed SUV's by the million, vehicles which get gas mileage in the teens. For an adminstration that cannot dialogue with other nations because of its insular arrogance and hypocrisy. An administration that, before it came together under W (the Vulcans), favored a more active role for our military abroad.

Am I naive? Yeah, sure. Do I underestimate the threat a nuclear equipped Iran would pose? Probably. Top whom though? To us? I know what some in India would like to do with their nukes. Perhaps if India and Pakistan actually do nuke each other along the border someday, besides millions dying quicky and slowly, Bin Laden will at least be killed, something our own massive military has been unable to effect (with most of our massive military running patrols in Iraq).

What I do know is that I abhor violence, I don't want my son to know it, and my dearest prayer is that he never does.

What can I do? Nothing really. Vote. Buy a Prius (we're on the waiting list at a local dealer). Pray. Share my anxiety and anger here. That's about it.

The beatitudes, in my opinion, are for their length the strongest religious writing in world literature. Quite a contast with the Yahweh war god of Joshua. I don't know if they are expanded from Q (Luke's version is much terser and contains the curses) or actually a piece of Matthew's direct recollection of the teachings of Jesus. I consider both possible. I do know they are exquisite. As Vonnegut argues, why are so many Christians in cultural war over the Ten Commandments in the courtroom? Why not have the Beatitudes there? Or in the oval office, for that matter? How about the Pentagon?

May God preserve all our children and all the children in every part of the world.


Friday, March 03, 2006

Whoa, Check This Out

I remember when Ojo Taylor posted to Scott's blog and Scott knew he was in the presence of royalty. Well, as far as I'm concerned, my blog has been equally favored (for me, more so). Chris Price, the person who wrote the critique of Doherty's reading of Hebrews I link to below posted to my comment on his article. I don't know how he found me; some kind of link tracer or something I guess, but I'm honored he did and appreciative for the other links on Doherty and Jesus-mythicists in general. I will read them.

My blog has been in blimbo lately. I haven't known what to do with it and was seriously considering quitting. Even this morning I was thinking this. Maybe, I consider now, there is a place for what I do here; amateur white-knuckle apologetics and emotional necessity sharing. Odd combo, I know. Somehow I just feel encouraged by Chris' post at the end of two very hard days. I'm digging in deeper, working on core ocd, and it's blows most heavy. I feel much worse than before I began, but my hope is, and my experience says, that this kind of work will pay off in time. It has before. I simply forgot how hard it was to do. I can't believe it was ever this challenging, but I know it was. A lenten discipline I'll need beyond Lent, offered for the love of my wife and family and a desire to continue my own self-care. May God bless it.

This is the first Ash Wednesday and Lent in general I feel I've truly embraced.

I've also found another great link. I said in my last post the fundamentalist view of scripture needs to change, is changing (outside fundamentalism anyway) but what to put in its place? I know, again, Wright has a book on this (The Last Word) which I have yet to get, but this article is an impressive outline, or a beginning at least, for an alternative to the fundamentalist approach. C.S. Lewis, writing decades ago in Reflections on the Psalms was the only alternative I'd really heard, though Bruggemann is helping me enormously on the OT (and does it ever need help, grossly disturbing human set of books that it is, or at least I find Joshua, Judges, Samuel disturbing in what they attribute to Yahweh).

Maybe when we seek truly, we really do find. Markos makes this point in the final lines of Lewis Agonistes (a good book, though I struggle with the Fall in light of modern biology) using Reepicheep.

Well, I really must do some actual work. It has snowed here for two straight days. It's not supposed to stop until later tonight. Not only do I have schoolwork waiting, but my snow shovel is starting to call. It's always easier when it's powder.