Tuesday, November 11, 2014

This Just In: Joseph Smith Was a Polygamist

Of course, to those of us who are students of history and seekers of truth, this is not news. Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy, polyandry, and his efforts to justify such behavior have been well documented and accessible to curious people like us for decades. The real news here is that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has finally been forced to face some of the truth of its history in a more direct manner than it has chosen to in the past.

In an essay recently posted on the Mormon Church’s official website the LDS leadership now publicly admits to its members what Church leadership has known all along: Joseph Smith took many wives—as many as 40—and one of them was only 14 years old (although the carefully worded essay prefers to describe her age as “several months before her 15th birthday.”) He did this in secret for several years and lied about it at first. Some of these women were already married, and yes, Joseph Smith did have sex with these other women, but apparently not all of them.

So why is this such a big deal? Because Joseph Smith is the only pillar upon which the Mormon Church rests. It was Joseph Smith who received the golden plates and translated them from Reformed Egyptian into the Book of Mormon and thus started the Mormon Religion. If Joseph Smith was not a true prophet, if instead he was a liar, a con-artist, a fraud, then the entire Mormon Religion comes crumbling down. We’re talking about a powerful organization with millions of members and billions of dollars in assets. A lot rides on Joseph Smith’s shoulders.

This creates a great deal of tension for faithful Mormons—tension that even the brightest Mormon historians have difficulty resolving (see my review of the biography Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling to see what I mean.)  

The most unfortunate aspect of all this is that now, with the publication of this essay, it has become abundantly clear that LDS Church leadership has intentionally and willfully misled its members and has attempted to cover-up or deny the more difficult aspects of Mormon history. Again, this is not news to me, but it is news to many faithful Mormons who have been taught very differently about Joseph Smith. Imagine the pain of realizing that your religious leaders have been hiding the truth from you because the truth wasn’t deemed to be “faith promoting.” This is no simple matter.  I’ve visited several blogs by Mormons discussing this development and have read the comment threads with sympathy. Mormons are part of a rich and vibrant culture that is woven into every part of their identity—their family, their friends, their ancestors, their church. Their faith permeates every aspect of their lives. When a Mormon starts to think about walking away from their religion, they’re walking away from so much more than a system of beliefs—in many cases they are literally walking away from everything.

If I haven’t already, I hope I make it abundantly clear that I hold a deep regard for Mormons. I have many Mormon friends and neighbors who are wonderful people with good hearts. I do, however, have a major problem with any individual or institution that willfully manipulates, misleads, or coerces a vulnerable population for their own gain.

The good news here is that for those who must abandon their religious beliefs as they seek truth, on the other side of the painful process of letting go there exists a wonderful freedom. Truth really does set us free. And when we are free, we are much more likely to find God. And for most of us, that is what we really want.    

Monday, November 3, 2014

Why Can't Christians Wrap Their Minds Around Death With Dignity?

Brittany Maynard wanted us to think about this issue.

"If I'm leaving a legacy, it's to change this health-care policy or be a part of this change of this health-care policy so it becomes available to all Americans. That would be an enormous contribution to make, even if I'm just a piece of it." 

And when I see other blog posts such as this one by John Piper (chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary) getting over a thousand likes on facebook, I simply can’t stay silent on the issue.

So here is my question: Why can’t Evangelical Christians wrap their minds around death with dignity?

If you read Piper’s post you’ll find the part where he tries to explain his position by leaning on Romans 14:7-9:

“None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.”

Piper then goes on to reason:

“Therefore, we are not our own; we are the Lord’s. Therefore, we live and we die ‘to the Lord.’ That is, life and death are not our private concern. They are not our choice. He bought us. He owns us. We live and we die to him — in reliance on him, in accordance with his will, for his glory.”

So here is my response to John Piper, and please forgive me for using the following example for I in no way wish to be insensitive to the reality that people have faced the following scenario. What say you to the person trapped atop a burning skyscraper with no chance of rescue or escape? This person would rather jump than burn to death. Do you tell them it is not their “private concern” whether they burn or die on impact? Do you explain to them that by choosing to jump they are cutting their life short and usurping God’s divine will for them to burn ten minutes later? And don’t try to counter that Brittany Maynard’s situation was different. Her cancer was a burning skyscraper, and in the grand scheme of things ten minutes isn’t much different from a few weeks or months.

Another thing to consider is that if we follow Piper’s logic, we must also look at the matter conversely. What do we say to the middle-aged man with four blocked coronary arteries as he lies on the gurney in the Emergency Department? Do we tell him that it is obviously God’s will that his arteries got clogged and we are sorry that he is on the brink of death but it is not our place to artificially extend his life by cleaning out his arteries or by taking the veins that God placed in his legs and transferring those veins to his chest to bypass the clogged arteries because the veins certainly weren’t created for that?

Christians like to believe that God is in control. In fact, if one believes Paul just like John Piper does, then to quote from the same passage that Piper does, one should believe “whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” Therefore, it is preposterous to believe that when it comes to when we die or how we die that we humans can actually do anything to change the fact that God is in control. The bottom line is if God didn’t want Brittany to die on November 2, 2014, He could have stopped her.

I don’t know if I should tell the following story, but I’m going to anyway. Brace yourself because what follows is horrible. When I was a resident physician I once had a patient beg me to end her life. She was in her late sixties, alone, no family, no friends, only a few acquaintances. She put all her affairs in order and then drove herself in the dead of night to a remote place where she figured no children might stumble across her. She placed a large caliber handgun to her temple and pulled the trigger. The only problem was that she held the gun at the wrong angle and the bullet completely missed her brain but instead took out both of her eyes and a good portion of her face. When I met her in the E.R. she was alert, able to speak, and had refused any pain medication. As I held her hand she told me her story and begged me to let her die. She pleaded for death. I told her as gently as I could that my only desire was to help her, but helping her die was something I simply could not do.

I don’t know why that bullet didn’t kill her. I don’t know what role God played. Some people might say it was God who made her misaim by that fraction of an inch and to them I say why didn’t God just jam the trigger?  I never saw her again after that night, so I don’t know how much she suffered or how much longer she lived. So what is my point in telling this awful tale? Please bear with me, I’m pretty sure I’m getting to it.

I think my point is that our North American society needs to seriously rethink how we view and handle death. On the one hand most Christians spend far too much time perseverating on the afterlife and on how to get to Heaven and how to avoid eternal conscious torment in Hell to the point that they completely miss out on what it means to follow Jesus and build the Kingdom of God here and now. And on the other hand most everybody else seems to be obsessed with extending life as long as possible without much regard to quality of life or dignity. Brittany Maynard, may she rest in peace, appears to be way ahead of most of us.

I thank her for her courage and her willingness to share her story. I respect her choice and admire her bravery, for I’m sure she knew she would be the subject of hundreds of random bloggers like me. 

Saturday, October 25, 2014

This is How We Fight Ebola?

“Stupid is as stupid does.”
--Forrest Gump

I’d like to keep this blog professional, but I’m having a difficult time toning down my rhetoric while formulating a response to the idiotic move made by New York and New Jersey’s governors when they decided in their imminent wisdom to trump recommendations by experts at the CDC (who actually know a thing or two about Ebola) and enforce a mandatory three week quarantine for healthcare workers returning from West Africa.  

But then again, why should I be surprised? Sadly, the vast majority of our elected officials are, let’s just face it, plain stupid. And when people are afraid, they tend to act even more stupidly than they already are.

I will admit that on the surface this mandatory quarantine appears to make sense, but only on the surface. The clearly understandable and well-publicized arguments against such a quarantine are so strong and compelling that I find it shocking that Andrew Cuomo and Chris Christie went ahead with their moronic policy. Didn’t they know that bloggers like me would lambaste them and share our disgust with all our friends on facebook and twitter?

For those of you who aren’t familiar with why their move is so imprudent, rash, foolish, asinine, and idiotic, I’ll be happy to explain.

First and foremost, the experts think a quarantine is a bad idea, and they’re pretty unanimous on this. This alone should be reason enough, but since it has become so hip not to trust our experts I’ll go ahead and explain why these generally intelligent and accomplished professionals say a mandatory quarantine will be counterproductive.

On one hand, the quarantine won’t add any significant protection over and above careful screening, self-monitoring, and rapid isolation following symptom identification. In fact, a rigid quarantine will make it more likely that individuals will try to cheat the system and bypass it altogether.

On the other hand, and this is probably the most compelling reason why the quarantine is such a bad idea, most healthcare professionals won’t want to try to cheat the system so they simply won’t go to West Africa if they know a trip will cost them an additional three weeks upon their return. We cannot afford to lose a single healthcare worker who is willing to help. What the world still hasn’t seemed to be able to grasp is that we need all the help we can get over there, and we need that help three months ago. Closing our boarders and sticking our heads in the sand isn’t going to make this problem go away. We need billions of dollars and an army of healthcare volunteers, and we need them now. We don’t need idiotic policies enacted by rash politicians who think they know better than everybody else.

So please, please, those of you with a voice, try to make your governors understand that their stupid actions might cost them an election. If they won’t listen to reason, they’ll certainly listen to that.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Confessions of a Prejudiced Evangelical Christian

When I was a kid, learning for the first time about our nation’s shameful history of slavery, I often wondered how I would have viewed that sordid institution had I been born a privileged son of a Southern plantation owner in the mid-nineteenth century. Would I have bought into the justifications taught by my slave-owning parents, my peers, my local government, and yes, even my church? Or would I have somehow managed to rise above those prejudices and recognize slavery for what it was: plain evil.

And what if I had been coming of age in Alabama in the early to mid-twentieth century--in the midst of Jim Crow Laws and segregation? What if my father and grandfather were both members of the Klan? What would I have thought about that? What side would I have been on? Would I have thrown rocks at the Freedom Riders? Would I have tried to stay out of the debate? Or would I have recognized a good and noble cause and joined the peaceful demonstrators?

I’ve always liked to think I would have come down on the right side of these great historical debates. I like to think I am able to recognize the correct path when it comes to justice versus injustice, right versus wrong, good versus evil. In fact, one of my greatest personal fears is that one day, when I am old and gray and hopefully much wiser, I will discover that I have been horribly mistaken about one of these issues—that I will have missed the mark and come down on the side of injustice or evil.

And this is why I need to make the following confessions.

I was born in the late twentieth century, and it breaks my heart to confess that because of my prior religious beliefs I was prejudiced against the gay community. I confess that I once strongly felt they should not be allowed to legally marry. I confess that I viewed their lifestyle as sinful, unholy, unbiblical, and unworthy of being welcomed into the Christian community. I am deeply sorry for my prejudices.

It is with great sadness that I watch this debate continue to rage as conservative Christians lash out against churches and organizations that support the gay community and try to welcome that community as they are. Not so long ago I was one of these Christians filled with righteous anger and fear. My journey from then to now has been refreshing and exhausting; simple and complicated; surprisingly easy and extremely difficult. But I have arrived at this moment and my hope and prayer is that others like me will manage to arrive here as well.

I will spare you the details of my personal journey, for it is long and complex, but I would like to describe more fully where here is.

Here is where love wins over religious dogma. Here is where I recognize the error of elevating texts written by people 2000 years ago above what I know to be ethically and morally wrong--that is to deny marriage equality to all.

Now that I have finally arrived here, I pray that my own confessions will stir some hearts and minds.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Why Don't We Really Care About Ebola?

After the earthquake in Haiti, the American Red Cross raised $486 million. To date, it has only received $100,000 in individual donations to fight Ebola. 

The United Nations estimates we will need about a $1 billion to contain this outbreak.

Here is my question: Why don’t we care? And when I say we, I’m referring to those of us in the West. For months people in Africa have been dying. If we had cared, we could have responded in a concerted effort and we could have saved thousands of lives. If we cared now, we might still be able to pool our resources and stem the tide that will likely reach 1.4 million infected individuals in the next 4 months. But, apparently, we don’t really care yet. How do I know? Because my facebook page hasn’t been inundated with ice-bucket challenges trying to raise donations to fight Ebola.

So when will we start caring? When will the organizations on the front lines begin to see the five and ten dollar donations pouring in from the tens of millions of concerned Americans who may not have a ton of money but can at least spare a few bucks for a worthy cause?

And why is it taking so long? This is a question I’m afraid to explore. I think the art at the beginning of this post by AndrĂ© Carrilho, an illustrator and cartoonist based in Lisbon whose work has appeared in the New York Times, speaks volumes.

The time to act is yesterday.

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Friday, September 19, 2014

The Most Asinine Award Your Kid Could Earn at School

Every year, when summer break draws near, a stretch limo pulls up to my kids’ charter school, loads up a gaggle of super excited kiddos while their envious peers look on, and drives them a few blocks down the road to a pizza parlor where they are fed lunch. These winners are the recipients of the most coveted award at their school. Honestly, what could possibly top a limo ride and free pizza?

So what do these kids have to accomplish to win this fabulous and glamorous prize? Do they have to be the top academic performers in their class? No, those kids get a certificate and sometimes a medal. Did they turn in 100% of their homework? No, that industrious attitude doesn’t get formally recognized. Well, perhaps they are the students who have shown the most improvement over the year. Nope, not even close. The limo kids are the few who have managed to not miss a single minute of school. They call it Extreme Perfect Attendance. To win this award not only must you show up every day, you can never arrive late or leave early. No sick days, no doctor’s appointments, no family emergencies.

I wish I were joking, but alas, I am not.

Let’s analyze this a little more. To accomplish this incredible feat, I submit that these winners fall into one of three categories:

 A)    The Super Immune System Category. These amazing kids just never get sick. I’m happy for them. It must be nice to be able to lick the plastic balls in the McDonalds playground, share your best friend’s bubble gum, or put your mouth all over the drinking fountain and never have to suffer the consequences. But the bottom line is that their impenetrable immune systems require no effort on their part.

      B)    The Working Parents/Guardians Category. These kids get sick but their parents/guardians simply can’t miss work so they load their feverish kids up on a cocktail of Motrin, cough syrup, and Zofran and haul them to school anyway. These kids actually deserve the limo ride.

C)    The I’m Going to Win the Limo Ride No Matter the Cost Category. These kids also get sick. They could stay home and rest or go to the doctor but they really want to get into that limo and their parents don’t want to deny them the opportunity so their parents coach them on how to run to the bathroom real quick when they have to barf so they aren’t caught by any teachers or staff. Who cares if they are spreading rotavirus to the rest of their class—this is an important prize. And what about Uncle Ned’s funeral? We weren’t really that close to him… 

I think you catch my drift. This is truly the most asinine award a school could give its students. So why does the administration pull out all the stops to make this the most coveted prize among the K-5th graders? It’s all about money. Better attendance translates into more dollars for the school budget.

That fact alone is shameful, but what bothers me even more is that this strategy is just plain bass ackwards. If you really think about it, those category B and C kids are actually causing more absences by showing up to school sick and infecting the rest of their classmates. They sit in class for a couple days coughing all over their friends, and the next week twelve kids (including mine) are out for the entire week. Do the math. It boggles my mind that the administration encourages this sort of behavior--especially with the current enterovirus outbreak, which is rapidly spreading across the country and sending all the asthmatic kids to the ICU.

I know I’m not the only one who gets this. We need to talk some sense into our school administrators. The Perfect Attendance Award needs to be changed into the Never Came to School Sick Award.  

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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Struggling on the Fringes of Christianity

In my last post I confessed I have been wrestling with a serious identity crisis. Should I still call myself a Christian even though I seem to be on the fringes of what is required/accepted by the gatekeepers of mainstream Christendom? Should I follow in Anne Rice’s footsteps when she wrote:

"Today I quit being a Christian. I'm out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being 'Christian' or to being part of Christianity. It's simply impossible for me to 'belong' to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else."

Or should I cling to my Christian identity but somehow reform it so that I can confidently reclaim it?

My gut has been telling me the latter option will be the most difficult but is ultimately the right answer. The more I’ve pondered what this reformation of my Christian identity would look like, the more overwhelmed I’ve become. I’m not talking about just a few minor adjustments here and there. I’m talking about a major paradigm shift. Something that will seriously rock my world—nearly to the very foundations of my faith—but not quite all the way. And after this seismic demolition, I will have to clear away all the rubble and begin to replace it with something new. Fortunately I’m beginning to realize this something new will be several orders of magnitude more simple than what was present before. But even so, the prospect of this undertaking terrifies me.

I know I’m not the first to embark on this sort of journey and I’m not the only Christian wrestling with my identity. I was, however, taken by surprise by how many hits my original post on this topic received. The number of visitors to that post confirms my suspicion that those of us on the fringes are increasing in number. More disturbing to me were the number of people who responded to me in private with statements to this effect: “I’m so glad you shared this, I thought I was the only one who felt this way, I wish I could say this sort of thing publicly.”

While I don’t claim my post was particularly courageous, I will confess that I wrestled with sharing what I did. My pastor, who has been teaching a series on the subversive parables of Jesus, invited me to read my blog post in front of our congregation (he’s had several congregants share examples of subversive short stories, poems, etc.) I declined. This begs the question: what am I afraid of? The answer to this question is complex and comprises a large part of the problem many of us are having with our Christian identity. The simplest way I can put it is this: I want to be able to follow Jesus and call myself a Christian without starting a fight. I want to be a committed Christian without having to condemn, convince, convert, or perform any other sort of con on others who believe differently than I.

Enter Brian D. McLaren and his wonderful book: Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?  Christian Identity in a Multi-faith World. McLaren, who describes himself as an author, speaker, activist, and public theologian, has done a masterful job describing the problem I have been wrestling with. He even gives it a name: Conflicted Religious Identity Syndrome. But beyond describing the problem of the crisis of Christian identity and its symptoms, he offers a solution. A path towards a new kind of Christian identity—what he describes as a Strong/Benevolent Christian identity. This new identity brings with it major challenges that must be solved. McLaren adroitly identifies these challenges and offers solutions.

So to my fellow Truth seekers struggling on what you think are the fringes of Christianity, I beg you to read this book. And to those of you who are already confident you possess the Truth, those of you resting comfortably in the knowledge that your religion has provided you all the answers, I beg you to read this book.