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.

available at amazon.com

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.  

available at amazon.com

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.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Christian with an Identity Crisis

I fear I’ve been quietly rejected by the gatekeepers of the evangelical Christian community. Perhaps I’m wrong about this perceived rejection—perhaps it is all in my head—so allow me to make my case.

A while back I wrote a little novel called Prime of Life. I entered it into a contest put on by the Jerry B. Jenkins Christian Writers Guild and it won first place. (If you don’t know who Jerry B. Jenkins is, then you also probably qualify to be rejected by the evangelical community since he is the author of the famous Left Behind series and was selected by Billy Graham to assist in the writing of his autobiography, Just as I Am.) As winner of this contest, Prime of Life was published by Worthy Publishing, a boutique evangelical Christian publisher that has published several powerhouse evangelical leaders including Chuck Colson, Jim Daly, Bill and Gloria Gaither, Franklin Graham, Hank Hanegraaff, Ralph Reed, and Chuck Swindoll (again, if you don’t recognize at least a few of these names then your name may only appear in very small print in the Book of Life.)

As a born-again, baptized, Bible-believing, Jesus-following Christian I was happy to see my name listed in alphabetical order among these other authors on Worthy’s web page. In fact, I’m ashamed to admit, I felt kind of proud in a not-so-Christian way. Sure, I noticed that the links to my facebook page, twitter account, and this blog were missing next to my name, but that was probably just an oversight. (You can see what I mean here.) It turns out these links are missing from one or two of the other authors as well. Perhaps Worthy just forgot to add mine even though I sent them the links upon their request.

But when Prime of Life went to press, and my case of books finally arrived, and I eagerly tore open the box and held it in my hands for the first time, I couldn’t help but notice that the official golden seal identifying it as winner of the Christian Writers Guild contest had been left off the cover. Also absent were any endorsements by other evangelical authors—endorsements that had been present for past contest winners. Again, thought I, probably an oversight.

I tried to explain these things away as minor glitches, but I still couldn’t stop myself from wondering. What if something more is going on here? Let’s see. The editorial team did make a polite request for me to add a scene to the novel so that the protagonist clearly gets saved and becomes a true Christian, and I did politely ignore that request because it would have ruined the story. (To their credit they didn’t try to force me.) So was that the problem? Was my novel not “Christian” enough to score any endorsements or the official Christian Writers Guild seal? Or was the novel just plain bad? The nearly four hundred combined reader reviews on amazon and goodreads seem to demonstrate that most readers think otherwise.

And what about the absence of the links from Worthy’s website to my blog and facebook page? Did they truly just accidentally overlook this, or did my sites fail to pass some sort of evangelical litmus test. Worthy has not directly informed me as such, but are there problems with some of my posts? Let’s see. What have I said on the record that could possibly ruffle some evangelical feathers…

Okay, I can think of a few. I’ve wrestled with whether or not the Bible is truly inerrant, I’ve rejected the mainstream evangelical conception of Hell, I believe in evolution (gasp!), I don’t believe we should legislate against gay marriage (double gasp!), when I go on medical mission trips to restore sight to the blind I don’t show the Jesus film to my newly sighted audience and try to make them pray the sinner’s prayer through a translator, I’m not a Republican, I don’t have a Not of This World bumper sticker, and I think all evangelicals ought to read Carl Medearis’s Speaking of Jesus: The Art of Not-Evangelism.

Oh shoot. What have I done? I’ve gone and lost my faith. The evangelical Christian community has not rejected me; on the contrary, it seems I have rejected them. Good grief.

But wait a minute. Have I really lost my faith?

Let me check.

Do I believe in God? Yes. Good. Check.

Do I believe in Jesus? Yes! I believe he is God’s divine son, and he atoned for all our sin, and I want to follow him and only him and have a relationship with him and do everything in my power to love my Lord with all my heart, soul, strength and mind. Sounds good. Check.

So have I lost my faith? No, I don’t think so.

Does this mean I’m still a Christian?

I don’t know. Who’s to say? I don’t appear to fit the accepted evangelical mold. I haven’t lost my faith. I’ve lost my religion. I've lost it because I’ve dared to think and reason about my faith. That can be very dangerous.  

So if I can’t call myself a Christian, what should I call myself? This is truly an identity crisis.

Sure, I know I can still call myself a Christian if I really want to, but what does that really mean anymore? The evangelicals have become so vocal and prominent in North American culture that they’ve managed to corner the Christianity market. You say “Christian” to Joe Blow on the street and he hears “evangelical, social conservative, anti-gay marriage, young earth creationist, you’re going straight to hell if you’re not one of us and you will burn there forever.”

Not being able to call myself a Christian is a big problem for me. I know I’m not alone in this. I know there are more of you out there. I would even wager that we outnumber those highly visible and vocal evangelical gatekeepers. I’m starting to think we ought to do something. Rather than reject the Christian label, we ought to reclaim it. We ought to reclaim it in a big way. So big that when you say “Christian” to Sally Sue on the street all she hears is “follower of Jesus, servant of God, love.”

So how do we do this? How do we reclaim Christianity?

I don’t think we have to search too long and hard for answers. Jesus made it clear enough. We need to love God with all of our heart, soul, strength, and mind, and we need to learn to love our neighbor, and by neighbor he meant everybody.

Imagine what would happen to the face of Christianity if we could somehow manage to truly stay focused on loving God and loving everybody. 

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Monday, June 2, 2014

Four Blood Moons: Something Needs to Change

For those of you who aren't aware, another book on prophecy (profitsy?) is climbing up the bestseller lists. It is a bestseller because a lot of people are buying it. Purchasing it. Perhaps they are buying it as well. I’m not going to review the book here; if you would like to learn more about it you can browse the 1500 reviews left by other readers on amazon. From said reviews, my conclusion is that the majority of the market for this particular book is made of Bible-believing Christians. Readers who believe the Bible contains Truth, but they are desperately seeking more Truth. More specifically, they are hoping to learn truth about what is going to happen and when it is going to happen. How is this all going to end? When is this all going to end? Perhaps these blood moons will provide some clues…

While I am not surprised such a book is selling, this ongoing phenomenon of Evangelical America's fascination with the end times and Judgement Day has me wondering: How did we reach the point where the bulk of mainstream Christianity seems to be primarily focused on where we go when we die? Why is the perpetually imminent end of the world such a big deal? Why are we so fixated on the end times? If the end times are so important, why did Jesus, in all his recorded teachings, say nothing about his return? (Since I am not sophisticated enough to defend this argument, please refer to N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope to explore this further.) I don't know what the driving force behind this misdirection is, but I fear that when we Christians spend our time and resources reading about four blood moons we are missing the point. I fear we are missing it by a lunar mile.

Perhaps we should instead focus our energy on learning to build God’s Kingdom here and now. If we could somehow learn to truly follow Jesus, to truly trust in the Lord with all our hearts and allow him to direct our paths, perhaps we would be pleasantly surprised by the hope we discover in him right now. Perhaps then we wouldn't be so preoccupied with the mystery of the future. Imagine what the world would look like if all of us calling ourselves Christians could somehow learn to spread God’s love by truly following Jesus. Powerful things would happen. Amazing things. Far more amazing than a few lunar eclipses.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I do believe God can reveal himself any way he chooses. I’m not saying he can’t use four blood moons to tell us something is about to change. I hope something does change--and soon. I pray for change in myself. To learn to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with my God.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Global Development and Being Human

I was recently asked to pen an article on global development and being human. The task really got me thinking. Here are my thoughts…

When I was approached to share my thoughts on global development and being human my initial reaction was sure, no problem--that should be simple enough. But now, as I sit in front of the blank screen, I realize I’ve never really thought about why I’m so passionate about global development or how this relates to being human. On the surface it seems the answer should be straightforward. If I have the capability to reach out and make this world a better place for humanity, if I have the power to reduce another human’s suffering and increase their quality of life, why wouldn’t I? But this doesn’t get to the bottom of what motivates one human to help another.

My attitude towards human suffering and what we can do about it has taken quite a ride as I’ve journeyed from a privileged childhood through medical school and into a career as an eye surgeon. One of my first important lessons about suffering and what we can do about it came when I was eighteen and fresh out of high-school. A strong-willed bull-headed woman from the church I grew up in got it in her head that one way or another she was going to introduce me to the mission field. She schemed and finagled until I found myself on a plane to the Dominican Republic where I would spend a few weeks with a missionary couple who were involved in the construction of a hospital. A week prior to my departure an elderly lady hobbled up to me after church, reached into her faded handbag, and extracted a wad of dollar bills. “It’s not much, but you take this and put it to good use,” she told me. As I shoved the bills into my pocket, I thought what good can I possibly do with fourteen dollars? I got my answer two weeks later when I encountered a twenty year old Haitian immigrant on death’s doorstep due to septic shock. The hospital bill and antibiotics that saved her life cost fourteen dollars. That’s right. Anyone can make a difference. No matter our age or the extent of our resources.

As important as that lesson was, it only begins to scratch the surface. Global development is not about rushing around the world rescuing individuals in dire straits. It’s about digging deeper. It’s about asking the hard questions and finding even harder solutions. Why was this Haitian immigrant trapped on a Dominican sugarcane plantation in slave-like conditions? Why was it impossible for her to afford treatment? Why was a young woman so ill in the first place? The answers to these questions are buried in centuries of sordid history, greed, corruption, and countless atrocities—all of which were the direct result of human choices. Humans did this. Humans created this mess. And we’re still creating it with a frenzy in every corner of the globe. Global development is how we begin to right all this wrong.

I tend to shy away from black and white statements, but with global development I do feel it is fair to say that if I am not part of the solution, then I am part of the problem. Because I am human, I have a choice. I can choose to contribute to solutions, or I can choose not to. No other creature has this option.

So why do I choose to help?

A quote from the compelling book Mountains Beyond Mountains: the quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A man who would cure the world summarizes what comes as close as possible to a simple answer to this not so simple question.

“That's when I feel most alive…when I'm helping people.”

On the surface this statement appears to have a selfish motive—I help people because it makes me feel good. Not exactly. I help people because I’m addicted to helping people. Trust me, once you start, it’s difficult to stop. It’s difficult to stop because helping others is rewarding. It’s rewarding because it’s the sunny side of being human. It makes you feel alive.

But like any addiction, trying to help people has its pitfalls and dangers. It’s possible to become so consumed with global development that you begin to neglect yourself or your family and relationships. It’s also all too easy to create more problems with your well-intended solutions. Global development is not an endeavor that one should just dive into. It requires careful planning, forethought, and active analysis throughout. Have you ever heard the little story about the boy on the beach after the storm? Thousands of starfish have been washed ashore and he’s tossing them back into the water one at a time. An old man comes up to him and asks him what he’s doing—there’s no way he can possibly save them all. The boy picks up another and tosses it into the ocean saying well I just saved that one. This little anecdote annoys me to no end. The old man was right. The boy was going about it all wrong. The boy should’ve run back to his village to gather his family and friends. Some of these people could have gone to the beach while others worked to spread the word and enlist even more volunteers. In a matter of a few hours they could have mobilized hundreds of helping hands. Instead of saving a few dozen starfish, they might have been able to save them all.

And that is why I’m taking the time to share my thoughts on global development and being human. I don’t want to be that boy on the beach. I’m hoping and praying these words find their way to someone who is ready to get involved. Someone who wants to be part of the solution. Someone who is prepared to really feel alive.


Monday, February 24, 2014

ZEALOT: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth


I recently finished reading this well-written, fascinating look at Jesus. Reza Aslan has managed to bring the history of first century Palestine alive in a manner I have not previously encountered. His premise will undoubtedly ruffle some feathers in the Evangelical Christian community, but Aslan’s thesis must be considered by anyone who claims to be a follower of Jesus. Aslan’s take-home message can be summarized in this following concluding excerpt from ZEALOT:
Two thousand years later, the Christ of Paul’s creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history. The memory of the revolutionary zealot who walked across Galilee gathering an army of disciples with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, the magnetic preacher who defied the authority of the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, the radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the Roman occupation and lost, has been almost completely lost to history.
This book begs the question: Have we lost Jesus? I’m not saying Aslan is right, but he does force a very important issue. There are many different versions of Jesus out there. I encounter them every day--on billboards, bumper stickers, Tee-shirts, facebook memes, songs, and books such as ZEALOT. Are any of them real? Are any of them True? Is Jesus embodied by that Not of This World logo? Is Jesus that reddish-brown-bearded white dude whose face sort of glows? If he were walking this earth in the flesh right now, would Jesus be eating as often as possible at Chick-fill-A and filling his DVR with episodes of Duck Dynasty? Would he grab a latte between services at his neighborhood mega-church?
Is it possible to really know Jesus?
Intellectually, the answer is no. There is no history book, philosophy treatise, or theological tome that can help you really know Jesus. You might get some helpful facts, dispel some myths, and even get pointed toward the Truth, but you still won’t really know Jesus. You could read every word ever written about him, every saying of his ever recorded, every opinion from every expert in every field, and you still wouldn’t know him.
But there is a way.
All we have to do is ask.
Matthew 7:7
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.”
Proverbs 8:17
“I love those who love me, and those who seek me will find me.”


Saturday, February 15, 2014

Beyond the Mountains...

There is a Haitian Proverb that goes "Beyond the mountains, more mountains." This saying was made famous in the spectacular book Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder. Read it if you haven't already.

When I was a boy I lived on a calf ranch in Chino Hills, Southern California. The ranch was nestled in some hills that bordered a state park which was protected from development. I clearly remember a particular Saturday morning when I decided I was going to find out what was on the other side of the hill my family's mobile home was parked on. I packed my little backpack with some snacks and water and set off on my little adventure. I couldn't have been much older than six or seven. I did not announce my intentions to my mom because I was wise enough to know I wouldn't get very far if she knew what I planned.

I summited our hill with the full knowledge there was another behind it because the next was higher. The mystery lay beyond the second summit. I climbed with great anticipation, only to find a third hill. I made it to the third summit, which required a detour around great patches of wild cactus. And guess what I discovered beyond that third hill. That's right. Yet another. By this time I was quite tired. I knew that wherever I happened to be, my journey home was only half over. And my older sister had told me tales of some oil company drilling test wells out in these parts, leaving gaping holes in the ground that would swallow me whole. It was time to turn back.

But I didn't give up my dream of learning what was beyond those hills. A few years later, when I was stronger and could safely make the hike, my father took me. We set off at the crack of dawn. We journeyed past that third hill. We crossed a creek. We ate lunch under a great oak with a trunk wider than my arms could stretch. We followed a fire road that coursed toward the highest peak in that range of hills, but we had to cross three more hills to reach that final summit. But we made it. At the top we had a panoramic view. I could see everything. It was one of those rare Southern California days where the Santa Ana winds had blown all smog far out to sea. I could see for miles. Clear to the ocean to the west, and beyond, all the way to Catalina Island. And to the coastal mountains to the south, the San Bernardino Mountains to the east and north. No more mystery. Only beauty.

These past few days I've been at a writers conference. I had a conversation with some young aspiring authors. They wanted to hear about my journey to publication. "How did you get a literary agent?" they wanted to know. "Did you get a lot of rejections?" All of the agents turned me down. Every single one. "Then how did you sign with one?" One of the agents that had initially turned me down changed his mind. "How long have you been writing?" Fifteen years. I wrote five different manuscripts before I managed to produce anything worth publishing, and it took me nearly eight years to see that manuscript in print. I could see it on their young faces. Surely there must be an easier way. Surely there must be a shortcut. Some way around the mountains.

There isn't a way around. But there is a way through. Especially if your Father goes with you.


Monday, January 13, 2014

Truth, Scripture, and My Plans vs. God’s

Bear with me as my musings on Truth veer toward religion. If you’ve read my previous few posts, you know I’ve been chewing on whether or not Truth exists and how important it might be. These are important questions to answer before we can even begin to decide how to deal with various questions such as Is the Bible True?  I hadn't planned on delving into the topic of Scripture and Truth just yet, but now I am going to jump ahead for selfish reasons.

My debut novel is set to release in some stores next week, and then more widely two weeks after that.
What on earth does this have to do with Truth, Scripture, and my plans versus God’s? Well I’m glad you asked.

You see, I’m a bit of a nervous wreck these days. Have you ever worked so hard at something and come so close to reaching your goal that you weren’t certain how you would manage to recover if you failed to cross the finish line? Have you ever run a race with many hurdles and reached the home stretch—one final hurdle—and wondered if you were going to clear it or fall flat on your face? Well, that’s where I am in my writing career. Don't get me wrong, I'm very pleased my book is about to be published by a traditional publisher, but this is not the finish line as far as I’m concerned. I want more. I want my book to succeed. I want readers to like it. I want it to soar up the charts. I want publishers to clamor for a sequel. I want studios to fight over the movie rights. I want its resounding success to establish me as a serious author.

Yes, I have big, selfish plans for this book.
And to my increasing dismay I'm realizing that all my grand plans are completely and utterly out of my control. I gave it my best shot, and now all I can do is wait and see what happens. I want to know now. I want to know how this is going to turn out. I want some sort of reassurance that all will end well. Is there anywhere I can turn for some real answers?

This is the part where I jump ahead. I’ll just come right out and say that I believe in God, and I believe that God has chosen to reveal himself through Scripture. I believe when we read the Bible we can discover Truth. I believe it is the Word of God. I don’t believe all this because my parents taught me or because I learned it in school. No, I’ve spent countless hours reading, seeking, thinking, meditating, talking, asking, discussing, questioning, and I’m still seeking some answers. But as of this very moment on my spiritual journey I sincerely believe I can turn to the Bible and discover Truth.

This can be tricky, though.

Here’s why. Let’s see what the Bible has to say about my plans. Let’s turn to Proverbs 16:3.

If we read the New International Version we find:
“Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and he will establish your plans.”

If we read the New Living Translation we find:
“Commit your actions to the Lord, and your plans will succeed.”

If we read the King James Version we find:
“Commit thy works unto the Lord, and thy thoughts shall be established.”

If we read the American Standard Version we find:
“Commit thy works unto Jehovah, And thy purposes shall be established.

If we read the Easy-to-Read Version we find:
“Turn to the Lord for help in everything you do, and you will be successful.

If we read the Orthodox Jewish Bible we find:
“Commit thy ma’asim (works) unto Hashem, and thy plans shall be established.

If we read Young’s Literal Transaltion we find:
“Roll unto Jehovah thy works, And established are thy purposes.”

Okay, I think that’s enough. You get the general idea here. One verse with several different meanings/interpretations depending on which translation you happen to be reading, or dare I say, which translation you prefer. I’ll tell you which translation I prefer. I like the New Living Translation. I think that one could work out best for what I want.

But seriously, we do have a problem here. Or at least I do. Which translation is true? Which interpretation is most correct? Are they all true? I don’t think they all can be correct simultaneously. In some translations it appears as if my plans will succeed as long as I commit my actions to God, while in others it appears as if I must commit my actions to God and then wait for him to establish my plans. So should I form my plans and then commit my actions to God and then bank on success? Or to guarantee success should I first commit my actions to God and then wait for him to establish my plans? I guess I have to know what establish actually means. Does it mean begin/initiate or does it mean finalize as in a well-established truth? Maybe I should just stick with the Easy-to-Read Version, but then again, what does successful mean? Is it MY definition of success? Or someone elses?

In this case, at least to me, the whole Truth of the matter is not so clear. The silver lining is that one thing is VERY CLEAR in all these translations. I must commit my works/actions/everything I do to God. If I can somehow manage to do that, perhaps I won’t even care about my selfish plans or their success any longer.