"then wilt thou not be loath to leave this Paradise, but shalt possess a paradise within thee, happier far. Let us descend now therefore from this top of speculation; for the hour precise exacts our parting hence" Paradise Lost, Book XII, lines585-590

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Killings in Norway

Reading about the killings in Norway was heartbreaking.  My sympathies and prayers, admittedly insufficient, go out to all who died and to those whose loved ones and children were killed.  It saddens me even more to learn that the killer based his actions, at least in part, on his Christian faith.  A police spokesman Deputy Police Chief Roger Andresen would not speculate on the man's motives but told a news conference: "He describes himself as a Christian, leaning toward right-wing Christianity." 

In reading the story of Jesus it's hard to find justification for ever intentionally causing another person harm.  I also know that there's plenty of counter-examples in the Bible, but the trajectory of the overall story, culminating in Jesus, is about coming to accept that the ways of humanity, ways that are broken and destructive,  are ultimately self-destructive and counter to the divine will of wholeness and healing.

This young Norwegian man, who visited so much destruction upon his neighbors, is sadly mistaken about how people should settle their differences and live together with integrity.  Sadly he is also likely suffering from some form of mental illness.  Mental illness is also a part of the broken-ness of our world.  If we, as Christians, seek to follow Jesus and to live as he lived then we should seek reconciliation and not retribution, empathy and not judgement.  As hard as it might seem to us,we need to find a way that holds him accountable that isn't just our desire to wreak our vengeance upon him.  We must treat him with sympathy even though every part of us calls out for hatred, and find a way to include treatment to restore him to wholeness rather than a way to diminish his humanity even further.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Brain science & baptism

I read this article in the Atlantic magazine recently about the latest research into the brain and how it works.  The article asks some interesting questions about the intersection of the criminal justice system and our evolving understanding of how the brain works and suggests that rather than a punitive, backwards looking approach, we would do bettert to adapt a forward-looking, therapeutic approach to crime.  Fascinating stuff, but where my mind went was to ponder what all this had to do with baptism.

That's right, baptism.  Something I have long struggled with is trying to come to an understanding of what occurs in baptism.  Baptism is the central rite of Christian life.  I feel lucky to have been baptized as an adult so that I can remember what it was like to experience it and I could go on and on about how it changed my life.  And as a hospital chaplain, I've been privileged to baptize a handful of people.  In my gut I could sense that something was happening, but I struggled to name what that something was.

but this article gave me something that has proven very helpful.  A centerpiece of the article is research that suggests, very little, if any, of the choices we make are truly free.  Rather they are driven by unconscious motivations formed through of web of genetics, family systems, and cultural conditioning.  Reading this, I immediately thought of Paul, writing in his letter to the Romans about not being able to do the things he desires to do, but doing instead that which he abhors.  who hasn't had the experience of getting in their own way and choosing to do things we know are wrong or, at least, questionable?

All of which led me to the thought that maybe in baptism, we introduce the Holy Spirit into the mix of unconscious drivers of our actions.  This article reinforces for me that how and where we grow up matters.  Baptism alone isn't enough to make us "good" Christians.  Like DNA, it gives us potential but for potential to turn into talent, it must be honed and exercised.  This is one of the reasons that we cannot be Christians all by our selves, we must hone our Spirit in community and practice our faith so that it becomes a strong driver in our psychic mix.

Obviously this isn't a well drawn out theory, but its a start and feels like something I can work with and it fits with our modern understanding fo how our bodies and minds work.

Sermon July 10

St Paul is a man on a mission.
He is determined to spread the news of Jesus Christ to every corner of his world. 
By the time he is writing his letter to the churches in Rome,
he and others had travelled all around the eastern half of the Roman Empire and planted churches in every major city throughout all the provinces,

Now, Paul has set his eyes on the wild west, on Spain.  We may think of Paul as a lone traveler working to spread the good news of Christ

but in fact he worked with a team and had the support of a network of friends and supporters. 

So if he is to go west, he needs the help of people,
like the people in Rome
who can support him.
But the Church in Rome is beset with divisions and rancorous disputes,

primarily between those Christians who were Jewish and those who were gentiles. 

So before Paul can go west, he must first find a way to unite these fractious groups so that they can devote their energies to mission.

In the excerpt from his letter that we heard today, Paul says

 that “those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh…[and] the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God.” 

What he’s talking about is the ways in which we seek to be right and to assert ourselves over others
And to always get our own way,
goes against what God wants for us.

To set our minds on the way of the flesh, is to be worried about ourselves above and beyond all other concerns, and to think our needs and desires are the most important.

But one of Paul’s key insights is that to a large extent, we are not able to do what God wants on our own.  I think it was only last Sunday when we heard Paul talking about not being able to do the things he wants, but instead doing things he abhors.

I don’t know about you, but this certainly is something I’ve experienced.  I rarely lack for things to confess to God.  I often seem to get in my own way.

And recent research into the brain confirms Paul’s insights and suggests that our capacity to rationally choose our behavior is, actually, pretty limited, if it exists at all.  Instead we are driven by unconscious desires and impulses, our motivations deeply enmeshed in a web of genetics, family dynamics and cultural conditioning.

The beliefs and values we see around us, the expectations of family, friends and society matter.  Not just our genes, but our surroundings and our caretakers begin to set the patterns of our lives from the minute we’re born.  How and where we grow up matters.  And it matters because we are not isolated individuals but members of society. Humans are inherently social beings.

And as a father, this worries me because America today seems a much meaner, angrier and harder place than it has been in a long time.  The powers and principalities of the world, what we might call evil seems to be running rampant.  Too many in this country have turned their backs on their fellow citizens to look only after themselves. 

We have placed the individual and the individual’s rights in a place of prominence which too often seems to lead to boorish behavior at best, and violent hatefulness at worst. 

Too often, public discourse, in the larger society but also in the church, is beset with personal attacks and the denigration of those who disagree with us.

Our appeals to morality and to ideal, just like the ancient Romans appeals to Mosaic Law or Greek Philosophy, are clubs we use to force submission or separation of those who disagree.

Getting your way by shouting louder than everyone else isn’t what I want my daughter learn.  I don’t want her to look at the people around her and be thinking of ways to manipulate them to her own advantage.  I want her to look at the people around her and see her neighbors and be thinking of ways to show her love and respect.

Abraham Lincoln said that a house divided against itself cannot stand, and in saying so he was echoing the wisdom of Paul and the gospels that speak of the need for recognition of the common humanity of all our brothers and sisters who walk this earth with us.

Paul writes; “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” 

Think about that for a second, because it is as true for us it was for the ancient Christians – the Spirit of God dwells within us.

Paul is reminding the Roman Christians that they are more and better than the divisions that were consuming them,

that they are immersed in Christ and filled with the Spirit. 

God has come amongst them in Christ and has promised to stay. 

To stay and take on all their fears unto himself so that they may be freed of the burden of carrying them around. 

Rather than living in a culture of fear and privation, they are to live in a culture of hope and abundance.

And that promise is the same promise that has been given to us. 

God’s Spirit is alive within us.  Along with our genetics and our psychic conditioning, the Hoy Spirit is also at work driving our actions and reactions. 

Inside of us as baptized Christian, alongside our DNA, our family systems, our cultural conditioning, there is God.  The spirit of God dwells within us, in our innermost being, so that God also becomes part of the unconscious underpinnings of our daily lives.

If there is hope for our society and our nation then, it lies with God, and with us.  We are called to live in the hope and abundance of God’s promise to us – that we are to share in Christ’s resurrection.

We must invite and allow to grow that spirit which dwells within us.  It is not enough to be believers in Christ, we must become doers of Christ, humble and tireless laborers in the vineyards of the Lord.