No-oh-oh, it’s not magic

A Kansas City Royals fan puts his lucky hat on the couch, five minutes before the first pitch – and it must be facing south. Another drinks only one kind of beer on game days. Still another watches a different sport – say, soccer – rather than the game, to avoid jinxing his team.

Magical thinking can be seen across cultures, in remote tribal groups as well as in highly developed western societies. We’d like to think that we Americans haven’t fallen under the spell, but the World Series proves otherwise.

But magical thinking does not end when the last pitch is thrown, nor is it limited to the ball park. Much of what passes as religious observation exhibits a connection to magical thinking. Of course that charge has been made before and made often by critics of religious faith, but I am making it as a practicing Christian.

Critics see religion as the evolutionary heir of magical thinking. The ancients tried to control their destiny by participating in sacrifices and magical rites and by paying careful attention to omens. A shooting star was a sign that it was time to move. Twelve white swans foretold the safe conclusion of a journey. Such practices, they say, were precursors to fingering beads and lighting candles.

I do not know enough about other religions to speak authoritatively about them (and do not presume to speak authoritatively on behalf of other Christians, either) but it seems to me that, when it comes to Christianity, the critics are mistaken. It would be easier to make the case that magic’s heir is not religion (at least not Judaism or Christianity) but science.

Science? Yes. One of the objectives of the modern scientific enterprise is to exercise control over our circumstances. Magicians used potions and spells to this end, while science attempts to do the same thing with molecular engineering and equations. Science is of course much better at achieving its objectives (for which we are truly grateful), but the goal of manipulating reality through the application of a set of currently held principles is very similar.

Magic and (to some degree) science are about control. Christianity is about submission. The Christian, following Jesus, says, “Not my will, but yours be done.” But the scientist, following the magician, says, “No, I think I’d rather my will be done.”

This is not to say that Christians are free of magical thinking. Frankly, they engage in it every time they treat prayer like an incantation – say the right words in the right order and in the right tone, and you’ll get what you ask for. But the point is, when Christians do so, they are not acting like Christians. They’re acting like pagans.

Some Christians treat the Bible as if it were a magic book, looking for secret codes or hidden meanings. Even their approach to the Bible betrays a magical mindset: “I will close my eyes, open the book randomly, put my finger on a verse, and whatever it says will be God’s will for me.” Can God use this silliness? Sure. He’s God. But it is still magical thinking.

The magical approach to religion betrays a serious misunderstanding of the way things work, the way God works, and the meaning of Christian faith. The Bible teaches that the power that is at work in a Christian’s life is personal power. It does not reside in the words spoken or the ritual performed, but in a personal God. This God wants to communicate with his creatures. He’s not playing trick or treat. He does not hide his message in esoteric symbols or secret codes. It is not magic.

It is with good reason that the Jewish and Christian scriptures strongly prohibit the practice of magic. It is totally inconsistent with the submission to God and love for others that constitutes the good life. The people who lived this kind of life – Moses, Jesus, Peter, Paul, and a host of others who followed them – had nothing to do with superstition or magic. They operated out of faith in a personal God on the basis of his word to them.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 11/1/14

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Is religion a do it yourself project?

The famous writer and Oxford don C. S. Lewis once walked in on a debate on comparative religions. The conferees were discussing whether or not there are any beliefs that are unique to Christianity. It seemed like incarnation and resurrection, as well as all the other Christian doctrines that debaters proposed, were in some fashion shared by other religions.

Then Lewis walked in and, in his inimitable fashion, asked, “What’s the rumpus about?”

His fellow-academics answered that they were debating whether or not Christianity offered anything unique among world religions.

Hearing that, Lewis responded: “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.”

Lewis hit the proverbial nail on the head. Islam has Sharia law, which adherents must carefully follow. Buddhism has the eight-fold path. Hinduism has Karma. World religions offer God’s love with strings attached. Christianity cuts the strings.

This is so unexpected that it is difficult for people to accept. Grace may be the thing that is unique to Christianity, but because it is so utterly unique, we don’t really know what to do with it.

I have been an alpine skier for most of my life, but it was many years before I ever tried waterskiing. When I did, I failed miserably. My friend and driver told me how to position myself in the water in order to “get up,” and I attempted to follow his instructions.

As the boat accelerated, everything was fine. I could feel my ski tips rise and then dip to the surface as I popped up. But when my skis planed on the surface and the friction eased, it felt to me as if the rope had gone slack. So I – trying to maintain control– pulled hard on the rope. When I did, my skis shot out from under me and I tumbled backwards.

This didn’t happen once, but again and again. My friend could see what I was doing wrong, and he warned me to stop pulling on the rope when the resistance eased. He wanted me to relax and just ride the surface. But I couldn’t help myself. The absence of friction didn’t feel right – in fact, it felt all wrong – because I was no longer controlling the situation by my own strength. Of course whenever I tried to assert control, I fell.

When a skier is doing well – that is, when he is actually enjoying the ride – it is the driver and the boat that are introducing all the energy into the situation. The skier does not “get up” by his own strength, but by the power of the boat and motor. It is not his job to create that power, but to respond to it. He positions himself to receive and use a power that originates outside himself.

Christianity teaches us to do something similar: to position ourselves to receive and use a power that originates outside ourselves. We cannot produce the power that brings forgiveness, everlasting life and personal fulfillment by any of the means that religions commonly propose, like keeping rules or being self-disciplined. We merely position ourselves to receive it.

The position in which a person is capable of receiving the power that brings forgiveness, fulfillment and life is one of faith. This is what St. Paul taught when he wrote, “If people trust in [God], their faith is accepted even though they do not work. Their faith makes them right with God” (Romans 4:5).

We find this kind of grace hard to accept precisely because it takes control out of our hands. We prefer to trust ourselves rather than anyone else, including God. So we try to reattach the strings God has cut, once again tying our forgiveness and happiness to our own efforts.

But Christianity is not a do-it-yourself project. It finds the power we need outside ourselves, in what God has done through Jesus Christ and is doing by his Spirit. Our role is simply to be in a position (one of faith) to receive that power and put it to use in daily life.

(First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 10/25/14)

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Whatever happened to tolerance on college campuses?

It wasn’t that long ago (in the politically correct era of the ’90s) that everyone was talking about tolerance. In those days tolerance meant that the viewpoints of others, particularly those of the socially or politically stigmatized, must be granted a place at society’s table. This was particularly true on college campuses, where the exchange of ideas and a broad-minded pluralism was valued.

How times have changed – particularly on college campuses, where free speech is now at risk. At Bowdoin College, Rollins College, Vanderbilt University, State University of New York (Buffalo), and others, including the California State University system, tolerance has taken a major step backwards.

In 2011, the chancellor of the California State University system issued a policy that required recognized student groups to accept any student as a potential leader. The aim was ostensibly to prevent discrimination against students on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The result, however, was considerably broader.

Under the new policy, leadership in Christian groups must be open to any student (including an atheist). Strictly enforced, the policy opens leadership in Jewish groups to Neo-Nazis and requires Muslim groups to remain open to leadership from Buddhist monks.

Many Christian campus ministries, especially evangelical ones, require their leaders to be Christians and to affirm core Christian beliefs, such as the deity of Christ and the authority of Scripture. But universities believe this basic requirement, especially the affirmation of the authority of Scripture, poses a threat to the equality of gay and lesbian students.

It doesn’t seem to matter to university officials that these ministries encourage gay and lesbian students to attend. Nor does it matter that they require all their unmarried leaders – straight or gay, without exception – to be chaste. The real issue is that these universities will not bide another way of thinking about sexuality. So much for tolerance.

But what about first amendment rights? They’ve been swallowed up in what university officials consider to be a larger issue: the equality of gay, lesbian and transgendered students. Because they see religiously oriented student groups as a threat to such equality, they threaten them with de-recognition unless their officers sign a non-discriminatory policy statement, even though doing so opens the group’s leadership to people who do not hold its beliefs and values.

Tish Harrison Warren, writing in Christianity Today, relates her unsuccessful attempt as director of Graduate Christian Fellowship at Vanderbilt to arrive at a compromise with school administrators. She was told that requiring student leaders to affirm the group’s religious beliefs was a form of discrimination. “Creedal discrimination,” they insisted, “is still discrimination.”

How ironic. University officials discriminate against one group, ostensibly to stamp out discrimination against another. “Creedal discrimination” practiced by religious groups within a very narrow scope (the selection of their own officers) is considered offensive, but religious discrimination practiced by the university at large is acceptable. “God,” says St. Paul, “does not show favoritism” (Romans 2:11). Clearly the same cannot be said of university administrators.

Once state institutions begin discriminating against groups on the basis of their beliefs, it’s not just religious freedom that is endangered, but freedom itself. It’s time for students and faculty, including those in the LGBT community, to stand up in support of religious rights on college campuses.

The plurality celebrated in the university, along with the openness to diverse points of view that makes it possible, depends upon the free exchange of ideas. That freedom, and the academic ideals that attend it, are now at risk.

 

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, October 18, 2014

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More than Going through the Motions

When I was a much younger man I attended mass on a regular basis for several months. I went most often to Saint John the Baptist Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana, but I also visited some of the other, larger churches in the area.

I wasn’t interested in converting, but I was curious about Catholicism. The Church of Rome had, after all, given birth to Protestantism and we shared a common heritage. Her saints were my forebears. The creeds we sometimes recited were formulated by her thinkers. And all the first Protestants were, I knew, Catholics.

But I had come to faith in a church where attitudes regarding Catholicism were generally negative. I was told that Catholics didn’t believe in salvation by grace through faith. Instead, they tried to work for their salvation by performing the rituals associated with the Church, like attending mass, making confession, and abstaining from meat on Fridays.

Some of what I saw seemed to validate this view of Catholicism. Friends I knew complained about Friday fasts or just ignored them altogether. I met people who seemed to think of confession (and the Eucharist itself) as a kind of magic. It seemed to have no impact on their daily life, only on their final destination – or at least their timing in getting there.

Yet there were other Catholics I knew who didn’t fit that profile at all. I went to college with a couple of guys – men I liked and admired – who were planning on going into the priesthood. They were sincere men who loved God and loved the Church.

So I started going to mass to find out what it was all about. I didn’t presume to take communion, of course, and so I did not have a comprehensive experience of Catholic worship, but I found the liturgy helpful. While it was apparent to me that some people were merely going through the motions, others were obviously engaged in the sincere worship of God.

When I went to the Catholic Church, I had no thought of being converted. (And I wasn’t; I still disagree with Catholic doctrine and ecclesiastical practice on numerous points). But my attitude toward Catholics was converted. Of course many Catholics are just going through the motions, but is it any different on the Protestant side of the divide?

And going through the motions, I realized, is not all bad – if one goes through them with what St. Peter called a “consciousness of God.” One of those motions, associated in my mind with Catholic worship, is the act of genuflecting. To genuflect is to kneel (or touch one knee to the floor) as a gesture of respect.

At St. John the Baptist, I would watch as worshipers entered the aisle and knelt, touching a knee to the floor and crossing themselves. By doing so, these men and women involved their bodies, and not just their minds, in worship. This is important because we are embodied creatures. Whatever our bodies do (to paraphrase C. S. Lewis) affects our souls.

To kneel before God is to acknowledge his greatness and his authority over us. As Alcuin put it, “By such posture of the body we show forth our humbleness of heart.” Kneeling before God reminds us of who he is and who we are in relation to him. Until we get that right, nothing else in the Christian life can proceed according to plan.

Sure, some people make the sign of the cross thoughtlessly but that does not change the meaningful nature of the symbolism. When a person kneels and makes the sign of the cross, he or she is saying to God: “I acknowledge your greatness and my need, your holiness and my sin, and the only reason I can come to you is that I belong to Jesus, who endured the cross for me.”

A person who comes to God with that attitude will find him responsive. It might be said of that person, as St. Paul said in another context, “…anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men.”

First Published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 10/11/2014

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The Only Place to Start

Some people won’t do anything until they figure out everything. If they can’t do it perfectly, they can’t – or won’t – do it at all. And so of course they do nothing.

Just try telling them what the English thinker and writer G. K. Chesterton said on the subject: “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” They’ll miss the point entirely. They may even shout you down.

Chesterton was saying that some things – important things – cannot be left to the professionals. We must do them, even if we can’t do them perfectly. Chesterton was not advocating slip-shod work. He was saying that it is better to do some things partially (“badly” was his word) than to leave them undone.

Raising children is one example (one Chesterton himself used). If the next generation were to wait to have children until they could raise them perfectly, they would be the last generation.

Spiritual practices – like prayer and Bible reading – are another example. If reading the Bible perfectly (with a scholar’s knowledge of original languages and a saint’s aspiration for holiness) is a prerequisite, very few of us will have any firsthand knowledge of the Bible.

This principle applies to all kinds of things. If we have to play like Alfred Brendel to sit at the piano, the ivories will be layered with dust. If we have to drive like Dale Earnhardt (Sr. or Jr., take your pick) before we get behind the wheel, the car will never leave the garage. If we have to cook like a French chef before we can go into the kitchen, we’re going to starve to death.

There is a story in the Gospel of Mark about a woman who poured an expensive flask of ointment on Jesus’s head. Some of the people present – led by the notorious Judas – roundly criticized the woman, arguing that the ointment could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor.

Jesus, however, silenced them, explaining that “She did what she could.” She took what she had and did what she could. The things she couldn’t do – prevent Jesus’s arrest or save him from the cross – didn’t prevent her from doing the one thing she could do.

There are so many things we cannot do. Today I visited a friend who is very ill. I cannot prevent her death. I cannot even prolong her life. But I can talk to her, pray with her and encourage her to trust God. I can’t do much, but I can do something.

How much better the world would be if we just did what we could. For example, we exercise so little influence over politics. But what we can do, we should do. We can vote. We can express our opinions. We can write our representatives.

There is little we can do about global environmental conditions. But we can buy energy-efficient lighting. We can recycle and reuse. Whatever steps we think are appropriate to take (and we vary greatly in what we think those might be) we can urge congress to take them.

We cannot end poverty in the world. It’s too big a job for us, which is why Jesus candidly told his first disciples that the world would always have poor people. But he was not giving them (or us) an excuse to do nothing. He expected them (and us) to do what we can.

What would happen if people were to do what they can, rather than focus on what they can’t? What if the congress quit arguing about what they can’t do – raise taxes or expand Medicaid – and started making decision about what they can do? It would change the political calculus immediately and bring an unhappy period of government deadlock to an end.

But I’ve slipped back (how easy it is) into talking about what other people can do. What can I do? That’s the revolutionary question. How can I make the world a better place or myself a better person? That’s where I need to start. And, in point of fact, it’s the only place I can start.

 

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 10/4/2014

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In praise of the widow’s mite

In the biblical Gospels of Mark and Luke we have the account of the widow’s mite. In this story Jesus and his disciples watch as worshipers come to place their offerings in one of thirteen trumpet-shaped offering containers located in a special section of the temple known as the treasury.

Many rich people stand in line, and they place large amounts of money in the offering boxes. Then a poor woman (the Greek word St. Luke uses is unusual and suggests a profound poverty) approaches the box. She waits while others are making their generous contributions and, when it is her turn, places her offering in the box.

She does not have much money to give, but she gives all that she has – two “mites” in the Shakespearean-era language of the King James Version. The underlying Greek word that is used signifies the lowest denomination of Jewish coinage that was minted. It took 132 such coins to equal the average daily wage of an agrarian worker. In contemporary terms, the woman – whom Jesus identifies as a widow – gives her last dollar.

This story has been a staple of the creative imagination. In 1863 Anthony Trollope wrote a short story he titled “The Widow’s Mite.” In his light style he asks a serious question: “How many of us, when we give, give from our own backs, and from out of our own mouths?”

Numerous short stories have taken their title from this account, including two that have been published in this decade. Television has also paid tribute: a 1958 Gunsmoke episode featured the same title. In addition, a host of writers allude to the widow’s mite, including Jane Austen, Herman Melville, Lord Byron and James Joyce, to name only a few.

Recent studies in biblical literature have debated whether the story is included in the Gospels as a testament to the widow’s generosity or as a reproach upon the greed of the religious authorities who ran the temple.

It is a debate that will probably never be settled, since the story serves to do both. It may even be that Mark included it to highlight the generosity of the widow and Luke (who was deeply sensitive to the plight of the poor) included it as a rebuke against ecclesiastical greed. In Luke’s case, this seems likely: in the verses preceding the widow’s story, Jesus scolds religious leaders who “devour widow’s houses”—that is, who prey upon poor widows for financial gain.

Jesus, who was aware of the both the plight of the poor and the generosity of the widow, seems to have had his own reasons for calling her gift to the attention of his students. He had long taught them to be generous with what they had while trusting God for what they needed. He found in this widow a living illustration of his teaching.

From Jesus’s point of view, this woman was not merely an illustration of generosity, but an example of what it means to have faith in God. His commentary on her action is worthy of reflection: “This poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

The rich people gave their money. The widow gave herself. (In the original language, she gave her “life.” The NIV tries to capture that nuance by translating it as “all she had to live on.”) Their gifts were an act of sacrifice. Her gift, to borrow from Trollope, was from her own back and her own mouth. An act of sacrifice, yes; but even more, it was an act of trust.

Jesus is not exaggerating when he says that the poor widow put in more than all the others. (Indeed, if we take the original language literally, Jesus’s words mean that her gift is worth more than all the others, combined.) They gave their money but she gave herself—an incomparably greater gift. Giving one’s money to meet a need is a noble and worthwhile deed, but giving one’s self is an act of worship and love.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter

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For heaven’s sake, take the call

For months a company called A.R.M. has been calling our home phone. When we see their name on caller I.D., we let it ring. We’re fed up with calls from survey-takers, fund-raisers and political haymakers.

But A.R.M. is in a class by themselves. They call several times a week, at all hours of the day (often at mealtimes). They have called before breakfast and they’ve called after 10:00 at night. This morning the phone rang at 8:10, and I decided I’d had enough of A.R.M., so I answered.

It was of course an automated message. The computerized voice told me that A.R.M. was a debt collection agency, and then asked me if I was Scott H. If I was Scott H., I was supposed to press 1; if I was not Scott H., I was supposed to press 2. I pressed 2.

Then when the message repeated itself, I pressed 2 again. And again and again, until I finally got a contact number for their accounts receivable department, which I promptly called. When a kind woman with a southern accent answered, I explained to her that I was not Scott H., didn’t know Scott H., and that Scott H. had never lived here. I asked her to remove my number from their calling list, which she promised to do.

Had I answered when A.R.M. first started calling, I could have put an end to this perpetual wrong number. But I never wanted to take the time to deal with it. So for months we put up with repeated interruptions during meals and even at bedtime.

The thing is, I had no idea who A.R.M was. What if, instead of being a debt collection agency, they were a law firm hired by the estate of some fabulously wealthy, long-lost uncle who wanted to bestow his millions on me? What if they were a small business in California, whose owner had read my column and was trying to reach me to ask about how to start a relationship with God, but couldn’t do so because I ignored his calls?

I think something like that happens to many of us, only in this case the caller is God himself. He is, according to the Bible, a calling God. He calls people “to belong to Jesus Christ,” calls them into fellowship, calls them “into his kingdom and glory.” The biblical writer Jude even describes God’s people as “those who have been called.”

God is even more persistent than A.R.M. He calls over and over, reaches out to people “day after day, again and again” (Jeremiah 7:25). Indeed, “many are called.”

This morning the phone company has been working next door, and as I write this, my phone and internet are out of order. People may – and I could almost guarantee that they are – calling my house and sending me emails. But I don’t know who is calling and writing, and I don’t know what they are trying to communicate. Their message might even be one of life or death, but I am oblivious to it.

Likewise, individuals who were once able to answer God’s call but didn’t – as I was able to answer A.R.M.’s calls for months, but didn’t – may come to a day when they are no longer able to answer. It’s not necessarily because God has stopped calling but because their ability to receive his calls is no longer in working order.

In a similar way, God may be calling individuals who have lost the ability to receive his calls. The person who ignores God’s call intentionally will ultimately ignore his calls unintentionally. And then the day will come when that person can no longer take his call, even if he or she wants to.

This provides a background to the Bible’s urgent appeal: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” The biblical writers are saying, in effect, “When God is the one calling, for heaven’s sake, take the call!”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 9/20/2014

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