Observations on the Op-ed "How Secular Family Values Stack Up."

This is not a typical blog for me but a family member sent me a link to a very thought provoking piece regarding secular family values. Professor Phil Zuckerman, a sociology professor at Pitzer College writes a very good op-ed for the LA Times on “How secular family values stack up.”  He introduces to us his opinions on research into the growing populations of “Nones,” those with no religious affiliation and how they are raising their children.  

Taking his opinion, I am encouraged by the results.  I think most of us would be concerned about how this growing population might impact our culture in a negative sense.  The results point in a totally opposite direction.  Zuckerman notes “None” parents are very attentive to grounding their children with morality and values.  He identifies that among the values taught to these children include, “rational problem solving, personal autonomy, independence of thought, avoidance of corporal punishment, a spirit of “questioning everything” and, far above all, empathy.”  As a trained Boy Scout leader, I applaud the work of these parents and as a parent myself, I know how important these values are and I concur wholeheartedly.

But where exactly does this value system spring from for the parents and children?  Zuckerman continues, “For secular people, morality is predicated on one simple principle: empathetic reciprocity, widely known as the Golden Rule.”  Now pardon me if I stop and scratch my head on this one.  The Golden Rule?  The same words of Jesus recorded in Luke 6:31, you know, “Do to others as you would have them do to you (NRSV)?”  The same golden rule that the good folks at Religioustolerance.org have identified in the teachings of many of the world’s religions outside of Christianity?

I recognize those words may come across as more snarky than I intend but to base one’s morality and ethic on what is an ancient, religious tenet of many faiths and conclude there is no religious influence involved in how these folks raise their families seems a bit disingenuous.  Maybe it is just me but shouldn’t religion get some credit?  And while there is plenty of other debate about whether the Founding Fathers were Christian (a debate I am not going to enter here), one would be hard pressed to say that Christianity has not influenced the culture and morality of much of western civilization and certainly the United States specifically.

Zuckerman is not finished however as he goes on to write, “‘One telling fact from the criminology field: Atheists were almost absent from our prison population as of the late 1990s, comprising less than half of 1% of those behind bars, according to Federal Bureau of Prisons statistics.”  I think it important to note too that atheist don’t make up a large part of the population and that “Nones,” while they may not have a religious affiliation, this does not mean they have no religion or that they are agnostics and atheists, they are what they are: non-affiliated.

Most of us with religious training understand the shortcomings of Constantine’s Christendom as opposed to Jesus Christ’s Kingdom of God.  The effects of Christendom allowed any citizen of the state to declare oneself “Christian” without actually converting.  This idea has been past down through centuries and with “deconstruction” taking place in post-modernity, this construct is also breaking down.  Not all in prison who declare a “faith” are declaring they are converted.

As I said at the beginning, I am encouraged by the results of the studies, to know young people in families with no religious affiliation are being taught key values and morality.  It is only right to recognize they are also being raised in “the village” and not in a vacuum and this village is one which has been formed by religious values.  

Sermon Work Can Reflect Soul Work

I am really excited about my sermon series coming for Lent because it keeps leading me to re-read some great stuff!  Some of it I can't wait to share and some I don't know if the idea or quotes will even make the cut yet.  Having the time to work on sermons ahead of the week seem to make the experience not only more fun for me but also give ‘birth’ to much better sermons in the end.  

In this case, I find myself jumping into writings and texts around the true self/false self construct in spiritual formation.  I have  a number of thoughts on this to come later. Today however, I am researching and reflecting on what seems to me to be foundational tenet to any Christian understanding of spiritual formation; namely, for formation to take place in us, Jesus Christ must dwell in us.

Duh!  Well, maybe but have you ever taken something for granted, like say, your tires being fully inflated or that your teenager filled up the gas tank the last time the drove it?  It is the same idea, but more significant and very different from alternative ideas of spiritual formation that assume YOU are doing the brunt of the work.  This is not how the Christian faith views this as Dr. Bob Mulholland reminded me when he wrote,

“The indwelling presence of Christ in us is not merely a theological concept, it is a vital, intimate, relational reality at the very core of our being.  Paul stresses this profound reality incessantly.

Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.  But if Christ is in you… (Rom 8:9-10)

He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful in you. (2 Cor. 13:3)’’

Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith.  Test yourselves.  Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?  (2 Cor 13:5). (pg 89, from “The Deeper Journey”)”

There are more scripture references which Mulholland gives but they lead ultimately to one key point of Christian spiritual formation.  He goes on to say, “Perhaps the most profound expression of the mystery of the indwelling presence of Christ is in Jesus’ word: ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them’ (Jn 6:56) (pg 90, ibid).”  It is one thing to say, “I believe Jesus is in me,” yet not know it nor know why you even would want Jesus in you!  What God intends for us is to manifest Christlikeness to the world and being formed in the image of Christ is a work done by Jesus Christ in us.  Apart from Christ, I am nothing, and I know it.  

Duh, right?  

Seven Tips for Care Givers to Help Take Care of Yourself

I am in a unique place being a caregiver for my wife during her cancer because I am also a survivor of cancer.  In addition, being a pastor, I am in a more public environment and we are blessed with a great church and great friends to help us.  But I’ve not found much online to actually help me with being a caregiver.  So being a few months into this, I have made a few observations about being the primary caregiver for my wife and helping to support our two teenagers as they cope. I'm not being super-spiritual here, I'm being honest. Here goes...

  1. Give Yourself Permission to Skip Your Quiet Times.
As a pastor, this is important for me and my inner life.  I know Jesus went up the mountain to be alone and it was his habit.  Got it.  Sometimes you don’t have time.  Sometimes you don’t really want to talk with God.  You don’t need to make your personal devotional time an idol or an addition to God’s law.  So consider my second point...

  1. Use a Simple Tool.
Most every day I use a set of prayer knots from the Orthodox Tradition to help me pray the Jesus Prayer, and set my pattern for the day even if I miss my quiet time.  Kristen Vincent’s, “A Bead and a Prayer,” is a great resource to learn about Protestant prayer beads and how they can be a help.  Praying the Lord’s Prayer daily is good too.  Try The Upper Room’s Daily Devotion.  This may sound opposite of point one but the next point will help explain...

  1. Give Yourself Permission to Trust Yourself.
You know you.  Stay up and watch a movie if you need to do it.  Skip that quiet time but also give yourself the option to read a book later in the day or use one of the tools mentioned in point #2.  Trust your gut feelings (unless it involves harming yourself or someone else) to be keeping you above water.  Take a nap with no apologies for it.  You need to do what you need.

  1. Say Yes to Help that is Sincere.
Some people are sincere in their offer to help.  Some aren’t.  Can it be hard to know the difference?  Sure.  Some folks just want to be in on things.  When things are tough, time is tight and emotions are running high, take up someone who offers a helping hand.  When in doubt, say Yes.

  1. Say No Nicely
Sometimes you have to say no, so do it, but try to be nice.  Say thanks for the offer.  Share what you’re comfortable with saying.  In the case of receiving meals, we’ve got allergies and my wife’s diet due to cancer is limited.  If you’ve got little ones (or big ones), those kids only will eat certain stuff.  Tell folks, sincere, well-meaning people will understand (see point #4)

  1. Share What You (and your family really need).
Kinda like #5, be honest with folks as much as you can as you share what you need and don’t need.   I got some offers to clean the yard but at the time, I needed to get outside and work (see #3) a bit.  Tell folks you need to be home with your family if you need to do that and tell folks when and if visitors are welcome. With your close friends, be brutally honest. Someone needs to know.

  1. Keep Active.
You don’t have to join a gym or club.  You likely won’t have time for it anyway.  A simple goal for movement is to consider taking 7,000 steps a day.  Check out www.sparkpeople.com for excercise ideas and also check out youtube as well.  Be sure to talk with your doctor about your excercise program, but you need to get going.

I hope this helps someone and if you know someone in this situation, feel free to pass this on!

The Baptist Called for Humble Hearts not merely Open Hearts

Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.  It is a slogan we’ve tossed about for a while.  It is catchy for sure.  Most people remember it I think. I can't help but think of some of the more modern slogans. Some of these are "old" but if I say “My bologna has a first name…” some of you will mentally finish that sentence with “O-S-C-A-R.”  If I were to say “Farfegnugen” some of you will know I’m talking about Volkswagen.  If I say, “Melts in your mouth…” you’ll likely say, “...not in your hands,” and you’ll know I’m talking about M&Ms.

The difficulty with Open Hearts, Open Minds and Open Doors, is that the words can mean whatever we might want them to mean. Our sales slogans come with modern definitions attached.  However, the Bible, the experiences of people with God and tradition, actually give us meanings for these phrases. For the Church, words have meanings 2,000 years old and older based on our Jewish heritage.  (In last week we looked at how the wise men who followed the star had open minds, they were informed enough to recognize with their minds that God was speaking through the sign of a star.)

So what about our hearts?  We live in a very sentimental society and culture.  We project our emotions onto other people, onto animated animal characters in Disney movies and to inanimate objects.  But this is not what the Bible talks about when it talks about the heart.  If we in fact desire to have God speak into our lives AND be able to recognize God’s voice, we need to 1) Know what our heart is and 2) keep it open for God’s speaking.

Mark’s Gospel provides fertile ground for helping us know our hearts better.  In the opening verses, the Contemporary English Bible translation vears off other translations in identifying the “...changing their hearts...” phrase. 
4 John the Baptist was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. 5 Everyone in Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to the Jordan River and were being baptized by John as they confessed their sins. 6 John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
 The Greek word, “kardia,” isn’t found in our Greek versions of this text. That can be a big concern when it comes to translations.  So why use it?  Because in this context, the heart is what is implied.  For the Hebrews, the heart is THE CORE of our being and this it the change Johnt the Baptist is championing. For the there to be real change, it occurs in what the Hebrews understood to be our heart.  The heart can be glad (Prv 27:11) or sad (Neh 2:2), troubled (2 kngs 6:11) or discouraged (Num 32:7), envious (Pro 23:17) or generous (2 Chr 13:3), fearful (Isa 35:4) or trustful (Pro 31:11).  The heart can fail (Gen 42:28) or faint (Gen 45:26), be sick (Pro 13:12) or be broken (Ps 69:20) and of course, hate (Lev 19:17) or love (Deut 13:3) (from Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, pg 549).  Our thoughts, passions, desires, hopes, purposes and plans are found here, in our hearts.

However, the Bible also describes our true reality and condition.  In the very beginning God reveals to us the observation that “...the intention of [humanity’s] heart is evil from his youth.” Gen 8:21 (ESV). Our hearts are evil, and to truly have open hearts, we've got to take a look at the evil in us and allow God to address it.  A Biblical call to being a people of open hearts has more to do with having humble hearts, having honest hearts than it has to do with being people with “bleeding hearts.”

This is the preaching of John the Baptist. That so many were coming to hear his sermons and repent, it makes me wonder what the Pharisees had been preaching on all this time? For John the Baptist, his focus appears to be on the Kingdom of the False Self being transformed/redeemed by the Kingdom of God.  Author and professor Ken Collins observes in his book “Soul Care” (which could be renamed “Heart Care”), preachers cannot faithfully preach “...the love of God without also calling for fundamental reform of the human heart... (pg40).”  Our hearts are the core where God changes us, where God invites us to join in the work of kingdom building - in us so we might be for the world!  

So how do we keep our hearts open to hear God?  To answer that, let me ask you a question in return: when do you make time to hear God?

There is a quote often attributed to Mark Twain where he observes, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”  In most ways, this how we like to handle God, we presume to already know all God’s thoughts until we suddenly realize, we’ve never given God a place in our hearts to speak to us.  If we truly desire to have open hearts to God, hearts willing and ready for God, then we need to listen to the wisdom of the saints not to our modern sychophants.  Our hearts do not need to be haughty but to be humble.

One of my spiritual mentors in recent years has been Roberta Bondi.  Her writings and teachings point to the beginning of humility as the point where we abandoned our own pride and admit that “all human beings, themselves included, were weak and vulnerable (47, “To Love as God Loves”). Baptism is one of our two sacraments in the United Methodist Church, and both celebrate the change in our hearts and provide us an experience of grace where we can come to know that change personally.

Further Thoughts: The transformation of the heart is a central tenet to Christian spirituality. For there to be healthy spiritual formation, spiritual directors, guides, pastors and teachers, must be honest about our own heart condition as we discern the Spirit of God's work in others. John Wesley's sermon, "The Circumcision of the Heart," is an excellent resource for continued reading. The importance of God's redemption and renewal of the heart ought notn be neglected in the work of spiritual formation.

Growing In Love: One Theory On Why We Don't Get Along and What We Can Do About It

This past week my kids were on break.  I got home and found my son watching a movie that I wasn’t expecting him to watch.  Now understand, I trust my son.  I wasn’t upset with him per se, just surprised. The language was a bit harsh.  I noted that fact.  His response?  “Well, [unnamed teenager’s] parents let her watch it and they are about as strict as you guys are.”

Seriously?!?!  Did he just say that?  Part of me wanted to tell him to go get Bambi and have fun watching it the rest of the day but I didn’t.

What floored me was his perception.  Of course my kids think we’re crazy strict.  In reality, I think we’re quite far from it and I’ve got a number of friends who’d agree.  I loosely use the term “liberal” to describe us.  Everything is in the eye of the beholder though.

This applies only to well to the myriad of cultures and sub-cultures which make up our society.  Even so, there is an observed consistency around our development, how we think and reason as we grow.  Jean Piaget began making this observation decades ago and his theories of moral development and those of others who followed him, confirmed many of them and their characteristics.  While debated, one of those characteristics is the idea that moral development is culturally universal (Carol Gilligan is the most famous, I think, to question this in her book “In A Different Voice,” but it has still been observed across cultures).

Before I go too far afield, let me bring this back to the point I was heading toward, namely, that though my kids are growing up within a sub-culture different from mine, their developmental growth as people, is largely following the same path.  This doesn’t mean I don’t forgo punishments and consequences for wrong behavior, but it ought to give me pause to understand and remember my kids are “coming from a different place.”

Developmental theories tell us we're all coming from different places, even as adults. So just "where" is my neighbor coming from?  What about my co-worker?  My friend?  My spouse?  My fellow clergy person?  Consider, if only for a second, your most recent argument or disagreement with someone.  Did they seem like they were coming from an entirely different planet?  Did it frustrate you to no end?  Did it ultimately lead you to make belittling or snide comments on social media?  I wonder.

So I started digging into my notes and came across an interesting piece that Dr. Donald Joy seemed to refer to every class I took with him in graduate school.  It came from Bill Hubbell who described how, based on moral development theory, individuals viewed love in their marriage (it isn’t hard to consider how this works in other relationships).  Each person could “love” another but then their actions seem to be totally contradictory!  

As you read Hubbell’s “I Love You” statements below, you’ll see how they progress.  We all go through these stages in our lives.  Over our lifetime, we’ll settle into one that becomes a home base to us.  You’ll likely see too, how Jesus’ words throughout the Gospels, will challenge the ways we love.  If you are loving from the first stage, it will be hard to handle Jesus’ words in Matthew when he says, "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' (44)  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,”  (Matthew 5:43-44 ESV).

Take a moment to read Hubbell’s “Six Pack:”

I LOVE YOU.  I love all that you do for me.  I love you so long as I am not being hurt.  If you ever hurt me, I’ll stop loving you.

I LOVE YOU.  I love all the neat things you do for me.  I love you because I know you are always going to come when I need you.

I LOVE YOU.  I think you are nice, and I feel nice when I am with you.  My friends really think you are neat.  I need you because you make me look really cool.

I LOVE YOU.  I’m committed to you, and I want to give to you.  I hate to tell you this, but sometimes I don’t like you. Sometimes, well, I even hate you.  (I hate it when I hate you.) But we are stuck with each other, like it or not, “for better or for worse.”  Please, I wish this obligation could be more pleasant.

I LOVE YOU.  I’m committed to you and to your welfare.  I enjoy making you look good and seeing you pleased and happy.  I don’t always feel attracted to you; sometimes you plain make me angry.  But I love you.  Deep down I really want what is best for you.

I LOVE YOU.  I’m concerned and committed to you.  Whatever you do, whether I like it or not, I love you.  Whether you are attracted to me, love me, hate me, or ignore me, I love you.  Whatever is best for you, I want it  and I will do it for you, regardless of what the cost may be to me.

As we grow in grace and in our understanding of love and moral reasoning, grace ought to extend to those with whom we do not agree.  Because we view the world differently, at different stages, we often reach very different conclusions regarding beliefs and how we ought to act (and react).  It isn’t hard, I think, to be challenged by Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” regardless of where you are on your journey.  Who isn’t still struggling to grasp and live Jesus’ words from Matthew 5:39, when he says, “...I tell you not to try to get even with a person who has done something to you. When someone slaps your right cheek, turn and let that person slap your other cheek?”

One of the implications is to recognize the Holy Spirit’s presence and leading in our lives.  The nature of God’s love, represented in Jesus Christ’s life, does not even register in the theory (For more on this, I’d recommend Michael J. Gorman’s book, “Cruciformity”).  But our growth, should be in response to a growth in grace and lead us to offering more grace to others.  What I’m saying is those of us who perceive we have grown to more mature love and grace, should be more gracious and merciful to those living in stages we have already passed through.

This keeps with what Paul’s pleas to the Romans (and Corinthians (1 Cor 8:13)) regarding food.  Paul writes, “(19) So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.  (20)  Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats.  (21)  It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. (Rom 14:19-21 ESV)”  Our growth in grace ought not to lead us to pride but to offer more grace, to be merciful to those who, on their journey, have not grown as you or I might have done.

Going back to Michael Gorman’s work, he describes God’s love as a “cruciform” love, which helps us grasp why God’s love would not fit in Hubbell’s “Six Pack.”  The very nature of God’s love as demonstrated in Jesus Christ’s death is it takes shape in the cross, thus it is cruciform.  Gorman writes, “Cruciform love resists the temptation to make myself the focus of everything, even of my spirituality.  Cruciform love refuses to exercise rights, powers, privileges, spiritual gifts, and so forth, if their use will do me good…(389)” but cause others harm.  Nor does cruciform love tear down others, be it through sarcasm, implication, memes, or the like, to make a point.  

Like any theory, developmental theories of moral and spiritual development have their gaps. But there is a consistency in what has been observed in studies. Besides this, Jesus’ words call us to be loving and Jesus’ actions demonstrate the extent of God’s gracious love for us. If we have perceived and responded to God’s love in our fallen, sinful, and love-limited state, we are called and empowered by the Spirit to show, in our way, love to others (including Christians we don't get along with too!). Maybe, this means we have to make room for people to grow. We need to remember we have our own growing up to do as well and keep it in mind as we journey together.

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