Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What's An Anawim?

We invent words all the time. Every sub-culture has its own vocabulary that no one else understands. Some sub-culture words enter into the mainstream, such as “dis” or “dysfunctional” or “antidisestablishmentarianism”, but most words remain obscure but to a small segment of the population. In English our language has the capacity of a million words, but we will typically only use 5,000-20,000. Why so many words? We do this because we have concepts that we use frequently, and so we invent new words (or import words from other languages) that communicate succinctly what we want to say. After all, why say “the study of the end times” every time that subject comes up, when you could just say “eschatology”?

In Hebrew there was an idea that was frequently used in Scripture, and supposedly in everyday life, so that a new vocabulary word had to be invented. The idea went something like this—“You see, there are these people, but they’re poor—or, well, most of them are economically poor, but not all of them. Well, actually, they are rejected by modern society, outcasts… well, not always outcast, but they aren’t in the mainstream, and they are looked down on. And sometimes they’re just sick. Or attacked. Anyway, it seems like nobody likes them. But they are righteous—um, well, righteous in a way, anyway. As a group they seem to sin a lot—but they repent! Of their sin, that is. I mean, they really regret it and they do what they can to stop the sin. But they pray a lot. Not to be holy, because these people aren’t holier-than-thou—uh uh, no way. No, they pray because they need to ask God some pretty big requests. Like for their basic survival. And to be delivered from their enemies. And for justice. And instead of scrambling around working on every plan to get them out of their troubles—like that would help, anyway—they depend on God. Yeah, that’s who they are.”

You see why we need to be succinct?

So who are these folks, exactly? They are the poor or outcast who depend on God for their deliverance. “Deliverance” doesn’t mean some spiritual transformation, but it means that you’re in trouble and you need to get out of it. So the Hebrews had this idea, and because they didn’t like the option of “outcast who depend on the Lord for deliverance” every time they used the concept, they shortened it. The word is anawim.

"Blessed are the anawim, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" Matthew 5:3

"Yet a little while and the wicked will be no more, but the anawim, they will inherit the land" Psalms 37:10-11

Anawim is also the name of our church for the homeless and the mentally ill. You can find out more at Nowhere To Lay His Head

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Some Lewis Quotes on Ethics

All are from Mere Christianity:

“One man may be so placed that his anger sheds the blood of thousands and another so placed that however angry he gets he will only be laughed at. But the little mark on the soul may be much the same in both. Each has done something to himself which, until he repents, will make it harder for him to keep out of the rage next time he is tempted, and will make the rage worse when he does fall into it. Each of them, if he seriously turns to God, can have that twist in the central man straightened out again; each is, in the long run, doomed if he will not. The bigness or smallness of the thing, seen from outside, is not what really matters.”

“Good people know about both good and evil. Bad people do not know about either.”

“While the rule of chastity is the same for all Christians at all times, the rule of propriety changes. A girl in the Pacific Islands wearing hardly any clothes and a Victorian lady completely covered in clothes might both be equally ‘modest’; proper or decent, according to the standards of their own societies; and both, for all we could tell by their dress, might be equally chaste (or equally unchaste). “

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Why Is God So Narrow Minded About Sex?

It is good that C.S. Lewis brings up abstinence. Because in many parts of our society, abstinence isn’t a real option, or worse, an unethical demand. Jesus is the one who brought up abstinence in the first place, speaking of “eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven,” by which he did not recommend castration, but rather the cessation of sexual activity. Even Jesus says, though, “The one who can accept it, let him accept it,” meaning, “Look this isn’t for everyone, and I know that it’s hard for most of you, but you don’t have to take on abstinence—you can always get married.” But we need to make it clear, as Lewis did, there are two options for Christian sexuality: faithful partnership or abstinence. That’s it. Both are options, and it isn’t like God didn’t give us a choice.

Let’s talk for a minute why Christian morality is so stuck in this way. It is pretty much because of how humanity is wired. First of all, we are wired in such a way that sexuality triggers attachment. Yes, you can always find someone who has no attachment to the various sexual partners he or she has had, but this is the exception rather than the rule. Even in a day of sexual freedom, almost everyone couples up. Very rare is even a regular ménage a trois, let alone a group marriage. For the most part, multiple partners doesn’t work. Again, there are the rare exceptions, but the general rule is, the more partners involved, the more hurt there is. Life is simple with one regular sexual partner, and, of course, more healthy.
And humanity is, for the most part, built that way. Sexuality functions as a method of attachment. This is why fetishes are so common, because sexuality is attached to an object in that case. When sexuality is used in a broad way, then fetishes will abound, and even become the norm, because sexual attachment is happening willy nilly. Sexual orgasm is intended to be with our partner, and thus we will firm up our attachment to our partner and not to something else. This does not mean that there aren’t other kinds of attachments. Our attachments to children and work can be just as strong if not stronger than our attachment to our spouse. But it is a powerful attachment, and it is triggered by sexual attraction and it is consummated in sexual climax. Birds and bees, folks, it’s pretty basic stuff.

Yet our society wants to deny this regular practice. They affirm it in romances and movies and books, but they deny it as a philosophy. They glorify sexual faithfulness and vilify it. And this is because all societies have had a love-hate relationship with faithfulness in general. To keep a promise once it’s made is hard and against the grain. To make a pact of unique faithfulness is often done without words, as Carole King wrote, “Tonight with words unspoken you say that I’m the only one.” But we do not speak the words so we have deniability, even as we can non-verbally express anger or agreement and then deny it because we never said it. Even so, the act of sex is a nonverbal pact of sole attatchment. And as long as it is nonverbal, we have deniability. And we want to keep that deniability, we want the freedom to be changeable, to withdraw our commitment.

Dan Gilbert on Happiness

Dan Gilbert speaks of a study done in a university about students who took a photography class. Each student was to pick their two favorite works that they did, one to keep, the other to ship away into an exhibit. One group of students was given some time to consider their options for a number of days. Other students were only given a moment and once the decision was over, that was it. In polling both sets of students weeks after, the first group were considerably unhappier with their choice than the second group. This is because we are often happier if a decision is final and we don’t have time to ruminate over it. We make ourselves happy with our choices, we are wired to be satisfied over what we cannot change.

Even so with sexuality. If we have made our partnership choice and we can’t change it, we will make the best of it and end up being happier. We are happier when we don’t have an option to switch. But the history of human sexuality is the attempt to have more sexual choices along with the opportunity to change whenever we want. But, in the end, this isn’t what will make us happy. Happiness is found in security, in a certain amount of structure, and, especially, knowing that we can’t change our minds to get something else.

God made us this way. And while we might like this decision making process, it is how we are.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Marriage Problem

C.S. Lewis summarizes Christian sexual morality like this: “Either marriage with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence.” I think this is generally true, but given the circumstances of the last century, I’d like to refine it a bit.

First of all, marriage. For the most part, marriage is an act of the state. Yes, it could be something a church participates in, but a church leader has to be licensed by the state to perform a state marriage, that is, one that is recognized as legally binding by the state. This is important for tax and insurance reasons, as well as any other which legally demands that one determine who one’s family is. In a single act, two legal strangers become the closest family one has, and this is marriage. This has nothing to do with sexuality, per se, of if it does, it is secondary.

It is unfortunate that the legal issue is tied with the Christian sexuality issue. Why, if a couple wants to be sexually faithful to each other before God, should they have to pay sixty five dollars to the state? God doesn’t need the processing fee, and neither should the church. If two people are devoting their lives together, why should the state get involved at all? Originally it was not so. The second marriage ceremony we have on record is this: “Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah's tent, and he took Rebekah, and she became his wife, and he loved her” (Gen 24:67 NAU). Here, we have everything that is needed for a marriage: cohabitation, community recognition (Isaac’s father and servant was involved in the marriage, approving it), sexual connection and faithfulness. That is marriage.

Frankly, until the state and the church became so ingrained, there wasn’t any necessity of state recognition of a marriage. “Marriage” as we know it today with its legal ramifications and religious connection and divorce proceedings, is an accident of various historical and cultural accidents. And Christian sexual morality should have little to do with it.
The core of what Christian sexuality demands is a couple who is faithful to each other: sexually, emotionally and to meet each others basic needs. It is the core of faithful Christian community and an example of how Jesus and the church love each other. Thus, a Christian marriage is one in which the partners support each other, are faithful to each other and are committed to each other for life. And they are sexually connected with each other as well, denying any sexual connection to others. So instead of the word “marriage” which brings in with it so many unfortunate connotations, I believe that a term like “faithful partnership” would be better when speaking of Christian sexuality.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A Parable of the Kingdom

Once there was a king who had three sons. He was determining who should rule after him, so he gave them each a portion of his vast kingdom, and told them to rule well. As good sons, they came to him and said, "Father, you are the great king, all wise and just. Please tell us how to rule as you have done."

The Emperor looked at each of them from his throne and said, "Write down what I say and you will know all that is necessary to rule: Sovereignty. Justice. Mercy. Sacrifice. Love. Peace. Understand these words and you will rule well." The three sons were a bit mystified, but all were confident that, given time, they would be able to understand the meaning of the Great King, and rule well.

After a year, the King called his sons back and asked them how they ruled.

The first son said this: "After some time of considering your words and spending time with your subjects, I realized that they were faithless and stupid. Then I understood your words. I am the sovereign and I must rule strongly. I must deliver justice to the people, punishing them for their sins. However, I must remind them that you, O King, are merciful and do not want them all to die. However, they must learn to sacrifice their wills to Yours, and thus learn to Love each other by loving the Law of the land. Only then there will be Peace."

The King replied, "And I understand that you punished all, for all were unworthy in your sight. This is not my rule of mercy. You are dismissed."

The second son said, "I, too, considered your words, my King, and applied them to my rule. I realized that I am not the sovereign, but You are, O King. I am only here to dispense your justice and mercy to the people. Thus, I sought to apply your law precisely, punishing the wicked and rewarding the obedient. I taught them to sacrifice their possessions to me, so that I might re-distribute them in love. And then we achieved the peace of having all needs met."

The King replied to the second son, "Because you took all land and all possessions from my people, you made them all poor, grudgingly giving back to them. This is not my rule of justice. You are dismissed."

Finally came the primary servant of the third son, and he said, "I regret to tell you, my Lord, that your son is dead. This is what occurred: He also, considered your words and he realized that he himself was given sovereignty over your people, which was a noble task, of which few are worthy. He saw the poor of your land being oppressed and the wealthy squandering their power on their own indulgence and distractions. But rather than punish them, your son remembered your word, "sacrifice" and realized that he must sacrifice himself for all the people. So he took all the power and wealth you gave him, traveled around the country and taught all the people how to share possessions, how to see with compassion and how to love each other with one's own heart. In this way, he created peace among all who listened to him.

"I wish that were the end of the story. His brother, the first son, came to his land and stirred up the wealthy, claiming that the third son was not obeying your will. They lied about him and persecuted him gladly, for he was telling them the only way to follow your will was to sacrifice their possessions and power. Because he threatened all power, the other king spurred the powerful to kill your third, innocent son."

The King bowed his head and tears came to his eyes. "Yes, I have heard all of these tidings. My son," and he turned to the first son, "You are cast from my presence. I never want to see you again. You were never interested in my will, only in punishment." Then the King turned to the servant, "Little one, because you have loved my son, my son who followed my heart of compassion, then I proclaim you to be King over all of my lands."

The servant declared, "But my Lord, I am not worthy!"

The King chuckled, "Of course you are not. But anyone who has my heart at least deserves the chance to become worthy. Worth isn't in correct interpretation, nor in delivering justice. Worth is found in seeing others' needs and doing all you can to meet them."

This parable is not about Christianity, per se. Nor is it about the atonement and how it works. Rather, it is about how one interprets the Bible. The Bible is confusing and difficult. There are a number of things that don't make sense. The one who understands the Bible correctly is the one who has the heart of the Father, following the example of His Son.

On Murder and Chastity

Fine C.S. Lewis Quotes from Mere Christianity:

“One man may be so placed that his anger sheds the blood of thousands and another so placed that however angry he gets he will only be laughed at. But the little mark on the soul may be much the same in both. Each has done something to himself which, until he repents, will make it harder for him to keep out of the rage next time he is tempted, and will make the rage worse when he does fall into it. Each of them, if he seriously turns to God, can have that twist in the central man straightened out again; each is, in the long run, doomed if he will not. The bigness or smallness of the thing, seen from outside, is not what really matters.”

“Good people know about both good and evil. Bad people do not know about either.”

“While the rule of chastity is the same for all Christians at all times, the rule of propriety changes. A girl in the Pacific Islands wearing hardly any clothes and a Victorian lady completely covered in clothes might both be equally ‘modest’; proper or decent, according to the standards of their own societies; and both, for all we could tell by their dress, might be equally chaste (or equally unchaste). “

Monday, March 14, 2011

Lewis on Giving to the Poor

C.S. Lewis wrote about giving to the poor, but he also lived it out. All of the royalties for his books-- including the Chronicles of Narnia, The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity-- he gave to the poor. And he also had a set amount from his salary as a professor from Oxford which he used for his living expenses and the rest he gave away. I don't know exactly how much he gave away, but it was substantial. We should consider this as we read these quotes:

“When Christianity tells you to feed the poor, it doesn’t give you lessons in cookery.”

“Some people nowadays say that charity ought to be unnecessary and that instead of giving to the poor we ought to be producing a society in which there were no poor to give to. They may be quite right in saying that we ought to produce this kind of society. But if anyone thinks that, as a consequence, you can stop giving in the meantime, then he has parted company with all Christian morality.

“I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc, is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charities expenditure excludes them.”

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Should The Church Replace Secular Programs?

“People say ‘The Church ought to give us a lead.’ That is true if they mean it in the right way, but false if they mean it in the wrong way.” -C.S. Lewis

Allow me to summarize what Lewis is saying. Many people say, “The government should get out of the job of taking care of the poor. The church should do that.”

Lewis would say, “If you mean by that that Christians who know how to take care of the poor should care for them, then you are right. But if you mean that the institution of the church and the clergy should be the political institution that cares for the poor, that is silly.” It is a summary of what he says in his chapter “Social Morality”

Why is this? Clergy are trained to be students of Scripture, readers of ritual, comforters for the afflicted and to give general principles of worshipping God and assisting one’s neighbor. But they are not trained to help the poor. That is what social workers, food service workers and administrators are trained to do. If the church gives opportunity for these experts to do what they do well, then that is all fine. But usually the church doesn’t have the finances to support these people.

Where the church should step in is if society is heading the wrong direction. For instance, when American society was going in the wrong direction with slavery, with female suffrage or with civil rights, then the church should step in and point the right direction, and the church did take the first step in determining the right in all these circumstances. Not all the church, mind you, but a prophetic segment of the church that was appointed by God to show the right way.

Even so, now the church is showing society how to treat the homeless humanely, and society would do well to listen to the direction of the church, or else greater suffering will result. But this does not mean that the church should be the location for all the homeless. Maybe it will, but it isn’t necessary. It doesn’t mean that all food banks should be located at churches—it is well for churches to do this, but there is nothing wrong for churches to support other locations.

The church is supposed to point the way of Jesus and follow it themselves. That’s the church’s job. Not to be politicians or even social workers. It is, however, the job of Christians to do what they are trained to do according to Jesus’ words—with mercy and with the idea “I need to treat others as I would be treated”.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

How Does Jesus Do Ethics?

“The first thing about Christian morality between man and man is that in this department Christ did not come to preach any kind of brand new morality. The Golden Rule of the New Testament (Do as you would be done by) is a summing up of what every one, at bottom, had always known to be right. Really great moral teachers never do introduce new moralities: it is quacks and cranks who do that.” -

Frankly, humanity has enough ethical systems already. There are so many rules and principles and laws and precepts and policies that we hardly need more. Jesus’ morality is inventive in the following ways:

-Jesus is giving general principles to apply in a variety of circumstances, not rules or laws that are very specific. Thus, the application of Jesus’ morality is to be worked out among his people, led by the Spirit, and not dictated from the beginning.

-Jesus’ principles of right and wrong have more to do with prioritizing rather than being startlingly new. Jesus is teaching old principles, often directly quoting other authors, but the unique aspect of Jesus’ teaching is how he prioritizes these teachings. That principles of love and mercy get prioritized above all other religious principles.

-Although Jesus’ principles are very conceptual, he expects the applications to be very hands on. Jesus quotes the principles “Mercy is greater than sacrifice” and he applies it to men harvesting heads of grain on the Sabbath and healing when it is illegal.

-Jesus easily does away with certain principles, if they contradict mercy in application. Keeping the Sabbath is good, but insignificant to helping others. Keeping a vow to God is good, but not at the cost of supporting one’s parents when they are old.

-Jesus applies the most basic principles to the smallest possible action. Many mistakenly think Jesus is speaking of judgment of one’s mind, but really Jesus is speaking of one’s gaze or one’s insult. These are still actions, actions that some might consider insignificant. But Jesus is saying that every action shows what we really lust, who we really are.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Cardinal Virtues for Today

The classic cardinal virtues are those described in C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, as listed below:

Prudence: Using one’s wisdom to do the right act.

Temperance: Moderation in all things.

Justice: Acting fairly to everyone, and making sure that everyone obtains fairness.

Fortitude: The courage to stand strong in virtue.

What is rarely recognized, however, is that these virtues are not particularly Christian. They have been espoused as Christian virtues, but this short list is just as comfortable in Greek or Roman society as they are in modern Christian society. Plato describes them, and every Roman schoolboy would have them memorized as well as other virtues. These are classic ancient virtues, not specifically Christian ones.

I think that these are chosen by the Christian church because of their ability to be used in almost every circumstance. However, they, by themselves, do not always lead to right actions. It is a common joke when thinking of Aristotle’s principles, “Moderation in all things” to say, “I wish to be moderate in my adultery, or in my drunkenness.” And this is exactly the kind of thinking that we end up in seeing these four virtues as the primary or “cardinal” virtues.

Jesus was not moderate in all things. He died for our sins, which was not a temperate act. It may have been prudent, but not in the short term. And if dying for our sins is an example of fortitude, then what is walking through the crowds, unharmed, when they are looking for your blood? Also, was it just for Jesus to have sent the rich man to hell, in his parable, when the rich man was only using his justly gotten gain in accord with his desire?

I am not saying Jesus was in opposition to these virtues. I am saying that we can use these virtues to enact a life that is the opposite of what Jesus stood for. Thus, if these virtues are “cardinal”, then they are not the Christian cardinal virtues, but the virtues for the classical West.

I would make a suggestion for a new set of cardinal virtues, ones that reflect characteristics that are particular to Jesus and ones that are seen to assist one in passing the Final final exam on the day of judgment.

a. Compassion: This is also called “empathy”. It is seeing with another’s eyes, and experiencing the suffering of another. However, the virtue of compassion does not just feel, but it acts and it acts in a way that truly benefits the other person. A compassionate person will not give a homeless person in the cold a dollar (which does little for the homeless person, but salves a guilty conscience), but will take them to a motel room and give them a place to sleep.
b. Forgiveness: This is restoring one who has wronged against a person or a community back into relationship. It is not just the surrender of bitterness—that is obtaining personal healing, not granting healing to another. Forgiveness is recognizing a wrong done, and deciding to retain relationship despite that. If a spouse decides to remain married to an adulterous partner, that is forgiveness.

c. Humility: This is taking a lower social position than is deserved. Humility could be something as small as accepting a social snub, or as large as being killed as a criminal when one was innocent.

d. Sacrifice: This is surrendering what one needs for another who has a greater need. This is what Jesus called the “greatest love”.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Correcting C.S. Lewis (again)

I want to affirm the main point of the last post, and even the reasons that Lewis is making. God is looking for character, not simply acts. We are in Jesus to be like Jesus, not to slavishly imitate particular acts of Jesus. It wouldn’t necessarily be loving to spit on the ground, make mud and put it in someone’s eyes, even if they were blind. It was loving for Jesus to do that in his context, but we should be healing the blind and poor in a different way today. And we need to recognize that character is important because is speaks of the nature of a person, not the outward appearance. And God is forming a people, a kingdom that will be full of certain kinds of people. Not just people who know how to say the right words when in church, but people who will, out of church, make a habit of acting in a certain manner.

However, I have a couple caveats to Lewis’ important statement in the last post.

a. When we are first being trained in virtue, we will, almost without exception, be acting out of obedience for all the wrong reasons, and we will be doing the action itself all wrong because of that. However, this is not cause not to begin the process of acting out the virtue. We all have to start somewhere to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” and a misstep in the right direction is better than no step at all. This is important for people in recovery (and we are ALL in recovery from something) to remember. We’ve got to start walking that road and be ready to be corrected as we do that walk.

b. I think that there will be the need for courageous and just actions in the future. There is a universe to explore and to bring to God’s will. There are people, when Jesus first returns, to teach justice to, to train in the ways of love. There will still be discomforts to accept for the sake of need. There will still be sacrifices, although less than some of the sacrifices that people make here. This is all the more reason why God wants people whose character is justice, love, and sacrifice.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Why Virtues and Not Obedient Acts?

From C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity:
“There is a difference between doing some particular just or temperate action and being a just or temperate man. Someone who is not a good tennis player may now and then make a good shot. What you mean by a good tennis player is a man whose eye and muscles and nerves have been so trained by making innumerable good shots that they can now be relied on. They have a certain tone or quality which is there even when he is not playing, just as a mathematician’s mind has a certain habit and outlook which is there even when he is not doing mathematics. In the same way a man who perseveres in doing just actions gets in the end a certain quality of character. Now it is that quality rather than the particular actions which we mean when we talk of a “virtue”.

This disctinction is important for the following reason. If we thought only of the particular actions we might encourage three wrong ideas:

1. We might think that, provided you did the right thing, it did not matter how or why you did it—whether you did it sulkily or cheerfully, through fear of public opinion or for its own sake. But the truth is that right actions done for the wrong reason do not help to buile the internal quality or character called a ‘virtue’, and it is this quality or character that really matters.
(If the bad tennis player hits very hard, not because he sees that a very hard stroke is required, but because he lost his temper, his stroke might possibly, by luck, help him to win that particular game; but it will not be helping him to become a reliable tennis player.)

2. We might think that God wanted simply obedience to a set of rules; whereas He really wants people of a particular sort.

3. We might think that the ‘virtues’ were necessary only for this present life—that in the other world we could stop being just because there is nothing to quarrel about and stop being brave because there is no danger. Now it is quite true that there will probably be no occasion for just or courageous acts in the next world, but there will be every occasion for being the sort of people that we can become only as the result of doing such acts here.

The point is not that God will refuse you admission to His eternal world if you have not got certain qualities of character: the point is that if people have not got at least the beginnings of those qualities inside them, then no possible external conditions could make a ‘Heaven’ for them—that is, could make them happy with the deep, strong, unshakable kind of happiness God intends for us."