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Sep. 11th, 2007

No Comfort in Faith

The recent revelation that Mother Teresa was a doubting Thomas almost the entire time she worked in India but yet remained faithful shows the lie that Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens would like to promulgate: belief in God is comforting.  (And here, I thought we were still struggling with Catholic Guilt.)

While I've no doubt that some believers gain primarily comfort from their belief, the religion that Jesus teaches isn't very comforting at all. "If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you."

And, of course, any Mennonite knows that Martyrs Mirror is filled with stories of people who endured a great deal of suffering. My own children have listened to the lives of many martyrs in the Orthodox lexicon of Saints, Nikolai Velimirovich's Prologue -- so many that whenever they hear the Emperor Diocletian's name mentioned, they can tell you the end of the story.

Perhaps some people make Christianity out to be a nice bedtime story, but anyone who pays attention to what Jesus said or what Paul wrote knows that any comfort offered isn't the whole story: we are called to live sacrificially.

Which is exactly what Mother Teresa did.

What strikes me most among discussions like this one is the idea that Mother Teresa had an obligation to announce her doubts to the world.  "She's a public figure" the thinking goes "and she kept this from us?"

Well, no, her struggle with doubt or the lack of God's Presence was her own and she kept it between herself and her spiritual confessors.  If she wanted to announce her doubt and be done with it, she could have done that without making her life any more uncomfortable.

Mother Teresa was doing something completely foreign to most of us.  Jack Welch was a better humanitarian.  Mother Teresa was not a humanitarian and Christopher Hitchen's was right to discredit this notion of her.  Jesus said "You will always have the poor" and Mother Teresa understood this to mean that we should be more concerned with loving the poor and having compassion for them than with giving them a handout.

"You take care of their tomorrows, I take care of their todays," she said.

Secularists who don't know Mother Teresa won't appreciate the way she chose to use her money.  Evangelicals won't appreciate her Gospel.  Atheists see her doubts as her hypocrisy.

But there is something else going on, also.  She identified with the poor in the same way Christ identified with us.  She emulated his compassion.

And of course isn't that the whole Problem of Evil all over again?  As Judas pointed out, the money spent on the perfume Mary poured on Jesus feet was a year's wages -- surely there was a more practical use for it.  Surely Jesus could have done more than forgive sins, couldn't he?  He was God, after all, shouldn't he have done more?

Mother Teresa is someone many people can admire from a distance.  Most will be repulsed by her, though, if they take a closer look.  She shows us exactly why true religion isn't comforting.

Sep. 9th, 2007

Distributed Search and Rescue via Amazon.com

Now, this is interesting. As the email announcing this says:
On Monday, September 3, 2007, Steve Fossett, the first person to fly a plane around the world without refueling and the first person to fly around the world in a balloon went missing in Nevada. An airplane he was flying failed to return. No one has any idea where he is. (Wikipedia article).
The Mechanical Turk project to locate Steve Fossett has been given one week for completion.

Those of you who don't know what the Mechanical Turk is should know that it is “Artificial Artificial Intelligence”. That is, Amazon.com has created a way for computers to use people's work as input.

In this case, people will scan satellite photography taken recently looking for possible places that search and rescue efforts should be focused on.

Which means, you, sitting in your living room thousands of miles away, could help rescue someone.

I've no idea if this will work, but, man, what a concept!

Trip Pics

I finally got around to uploading some pictures from our trip last month.

Sep. 6th, 2007

Faux Smells and Bells

"It's the same sermon, same worship songs in many cases, just done in a more liturgical style," Fitzgerald says. "I don't mind changing the packaging for people. It freshens it up for them and for me."

The new "Liturgical Service," as they call it, has become the most popular service even among young people. After the "standard" evangelical service at 9:30 a.m., workers decorate the platform with candles, non-specific iconography and other religious-looking items. Fitzgerald wears generic vestments and adopts a more somber manner. He reads from a liturgical book and the congregation responds by reading words on the screens.

"I like the reverence and the mood," says one girl, 16. "It feels more spiritual."

"I like the candles," her friend chimes in. — Lark News
When I left the Presbyterian church I was a member of, I went to talk to one of the elders. These people were my friends and I thought I should let them know what was going on. They asked why I was going.

“I want to have communion every Sunday.”

“Yeah, we won't be doing that.”

No big theological issues, no insurmountable doctrine. Just the sacrament.

A while later, I found another Presbyterian church that celebrated communion every Sunday. But even there, it depended on the current pastor. When he left, so did the sacrament. And there was something different, though I'm at a loss these years later, to say exactly what it was.

Before I finally committed to the Orthodox church, I tried to be Roman Catholic (which would have made my mother-in-law extremely happy). In the end, though, Orthodoxy became my spiritual home. As time has past, I've found that the attraction of sacramental living (e.g. “communion every Sunday”) is more than just doing the same thing with different artifacts. Sacrament is interaction with God. And sacramental living extends beyond the Eucharist, beyond the church building. There are far more than just seven sacraments. Sacrament is everywhere.

As my friend Jim once wrote: All of Life is Blessed.

At the same time, this is exactly why adding smells and bells to an Evangelical church service is just so much dross. Liturgy is imbued with meaning. As the Orthodox say, during the Liturgy we enter Heaven and stand around the Throne with the saints and angels. Not just figuratively. We are there!

Putting on a robe, like “Pastor Brian Fitzgerald” in Lark's satirical piece, is just marketing, repackaging what you already have. Orthodox worship, on the other hand is completely different because everything in the liturgy — every word, every action, even form of the priest's garments — is imbued with meaning.

Sep. 4th, 2007

Tripping through the South and over myself

Last week I got back from a working trip through the South with brief stops along the way in Tennesee; Jackson, Mississipi; Mobile, Alabama and longer stays in New Orleans, Louisiana and Chapel Hill, Nort Carolina. I've some great pictures I want to post here… but not just yet. I'm still recovering. As soon as I can manage to get back on my riding schedule, I should be fine.

But, while I've got this itch, I thought I'd note that I think I've finally figured out why I'm no longer much interested in Theological discussions per se — that is, whose concept of God (or the non-existence of God) is correct.

Of course, part of this is because I've already made up my mind which Tradition I'm going to follow. Another part is watching people like my friend Jim get involved in seeming never-ending discussions surrounding the the Emerging Church or New Perspectives on Paul and I'm just not that interested in discussing the right way to approach Christianity. I'd rather attempt to live it.

I'm reading through John Chryssavgis' The Way of the Fathers: Exploring the Patristic Mind and he makes this point nicely:

Christ proceeds through the ages in the agency of persons. … The trancendence of the divine Word was always easier to acknowlege than the more scandalous immanance and humanity … [Therefore] the teaching of a charismatic elder in the fifth century desert … is never outdated insofar as that person lived and loved as Christ.

[Finally] one must acknowlege that the high points of theology are not confined to one specific “golden” age but pervade every age which happens to be blessed with those “advanced in theoria [vision] … and purified. By analogy, there is decay in the theological world when such saints are wanting.

Father Stephen puts this point of view succinctly when he writes about evil:
Of course, there is much conversation about the metaphysics of evil and the nature of hell and eternal punishment - and though I have recommended articles on the same that I find of value - I think that a large amount of Christian energy is wasted on such matters. For it is not the mastery of the metaphysics of the universe that makes any difference, but rather the embrace of the Gospel of Christ and obedience to His commandments. [emphasis mine — Mark]
So, when I hear Christians arguing amongst themselves about interpretation or the church or whatnot, I'm turned off. I used to be really dogmatic about my beliefs, sure enough of myself that I would argue incessently. And I still talk too much. But more and more I've come to realize how much more I need to embrace the Christ's Gospel and obey his commandments and I've begun to refocus my efforts on my own life rather than figuring out better arguments for what I believe.

Jul. 17th, 2007

On the lack of success

In this life, we have no measure of success.

Some people I care deeply about are always trying to figure out what God's plan for their life is.  "This is God's Will" they will say when things are going their way.  Later, when life has thrown them a curve ball and that particular circumstance doesn't seem quite so beneficial, they will, without a hint of self-awareness, say "This can't be God's will!"

What is God's will?  To love Him as well as our neighbor.  Beyond this is only speculation.

...so soon as we agree to take responsibility for the outcome of history, we have agreed to do violence.

Christianity, both progressive and conservative strains, fight too much to change the world into what they think God's ideal for it is.  Instead, the Church acts best when it releases responsibility for the result and just simply shows Love in the here and now without worrying about the end result.  When we scheme, we fail to simply love our neighbor.

Of course, the Church has been terrible at this. We change the Gospel into a self-help seminar, a political movement, or a reformation -- anything but Love, which it seems we cannot actually stand.

I have only begun to learn about this truth through the sacramental life of the Church.  Participating in sacrament doesn't require allegiance to any ideology.  It doesn't require any code of conduct.  Sacrament only needs openness to God and a desire to draw closer to Him.

When you take away sacrament and devotion, what are you left with?  A political movement?  Social reforms?  Ideology?  Moral guidelines?  Scholarship?

These are nothing.  In the Kingdom of God, they are worthless.  Only Love has any meaning.

Jun. 19th, 2007

Adolescence isn't really real.

Robert Epstein, author of The Case Against Adolescence in an interview in Psychology Today:

I believe that young people should have more options—the option to work, marry, own property, sign contracts, start businesses, make decisions about health care and abortions, live on their own—every right, privilege, or responsibility an adult has. [...] competent young people deserve the chance to compete where it counts, and many will surprise us.
There is so much that I want to quote from the interview, I'll just stick with that.  Go read the interview and the book.

I'm just happy to have someone else confirm what I've suspected for a long time: teenagers exhibit behavior problems because we isolate and infantilize them.  Stop treating mature people like small children and they'll become productive citizens.

Oh, and ditch the current factory-based educational system which only serves to provide outmoded skills while keeping potentially productive members of society in lockdown for no good reason.

May. 23rd, 2007

(no subject)

Glory to God for All Things; I Really Wasn’t Kidding - There’s Another Gospel Out There:

I will be bold, very bold indeed, and say that if this doctrine of Christ Descent into Hades is not known, then the most essential doctrines of our salvation are misunderstood and incorrectly taught. This is not to create an argument about whose Church is more correct, but to state a simple and plain fact of theology. If the primary story of our salvation is not a matter of agreement, then the conversation regarding the faith has barely begun.
[...]
But I return to my earlier contention, which experience is simply bearing out: another gospel is replacing the gospel of Christ - the primary metaphors of our salvation are being forgotten and set aside for a later, less Scriptural account.
Jim has mentioned before that the Trinity is neglected in many churches.  Perhaps it is just a sign of bigger problems?

May. 13th, 2007

Two Incomes but no Trap?

Alexis recently took a part time job working the third shift in a group home for the elderly and mentally ill.  She claims it isn't that hard and she gets to nap on the job, so I'm not too worried.

But I'm sure that she is only going to be working temporarily.  A few months ago I found this interview with the author of The Two-Income Trap in Mother Jones:
More and more families today are sending both parents into the workforce -- it's become the norm, it's what we now expect. The overwhelming majority of us do it because we think it will make our families more secure. But that's not how things have worked out. By the end of this decade, one in seven families with children will go bankrupt. Having a child is now the single best predictor of bankruptcy, and this holds true even for families with two incomes.
Most poignant for me was this prodding point from the MJ interviewer:
In the past, it seems like a stay-at-home mom could act as an insurance policy for the family if the dad was laid off or whatnot. But today two-income families have nothing to fall back on in the event of a disaster.
I remember when I first tried to prop up her self-esteem a bit when she was feeling low because she wasn't working.  "You're our backup plan!" I told her.  Little did I know she would have a chance to use it against me.

Tonight, I gave in to my reddit addiction and found this story on the two income trap, with a detailed explanation of the tax problems involved when you have two incomes in addition to the other, more mundane, problems like increased daycare expenses.  Money quote: When you throw two kids in the mix, ... you would get to keep $8,000 a year of a $40k wage.

(Of note, Teri Newton, the author of the bit, writes that it is her husband who stays at home with the kids.)

May. 7th, 2007

More meta-me: No longer obsese

Finding out how much my blood pressure could peak to was a shock because two people I know under 40 had heart attacks this past year.  My grandfather had a bypass surgery.

Last year, I told a friend I would race him to lose 50 pounds.  Both of us slacked, but in the mean time, I lost 10 pounds by just thinking about it (and cutting back on the donuts). Seeing damog's confession of obesity (with nifty by-country comparison) reminded me that the last time I checked, I was technically obese.  I did the calculation again and discovered that those 10 pounds saved me from the label.

From now until I can drop those other pounds, I'm no longer obese.  just fat.

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