Temptation

This post is something of a confession; prepare yourself. It’s nothing so tantalizing as a comment about the temptation of drugs or sex; it’s about another insidious temptation with which society often plies us. Lately, I’m feeling its pull more strongly, it seems.

That temptation is the one of comparison. You know the one. It’s the one that gnaws at your soul a little, whispers doubts in the back of your mind, every time you open up a social media platform. You see people living their “best lives” and–even though you consciously know that 99% of what you see posted is manufactured and exaggerated, conveniently glossing over those problems, dilemmas, failures and weaknesses that everyone has and no one really wants to share–you still wonder, “Am I not doing as well as everyone else?” “Am I just not as good?”

I’m no exception, and lately I’m thinking about this much more than I’d like to. Part of it is a function of age: I’m thirty-five, fast closing in on thirty-six. But I can’t really lay the blame on that, because it’s just another measure I’m using for comparison.

I, like many people from upper-middle-class suburban backgrounds, was raised on a steady regimen of the importance of achievement. Explicitly or not, I was taught to weigh value based on achievements reached, things accomplished. To add to that, I fell into the belief (though I can’t, admittedly, say that anyone drilled it into me) that real achievers achieve things early and often.

This was an easy thing to satisfy when I was younger and in school. I maintained consistently high grades, took all of the advanced placement classes available to me and entered my first semester of college with forty-seven hours of credit already under my belt. I spent the next decade or so earning degrees, tangible (kind-of) certifications of achievement.

Now I’m much farther removed from academia, and I’ve become much more responsible for intrinsically maintaining my sense of self-worth.

And therein lies the battle. I have very consciously chosen certain ideals and values to live by, ideals and values inspired by my faith and my idealism, ideals and values about which I am convicted and passionate.

Sometimes, those values are counter-cultural. A significant point of my personality is the value I place on my independence. Combined with my moral compass, that’s very much influenced my career path as a lawyer. Those choices are not without consequences. One of my wisest friends once said, “you’re only as free as you’re willing to accept the consequences of your actions.” Fulfilling that statement is truly living without fear, and it’s something that has resonated with me ever since I first heard it.

So–most of the time–I’m perfectly content with the career choices I’ve made. I work in a small firm with two partners who are like family, I have great independence in how I do my work and for whom I work. This has given me a lifestyle balance that truly fits with who I am, and I often tell people that I wouldn’t be happy lawyering if I was working for someone else.

But it also means that there are consequences. Balancing my broader life goals against my career and placing my moral values first when working mean that I sometimes turn down work that might be lucrative or that I perform my work in ways that place income as a secondary concern. I don’t take on new clients when I don’t believe that I can achieve anything for them; I don’t bill my clients for every little thing; and I don’t charge the exorbitant fees I sometimes see other attorneys charging.

I feel those choices every time I look at my bank account. Don’t get me wrong, I make a decent living and my practice grows with each passing year–it turns out that being honest and capable actually is a good business model! I’m happy to accept the consequences of those choices; I’ve found in the past few years that I need far fewer material things to be happy than I thought I did, and I have mostly disdain for the pursuit of wealth, power and status.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I was scrolling through Facebook over the weekend and happened across a post by a couple I went to law school with and felt a pang of jealousy. Here’s the strangest part: my jealousy was about the background of the picture, about their kitchen. I’ll be very excited to see K’s reaction when she reads this, because she knows me well and knows how little stock I typically put in the size and fanciness of a person’s home.

Of course, my feelings weren’t really about the kitchen. They were the result of the doubting my own adequacy in light of the financial success this couple presumably enjoys. These feelings were really about me asking myself if I’m really good enough, according to a standard I don’t believe in and actually reject!

I don’t want a house like theirs. I don’t want the type of life consequences that are attached to such a choice (which is not intended to be a judgment of their choices, simply a statement that that is not the path for me). But it doesn’t matter who you are, that temptation will reach its ugly tendrils into each of us at some point, if not regularly.

When it comes down to it, though, career achievement is the place where the temptation of comparison to others is easiest for me to bear. I’m very proud of how I conduct my business and uphold my values; that I try to practice the Christian ideals I so often discuss on this site. Again, that’s not intended to be a judgment on others, just a matter of trying to keep my own hypocrisy to a minimum.

The two other temptations I frequently feel to compare with others hit closer to home. The first of these is about parenthood; the second: my writing.

Those of you who have followed this blog for some time, or perused it in depth, or who know me personally, know that K and I plan to foster to adopt, and that we’re again waiting for a placement of kids. That’s difficult enough as it is, but we’re quickly approaching a time where it seems that we’re the only ones without children. One of my partners at the law firm has two; the other is expecting his first this Fall. My (younger) sister is pregnant with her first (and I am very happy about this and excited for her!) and I’ve got several siblings and cousins–many of whom are younger than me–who already have children as well.

I know better than to think of having children as a matter of achievement, really I do. But the fact that I have to write that here is revelatory in and of itself, is it not? And I know that K and I are not the only ones to deal with such comparisons with others–not by a long shot.

For me, my writing is where this temptation cuts deepest. If I can discern any sort of divine calling for myself, it lies in writing fiction and theology. If there is a personal pursuit about which I am truly passionate,  it is in writing. If there is a single most-powerful, non-divine source of my sense of self-worth, it is in my writing.

I’ll make a true confession by way of example, so get ready for some vulnerability on my part: This past weekend Rachel Held Evans died. She was an outspoken writer for progressive Christian values and, even in her short life, accomplished much in service of Christian faith and demonstrating to the unchurched (and perhaps millennials in particular) a Christianity that rejects fundamentalism, embraces the Gospel truth of love and reminds us that Christ calls us to pursue an agenda of social justice that does not rely on identity politics, a rejection of immigrants, or fear. (Here is one article with some information if you’re not familiar with her).

To my shame, I have to admit that, in addition to the sincere sorrow I feel at her passing, I was awash in a sense of unreasonable jealousy. She was only a little older than me and already had five published books! Obviously, my feelings of inadequacy have nothing to do with her; they’re really about me questioning myself, worrying that maybe I just don’t have what it takes.

I told myself that I’d get my first major work published before I turned 40. As that time slips ever closer, I find myself often looking up other author’s ages when they were first published. I can say that I understand that their life isn’t mine, nor should it be. I can write that I know that the value of a writing originates in the writing itself, not how old the author was at the time of creation.

And that knowledge, I think, is where the truth will out. Particularly in my theology, I talk about the importance and beauty of ambiguity. I also admit the difficulty we naturally have with the ambiguous. And let this post be evidence that I don’t stand above that difficulty; I’m not free from that struggle.

There are no easy ways to judge the value of a writing, whether fiction or non-fiction. Style is so highly varied and individual, the myriad ways in which a story might be told so dependent upon the consciousness in control of the tale, that there can be no single measuring stick. And yet, we humans like to have some certainty, even if that certainty is artificial and illusory.  For me, I can find some tangible standard of measure by looking at age at time of publication as a meaningful comparison (though I know in my heart it is not).

Again, the craziest part about falling into self-doubt by making such comparisons is that I intellectually do not value them! In my fiction, I follow after Joss Whedon: “I’d rather make a show that 100 people need to see than one 1,000 people want to see.” At this point in my writing, I’m not sure that I can do either, yet, but the point is that I’m more interested in deep connections with a smaller group of people than broadly appealing in a commercially-viable way. The same goes for my theology–I’d rather write something that resonates deeply and inspires just a few people to legitimate faith, that gives even a single person permission to practice Christianity in a way that isn’t “one-size-fits-all,” than to establish some great presence in the history of theology.

As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I’m not even sure that I’m interested in traditional publication avenues right now. I’d love to be able to make a living writing, to devote all of my time to it, but not at the cost of having to cater to publishers or what will be successful on the current literary market to do it. My self-comparisons with published authors, though, makes me wonder if all of this idealism is simply cover for the fear of failing. “Know thyself,” the oracle says. “I’m trying!” I complain in response.

Ultimately, the temptation to compare ourselves comes from a positive place–we want to be meaningful, to be creators of meaning and to live lives where others can easily recognize meaning. That is a natural and divine thing. It’s where we let society tell us that meaning must look a certain way that we go wrong, where we try to make someone else’s meaning our own that we lose ourselves. Perhaps that is what Jesus means when he warns us about the temptation of the world, what Paul is alluding to when he warns us not to be “conformed to this world.”

What I do know is that I am passion about writing, and in particular I’m passionate about writing speculative fiction and easily-accessible theology. I’m working on the discipline to match that passion, and with every passing day I’m probably coming to understand the art and craft of writing just a little bit better–no that anyone truly ever masters it. Those things need no comparisons to be true, to be inspiring, to be fulfilling. So why look beyond them? As with so many things, easier to know what to do than to actually do it.

How do you cope with such temptations? Having read the blogs of some of my dear readers, I know that there is insight out there, meaningful stories to share. If you’ve got one, comment, or post a link to a post on your blog, or send me a message!

Post Script: Maybe in talking about my struggles writing, it would be useful to give a short update on where that writing stands:
(1) Children of God: This is the tentative title of my first theological book. I’ve had finished about 75% of a first-draft for several years now, but it needs a rewrite from the beginning and I need set aside the time to do that.
(2) Wilderlands: This is the first Avar Narn novel I’ve seriously set to working on. The first draft is about 40%-50% complete. I’m starting to feel an itch to return to the story; I’m not sure whether I’ll do that soon or wait until NaNoWriMo this year (which is how it started). It needs to be finished and then needs some significant rewrites in the portion already written.
(3) Unnamed Story of Indeterminate Length: This is an almost-noir-style story set in Avar Narn and what I’ve been working on most recently. I had envisioned it as a short-story, but it’s already swelled to 16,000 words and I’m not finished. I’ll be sending to some volunteers for review and advice on whether it should be left as a novella, cut down significantly, or expanded into a novel. I’ve got several other “short stories” in mind with the same major character, so this could end up being a novella set, a collection of short stories, or a novel series. I’ve also got an unfinished novella-length story with the same character I may return to while this one is under review. If you’d like to be a reader, send me a message.
(4) Other Avar Narn Short Stories: I’ve got several other short story ideas I’m toying around with, but I’m trying not to add too many other projects before I make substantial progress on the above.
(5) Avar Narn RPG: I have a list of games to spend some time with and potentially steal from for the rules here, but I’m mostly waiting to get some more fiction written to elaborate the setting before continuing seriously here. I’m occasionally working on additional worldbuilding and text that could fit in an RPG manual.
(6) The Blog: Of course, more blog posts to come.

 

TBRI

I spent last Friday and Saturday attending a simulcast of the “Empowered to Connect” conference put on by the Karyn Purvis Institute of Childhood Development at TCU. The simulcast at our home church was put on by Cultivating Families, a non-profit that is dear to my heart. I hope that you’ll check them out and consider donating.

Dr. Purvis was the creator of a parenting approach called “Trust-based Relational Intervention,” commonly known as “TBRI.” TBRI relies on an understanding of childhood brain development, particularly for those children with capital-T Trauma in their backgrounds, to inform a parenting style that is focused on developing and maintaining attachment between parent and child, helping the child literally rewire the physical changes in the brain related to past trauma so that they can get out of “survival mode” and begin to self-regulate their emotions and behaviors, and teach/enforce positive strategies for all manner of social interactions.

There are a few things I particularly like about TBRI. First, it is very much in line with my idea of parenting through calling a child to increased empathy and understanding of the consequences of actions for others rather than shame- and guilt-based judgment and punishment (see my post called “Toward a Positive Morality.”) Second, which likely makes sense given my first point, TBRI matches closely with what I believe to be good Christian theology–it focuses on building relationships and solving problems rather than punishment and guilt. Third, there is a strong emphasis for caregivers to “do the work” to understand the things that drive them crazy or make them respond emotionally rather than thoughtfully; to sort out our own baggage. Without doing so, we fall victim to the same behaviors we’re trying to help the kiddos work through and beyond. K and I have had several conversations over the weekend of “Oh! That’s probably why I always get angry when X happens, or why I always do X when Y. Now that I’ve named it, we can try to work on it.” Most of the people who’ve been through TBRI training (DePelchin, our foster licensing agency, uses it thoroughly in their own training) report similar experiences.

There’s an example of that process that’s been on the blog for quite some time, in fact. One that arose out of my own reflection about my behavior with our first foster kids (see the post called “Just Give Her the Damn Goldfish!” An amusing anecdote–some anonymous and benevolent person left an industrial-size box of Goldfish in K’s office with mine and our daughter’s names on it after that article was published. I remain grateful and always smile when I think of that!

While it may have been designed for children from hard places and their caregivers, TBRI just makes good sense. It advocates a system for relationships that extends grace to others and encourages introspection to improve one’s own relationships as well as providing proven techniques for conflict de-escalation and for building trust while negotiating interpersonal needs. K and I have tried to implement the techniques with each other, and I think it’s improved out relationship. At the very least, it’s helped us demonstrate to each other our mutual desire to grow closer and to work on the issues that arise between us in a positive, grace-filled and loving way.

I like to joke that I also use TBRI techniques with some of my legal clients, but it’s also true. The techniques I’ve learnt through TBRI training have helped me to help clients understand their motivations, more effectively evaluate their options regarding any particular matter and look to solutions rather than the tit-for-tat that is often common in our interpersonal conflict, legal or not.

TBRI is not a light switch that, once flipped on, completely changes everything. It takes practice to implement, continual self-evaluation and creative problem-solving, and the ability to ask for grace, forgiveness, and a “re-do” when you make your own mistakes. But every time I attend some training on TBRI, I ask myself what it would look like if everyone used it, and I think to myself that the Kingdom of Heaven would be just a little bit closer to Earth if we did.

Since we’re on the topic of raising children, fostering and adopting (or at least in that section of the blog), it seems that an update is in order. K and I have reopened for a placement and have been waiting since late February for the call that will change everything again. At any moment, we could be returning to parenthood again and this section of the blog will become much more lively. I can’t wait.

Heartbreak and Hope

I have waited several days to write this post in hopes that that would give my emotions and chance to settle so that I could write from a place of reason, reflection and respect rather than one based upon frustration and anger. Even now, I’m not sure the extent to which that’s actually possible, but I’ve decided not to wait and to do my best.

A short summary of events for those who were unable to get the play-by-play: On Sunday, the delegates ranked each petition submitted to the Conference by “high priority” or “low priority,” creating a ranked list that established the order in which petitions (or bundles of petitions in the case of the plans) would be reviewed. The highest priority issue for the delegates: pensions. Not whether we could keep the Church together, but whether we’d protect the retirement funds of those who decide to leave. Not a good sign. The Traditional Plan ranked next, followed by two “disaffiliation plans” (read: exit plans), only then followed by the One Church Plan.

On Monday, to satisfy procedural requirements that all petitions first pass through a Legislative Committee, the entire body of the General Conference met as that Legislative Committee to determine what the delegates would actually vote on come Tuesday. The Traditional Plan was relatively quickly passed on to the general body by a vote of 461 to 359. The two disaffiliation plans were sent onward. By vote of 436 to 386 (about 53% to 47%), the One Church Plan was kept from moving forward.

The UMC’s Judicial Council (the church law version of a Supreme Court) determined that a number of provisions in the Traditional Plan violated the UMC constitution (to be fair, there were several provisions in the One Church Plan also found to be unconstitutional). Many efforts were made to amend the Traditional Plan at the conference to pass constitutional muster, but it doesn’t seem that this was effective. Those parts of the plan that are constitutional will (most likely) become church law, for the time being.

The more punitive of the “exit plans” was also passed, one which would extensively reduce the resources of any church that decided to leave. I have heard both that the exit plans were submitted so that the Weslayan Covenant Association members and others could leave the UMC if they didn’t like the result at GC and as a measure to undermine the will of progressives to fight by making it easy for them to leave. I think both were true and, when the very-well-organized conservatives saw how things were going with the Traditional Plan early in the conference, they reasoned that they might be able to take control of the church as a whole and keep the majority of the resources for themselves when progressives left as they were urged to. This is, of course, speculation.

I watched the vast majority of the General Conference 2019 as it happened. I hoped and prayed for a miraculous movement of the Holy Spirit to change the trajectory of the conference. While I’m extremely unhappy with the result of the Conference, I know that God often surprises us and moves in ways we do not expect. I remain faithful that what is true and right will prevail in the end and I, for one, remain committed to the United Methodist Church and for advocating that the UMC become a place of inclusion and not rejection, an arm of the greater catholic church that spreads the love of God through Jesus Christ in a manner that accurately reflects that love instead of relying on ignorance and human stubbornness to suborn holy scripture for the isolation and judgment of others.

In the meantime, I am embarrassed to be a United Methodist. I am embarrassed that, any time I want to discuss my faith with others and reveal my denominational affiliation, I must overcome a presumption of bigotry. I am embarrassed that this General Conference did more to support the stereotype of Christians as dogmatic, unthinking zealots who care more about their own feigned self-righteousness than anything else it might have accomplished. I am embarrassed that a very slim majority has overshadowed the fast-growing minority to the greater populace.

My personal experience of the General Conference returned me to my teenage years. I spent a long time in high school and college wondering if I really was a Christian, because those who taught me in Sunday School told me that I had to believe particular things that I could not to be a Christian. The loudest voices among the traditionalists on the floor of conference essentially argued that one must believe that homosexuality is a sin to belong in the United Methodist Church, perhaps even to call yourself a Christian. Others were smarter than to say such things aloud, but I wonder whether they’re thinking them. Still, such sentiments cannot be fairly imputed to all traditionalists or conservatives, and we did hear speeches on the floor of the Conference from conservatives willing to maintain unity with progressives and willing to hold to their beliefs while showing grace to those who disagree. I very much appreciated that kind of honesty and humility.

The speeches from the floor of the Conference did much to reveal the nature of the two sides of the homosexuality issue. The progressives came willing to compromise, saying, “Let’s use the One Church Plan to continue to live in productive fellowship despite our theological differences, because that diversity should not be viewed as blessing and not a curse.” The conservatives came saying, “We are right, you are wrong, and there’s no room for discussion.” In my mind, that behavior demonstrates the flaws in the conservative position as much the lack of careful consideration and reason in their theology. The progressives made arguments for unity; where they provided support for the reasonableness of their position, they pleaded only for understanding sufficient enough to acknowledge the slimmest possibility that their theology could be right, just enough to live in fellowship with them. These arguments were varied and drew upon scripture, logic, experience and tradition. The conservatives only brought the refrain, “the Bible says homosexuality is wrong and that’s all there is to it; we cannot allow impurity into our church.” Get in line, or get out.

That the conservatives had the presumption to make the General Conference a zero-sum game and then to complain that we’re collectively right back where we started before the GC despite all of the effort and resources put into the Commission on a Way Forward and the Special Session of the General Conference, frankly, appalls me. I just cannot find sympathy for those who refuse any resolution but their own way and then complain that they didn’t get everything they wanted–even when, on paper at least, they did.

Likewise, I find some irony in conservatives complaining that they have been called hypocrites by those who believe that Traditional Plan and the values that accompany it are immoral when the thrust of their action and exclusivity is based on their precept that homosexuality is immoral. They want to play the righteousness card for themselves, but they don’t like it when others want to play it against them. This, I think, is the microcosm of making personal holiness the linchpin of one’s faith, the very reason we are warned not to judge, lest ye be judged. I have things to write about this specifically, but I think they’re better saved for another post.

But this is a good time to temper things a little bit in fairness. As I mentioned above, not all conservatives are unreasonable, and it’s unfair to demonize them on any personal level, particularly as a generality. It is one thing to say that they have been lead into hypocrisy and away from what Jesus calls us to by well-intentioned misguidedness; it is another to say that they are evil. I do not believe the latter. To my mind, their dilemma is a failure of understanding, not a matter of malice. This is why I remain willing to be in fellowship with conservatives just as I vehemently oppose their values on this topic. There is far more that we agree about than that we don’t, I think, and I can’t think of a single traditionalist with whom I’m familiar about whom I would not readily say that they genuinely want to walk closer to Christ–and many of them do a better job of it in practice than I do. As much as I’m heartbroken by the feeling that they’ve by and large told even I–who is not part of the LGBTQ community directly but who believes strongly in its inclusion within the Church–am also unwelcome, I’m not interested in giving up on them or our relationship. And I still don’t think that some form of schism leaves us “better off.”

I also want to say that there were people on both sides who behaved badly. And there were people on both sides who set amazing and especially-Christian examples of respect and love for those who disagree with them. Perhaps one of the saddest aspects of the General Conference was that there was not more of that to be found.

Despite the great harm that was suffered by the LGBTQ community and its supporters at the General Conference, I did manage to find some hope. I’d refer you to two high points directly:

JJ Warren Speaks From the Floor
Adam Hamilton Speaks Against the Traditional Plan

The presence of so many rainbow-stole-wearing supporters of full inclusion at the conference brought great joy to my heart. As Rev. Hamilton opined, the conservative approach to General Conference has inspired and mobilized both progressives and centrists who had not previously been active in their support of full inclusion. This gives me hope.

Additionally, as I argued in my post, The UMC “Traditional” Plan is a Fantasy, the passage of the Traditional Plan will not accomplish what the conservatives wanted to accomplish–at least not fully. In very conservative conferences such as the one to which I belong (the Texas Annual Conference), unless the entire TP is struck down by the Judicial Council, there will be increased opportunities to marginalize and punish members of the UMC who are also members of the LGBTQ community (particularly if they’re also clergy or want to become clergy) as well as their supporters. But in those annual conferences already committed not to play the conservatives’ inquisitorial games, the passage of the Traditional Plan won’t change that.

The numbers from GC are also inspiring. The margins by which votes for the Traditional Plan and Exit Plans passed (and conversely, by which the OCP failed) were far narrower than expected. Traditional wisdom (at least in my part of the country) would be that the vote should have been about two-thirds to one-third. The Good New Network, the WCA and other conservative organizations within the UMC are well-funded and highly mobilized. The numbers from GC2019 show a very different story. To be fair, the voting numbers alone remain somewhat opaque–it’s impossible to parse out who voted against the Traditional Plan or for the One Church Plan because they are progressives in favor of full inclusion, because they are conservatives who value unity more than passing “their” plan (as if there is no diversity amongst the conservatives at all), or for some other reason. But that combined will is a voice that must be respected. Even with passing the Traditional Plan, if the conservatives do not realize that the tide is changing, and faster than they would like to think, there will be some rude awakenings in the near future.

I’ll conclude with this: a friend of mine who is not a Christian asked me this week why it was so important that we don’t split when there’s clearly so much disagreement within the church. I told him that part of our core witness as Christians is that God, the Creator of all things, is fundamentally about love and relationship. If we cannot demonstrate love and relationship between Christians in our own denomination, who can we convince those who are not believers of the truth we know but fail to practice?

 

Reflections

(This is the 5th of seventeen remaining posts in my 200 for 200 goal. If you like what I do on this blog, please tell your friends and invite them to “follow.” Your interest helps me to keep writing!)

It’s the last day of 2018. I’ve spent much of December lying low, or nose-to-the-grindstone with work, and the Christmas season flew by. This despite my saying that I would intentionally slow down and make time to really get into the mood and the idea of the season–something at which I failed dismally. I have, however, managed to take some downtime between Christmas and the New Year without work, enjoying time with friends and my wife, writing and pursuing other hobbies, and doing some reflecting on the past year and Christmas itself. I’ve read a number of excellent blog posts about Christmastime and thought, “as an aspiring theologian, I really ought to post something, too.”

But, in this strange season (for me, at least) of trying to relax and simultaneously being angsty that I’m “not being productive enough,” I just don’t have a deep intellectual theological point to make on the subject (though what I hope to be deep theological and intellectual points on some other important issues will soon be forthcoming). If there’s anything I’ve learned from trying to be “a writer” (if I’ve truly learnt anything at all), it’s that you can’t force a subject and achieve something you’re truly proud of as a result.

So, instead, I’m going to merely share some of the things that have been roaming through my head in the past few weeks in the hope that somebody somewhere finds some meaning in some part of it. Here we go:

Christmas

Christmas is a hectic time for me and K. As a worker in church ministry, this is K’s
“busy season” (to borrow an accountant’s term); she affectionately calls Christmas Eve a “non-stop Jesus party”–I believe our church held four different services this year.

On top of that, we are blessed that all of our parents live within close proximity. Of course, that also means that we have three Christmasses to make between Christmas Eve and Christmas day, which typically means less-time-than-desired spent with each family member, more road-time than we’d prefer, and a level of exhaustion at the end of things that makes it more difficult to enjoy what a blessing it is to be able to spend time with family in this part of the year.

As is appropriate, I suppose, this has me thinking about the Incarnation. The meaning of Christmas, to me, is relatively simple but profound. God loves us so much that God personally came to Earth to be with us, accepting suffering alongside us (and for us) just to be present with us. It’s one thing to write that, but let it really sink in. Think about what God volunteered to do when no force or power can make God do anything God doesn’t will to do. Think about the eternal profundity of that choice. I’m not often one to let my emotions get the best of me, but this single thought strikes me to the core every time I contemplate it.

This basic truth about God’s will, choices and desire for us is the source of all hope we have, the foundation of that peace which cannot be marred by temporal events, the all-encompassing love that inspires love in all touched by it. Jesus Christ’s birth into the world is the very core element of Christianity (as is fitting).

Yes, Jesus’ self-sacrifice on the cross for us is also foundational, as is the Resurrection. But, at the end of the day, these are true mysteries of the faith that we will never fully understand. Whether you ascribe to Christus Victor theory, Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory, or one of the various other proffered explanations for the mechanism of our salvation, it’s a topic that will always elude our complete grasp. But the meaning of Christmas needs no great intellect for one to understand how it changes everything. The meaning of Christmas is existential, and therefore intuitive.

We may cloud that realization with commercialization, with stress about pleasing others and properly performing traditions, or angst about failing to adequately take time to “get into the Christmas Spirit,” but it is always there for us, waiting to be discovered anew.

New Year’s Resolutions

I haven’t made New Year’s Resolutions for several years. It strikes me as a silly thing, really. Why should an arbitrary marker of time provide some special impetus for us achieving the things we want to all year round (but fail to summon the discipline or will to truly work toward)? I want to be in better shape all the time, but there’s no reason to think that I will have some additional amount of drive to follow through on the desire tomorrow than I do today.

Instead, I’ve simply made goals for myself for each season of my life, reflecting on and thinking about those things that I want to prioritize for myself in the choices that I make moving forward.

But this year, I’ve decided to make a resolution anyway. It is, in many ways, a sub-goal for my life season goals. At present, the life goal on which I am most focused is to become a professional writer, to be published. That doesn’t mean that I expect to be able to be a full-time writer, I understand how rare a thing that that actually is, and there’s a part of me that would very much like to keep money out of my writing as much as possible (though I understand what the Apothecary means when he says, “My poverty but not my will consents.”).

That resolution is to write for at least one hour every day. It’s not necessarily about content generation (as I said above, such things cannot be forced). Instead, it’s about building stronger writing habits. I may write on the novel I’m working on, or the half-finished theology book manuscript currently gathering dust, or a short-story, or something gaming-related, or this blog, or what ultimately amounts to unusable nonsense. The point is to erode those barriers that all-too-commonly lead me to say, “I feel like I should be writing right now, but…” To write for the sake of writing, because I acknowledge that as a core personal need I have–writing, regardless of result or achievement, is part of who I am.

Maybe while I’m at it, I’ll get myself to the gym more often. But I’m not holding my breath.

Eulogy

(This is the first post of seventeen for my “200 for 200” goal; get your friends to follow!)

I went back and forth about whether to put this up on the blog; in some ways it seems such a private thing for friends and family. But, at the end of the day, I figured that my grandmother, though she wouldn’t have done it for herself, deserves to be praised to anyone who will listen. So, I’ve decided to post the short eulogy I read at my grandmother’s funeral this past Saturday. Here goes:

My grandmother, Barbara Bass, is one of the greatest rebels I’ve ever known. We live in a world that tells that success is based on power. There was never any doubt in my mind that she was the matriarch of the family, but I cannot remember a single time she demonstrated a sense of entitlement to that position. Given the stereotype of the Southern matriarch, that could only be a matter of impressive will or genuine humility. Both are commendable. Instead, she influenced by reason and example, governed by gentle guidance, demonstrated strength by quiet confidence.

We live in a world that tells us that success is based on money. I never saw my grandmother lavish herself with expensive things. Instead, she lived a life of satisfaction in sufficiency, seeing through the empty grandeur of material things. As a result, she and my grandfather have been generous with their hard-earned wealth, sharing freely with others—especially us grandchildren—what they have.

We live in a world that tells us that success is based on career achievement. Coming along in a world dominated by men, my grandmother earned great success as both student and educator. With my grandfather, she ran successful businesses in dollhouses and in antiques. She mastered the Ebay market—buying and selling—and while Grandpa played the stocks, she played other commodities, like art. But it was never about cold profit; for her, it was about the thrill of the find, participation in a community of people who appreciate art and culture. Most important, no matter how easily that success came to her, it was never her primary aspiration—her family always came first.

In a world that tells us so many lies about what matters and what doesn’t, my grandmother’s life was once of continued defiance. You see, she followed the truth of Jesus Christ like few other people I know. In knowing Christ, she knew that the most fundamental and meaningful thing there is in this or any other existence is love. Not only did she know that, but she did what even fewer people still do: she lived it. I am sure that hers is a mind an inner life far too complex, diverse and, frankly, well-developed to be summarized in a short speech. But there’s not one memory I have of her that is not imbued with the sense of the love she has for others, her compassion and caring for those around her.

My wife, Kate, would agree. When I was preparing these words, she shared with me her best memory of my Grandmother. Granny was the first person in my family to tell Kate that they loved her—and this before we were married or even engaged. From that point on, Kate felt part of the family. And she was. That welcoming and loving spirit is the thing that has, I’m sure touched all of us the most in knowing my grandmother.

In this day and age, the kind of life that Barbara Mitchell Bass led, of building others up instead of bringing them down, of creating relationships instead of pushing them away, of sacrificing for others instead of putting oneself first, of lifting up ideas and ideals that are beautiful, is itself a rebellion against those falsehoods that daily endeavor to lead us away from what is real and good and true. She managed that kind of revolutionary behavior without belittling or denigrating any other person, by positive example instead of negative argument.

It is natural for us to mourn her loss, for our lives have all been brightened by her presence in them and now, for a time, we will be diminished for the lack of it. But we should also celebrate, for there should be no doubt that my grandmother has now come face to face with our Creator, and she has heard those coveted words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” She has entered into the abundant and eternal life promised to all of us. When each of us goes to join her there, I am sure that she will be there waiting with that welcoming spirit we all remember her by, ready to remind us that we are loved.

200 for 200

WordPress tells me that, in the roughly two-and-a-half years since I started this blog, I’ve posted 182 posts (this will be 183). Considering my goal has been a minimum of one post a week (even though sometimes posts come in bursts following periods of silence rather than on a regular schedule), I’m pretty proud of that.

But I aspire to more, so I’m setting a goal for myself, one with which I very much need your help! Here it is: I want to have 200 followers through WordPress by the time I hit 200 posts. I currently have 137 WordPress followers, so that’s 63 new followers in the next 17 posts.

If you like what I do here and want to help me reach a wider audience (and perhaps be motivated to do even more), here’s what you can do: (1) invite your friends and followers to come take a look at the blog and follow if they like what they see; (2) repost your favorite posts from this blog on your blog; (3) “like” articles and posts that you, well, like; (4) comment on posts; (5) send me a message about what you like (or don’t) and what you’d like to see more of; (6) generally tell your friends.

Here’s what you can expect to see in some of those next 17 posts: at least two new theology posts I’m working on, one of which is called “Is God’s Will General or Specific?” and the other of which is titled “Jesus’ Anti-Apocalyptic Message;” a review of Wrath & Glory RPG; some preliminary notes on the Dark Inheritence 40K Campaign I’m currently writing; some more notes on the development of Avar Narn RPG; at least one Avar Narn short story.

That certainly doesn’t cover 17 posts, so I’m free to take some suggestions or requests.

All it takes is clicking a few buttons to help me reach more people; please take a little time to spread the word!

Loss

Monday morning, my grandmother passed away. I am thirty-five years old and this is the closest to home I’ve been hit by such a loss; in that regard, I am fortunate.

This is not to say that I have not previously lost people in my life about whom I cared deeply and who were profoundly influential on me: my stepfather’s mother, my wife’s grandmothers, a brilliant and inspiring professor. But, before this point, I have never lost someone such a direct and constant force in who I am.

She was both a lifelong student and educator (with all but a finished dissertation on her PhD, no less!), a person of deep and abiding faith, and a lover (and connoisseur) of art in all its forms. She and my grandfather have been one of the best examples of successful marriage I have ever encountered–at once like giddy school-children at the blossoming of new romance and yet with an implacable and well-settled love deposited by the accumulated sediment of years and decades.

We traded good books to read, fiction and non-fiction and talked about a wide variety of topics. To me, she was both the matriarch of the family and an exemplar of values, but also eminently approachable and a friend with whom I felt free to discuss nearly anything.

Not only was she a role model and great example to me, but also a great encourager, one of the most enthusiastic supporters of this blog, in fact. It is strange, almost incomprehensible, that I will not see her face or hear her voice, enjoy her laughter again in this life. And yet, I will always, for those things are engraved on my heart and inscribed in my mind with what seems to be flawless detail.

So what do I feel now? Guilt, mostly, I suppose. Guilt that I am not distraught to the point that I can do nothing but mourn. Guilt that I have the wherewithal to sit and write this–perhaps not dispassionately, but more at peace than not. Guilt that the emotions I feel do not reach the level of what I think she deserves.

In my more logical mind I realize that that guilt–at least most of it–is not warranted. I am at peace about her passing. I am resolved in my belief that she has passed on to God’s presence and the existential joys that follow this life about which we who are left behind can only dream. I am convicted that she led a life full of meaning, well-lived and focused on what is most important. I am steadfast that her last moments on this Earth were filled with love, surrounded by her children and her husband (with whom she’d been since she was sixteen!). I will miss her, but I will see her again. Given all of this, a part of me asks why mourn at all?

And so I wrestle with this strange conflict of being content and yet feeling that I should be anything but content. Illogical, but natural all the same. In a sense, I am glad to have both, to–as Chesterton might put it, “keep this paradox and keep both ends furious.” There is a beautiful fullness, experiential and existential, to the combination of logic and emotion.

And, I suppose, I am happy to see my faith strong in the face of being tested by that must absurd and unsettling of human experiences–the existence of death. Try as we might, I’m not sure that we’re capable of understanding why we die, what purpose it serves. That is true for both the person of faith and the atheist, for regardless of the answers we try to find, the question is the very same: “why this and not something different?”

As I look back through what I have written, it strikes me just how much paradox I’ve related in these words, from the mundane (educator and student) to the more profound (I will not see her again in this life, and yet I will by memory). Perhaps that’s ultimately what death is to all of us–life’s greatest paradox.

Regardless, it’s cathartic to write these words, and to be explicit that my grandmother has been and will be a great influence on me, and by association, this blog.

 

 

42

Maybe Douglas Adams was right when he wrote that “42” was the answer to “Life, the Universe and Everything.” Personally, I lost interest in the “everything is meaningless and isn’t that funny?” game about four books in, but after this weekend, maybe I have a newfound respect for the author.

My dad has been invested in Kairos Prison Ministry for a few years now. About a year ago he told me that he’d be leading one of the Kairos weekends in November 2018 and asked if I’d participate. I said I would and mostly forgot about it until trainings began a few months ago.

If you’re not aware, Kairos International is ministry that equips Christians to carry out “Kairos Weekends” in prisons across the world. For us, that meant about four hours inside on this past Thursday, about twelve hours inside each on Friday and Saturday, and about eight hours inside yesterday. It is an intensive program first and foremost designed to communicate the love of Jesus Christ to inmates through the actions of the faithful who volunteer with the program.

Thursday night is largely an introduction. A lot of the volunteers had been involved in Kairos for years, but for those of us who had never been, we did not know what to expect. It was my first time to set foot inside a prison.

And, of course, for the inmates involved, they have no idea what to expect when the weekend starts. Our Kairos Weekend was the third to be held at the Jester 3 unit here in Fort Bend County. Jester 3 is a relatively laid-back prison (as far as they go); inmates are sent to Jester 3 primarily either because they have medical issues or because they are taking college courses through the programs offered at the site.

Most of the men have been incarcerated in other prisons within Texas, many of them much harder on the inmates than Jester 3–not only because of the Correctional Officers (COs) but because of gang activity, drugs, and violence within the prison itself. I heard some stories from the men about their previous experiences that made me feel like Piper in the first episodes of Orange is the New Black.

And Jester 3 is not without its fights, rivalries, disputes, and dangers for the men inside–not to mention the shame and guilt, rejection, isolation and worthlessness felt by those who are incarcerated no matter the location.

So, on Thursday night, it’s understandable that many of the men came in with their “shields up.” Because of their backgrounds and their experiences in the system, they’re used to viewing all (or nearly all) relationships as transactional–everybody’s out to get something for themselves in every association with another person, and nothing’s ever offered for free. It was plain on some of the faces that there were those who did not want to attend, and I later heard from a few of “my guys” that they almost didn’t come at all.

My understanding is that Jester 3 houses somewhere between 1200 and 1400 prisoners. Only 42 were selected to come to our Kairos Weekend after submitting applications (though there were a few who had applications anonymously submitted on their behalf!). Of those eighty-something men who had participated in the previous Kairos Weekends, about fourteen of them served their brothers in the latest weekend, bringing out food and drinks, working with outside volunteers on logistics, and generally making sure everything went smoothly.

Most of the men had heard something about Kairos before the weekend started, but like so many things that are deeply significant in our lives, those who had come before couldn’t explain what they’d been through–it had to be experienced. Accordingly, what most of the men knew about the program was that it was something to do and that the food was good (it was, and it offered the inmates food from the free world that they rarely or never had access to in the commissary or the chow line). There were fresh fruits and vegetables–a rare delicacy in prison–over 1000 cookies (I don’t want to think about how many I ate in those four days), and meat that wasn’t pork. The guys put ranch dressing on everything. As it turns out, the commissary used to sell it, but when the system switched to a cheaper (and not very tasty brand) the inmates stopped buying, so the commissary stopped carrying it altogether.

I think I mentioned in a previous post that part of our preparation (in addition to the four training days) was the writing of a letter to each participant. For efficiency, we wrote the bodies of the letters in advance. Friday night after the program we went home and added personal details and messages to eight of the forty-two (the six guys who were in our “family” for the weekend and the two for who we were personal greeters and hosts), addressed and signed all of them, and put them into envelopes. We couldn’t do this until Friday night because the roster is subject to change up to that point (not to mention that the names given to us on the prison’s official roster are not always how the men want to be called).

In prison, mail call is a big deal. It is tangible evidence that the outside world hasn’t forgotten you, that there are still people who care about you and who are willing to have a relationship with you after you have been labeled “criminal.” But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The weekend itself is a collection of talks and meditations, followed by discussion time, fellowship at meals, and singing of hymns (often with silly hand motions or dances: flapping of arms and “flying” around the room for “I’ll Fly Away,” and a number of moves for that painful classic, “Pharaoh, Pharaoh”).

As I alluded to above, there are six men from the inside in every family, along with one clergyperson (if possible) and two lay volunteers. The talks are intended to guide each participant into asking questions to develop an understanding of self, that God is love and that they are all worthy to be forgiven of their pasts and to be called God’s children, and to equip them to develop spiritually and to build a community on the inside that centers around living in love and following Christ. It’s a lot to pass on in a weekend, even if it is a longish and intense one. And that’s what the volunteers are there for: to demonstrate God’s love for them.

At first, it’s a confusing and disorienting thing to be confronted with. One of my guys kept telling me that he just couldn’t believe that someone (especially young-ish like myself) would take the time from the things I could be doing to come inside and spend time with them. They had to let their guard down to accept that kind of acceptance and treatment–its nothing short of miraculous to watch.

We ask them to share about themselves and to open up, but there are certain things we don’t ask–why they’re in, how long they’re in for, and the like. Quite frankly, it just doesn’t matter. Not once did I really find myself wondering why any one of the guys had been incarcerated. That kind of willingness to be accepting was strange to me when I experienced it, even when I always considered myself a pretty accepting person in theory.

I notice that I’m putting a lot of words on the screen and probably not saying too much. I’m certainly not conveying the depth and profundity of the experience and the extent to which I myself have been changed by the experience. I left the experience yesterday with sadness that it was over, and the feeling that I’d become brothers with the men at my table over the weekend. We plan to write one another and I hope to be able to visit them.

I was told before the weekend that I’d get more out of it than I put into it. That certainly proved to be true. As my writings likely suggest, I’m typically a cynical, sarcastic and skeptical person in many things. My experiences inside a prison with men who had been waiting to be able to let their guard down, who wanted to have faith in God and that love was the answer to the lives they’d been living (which, if we’re honest with ourselves, could be a life any of us could have been born into or could stumble into on our own), and who had courage to do things that were existentially frightening to them (like forgiving people against whom they had long held grudges), refreshed my faith in humanity and my faith that God can redeem and refine any person no matter who they are. I was put face-to-face with the reality that all people have real value, that people can change and that our existence was created in such a way that the selfless love demonstrated by Jesus Christ is the most joyous state of being there is. In the free world, those opportunities for our hearts to be “strangely warmed” (as John Wesley put it) often seem few and far between. This weekend, that feeling set in early Friday morning and still hasn’t worn off. I see clearly why my father is so passionate about this ministry.

It didn’t hurt that the volunteers who came in with me (most of whom are my father’s age) provided both examples of men of faith and stories about how God had worked in their lives.

If you have the opportunity to participate in Kairos (whether the original version of the program for incarerated men or Kairos Outside for the female family members and loved ones of incarcerated men), I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Counting the Cost: (Legal) Consequences of a Split in the United Methodist Church (in Texas)

As both theologian and lawyer, I tend to view the threatened (or impending, depending upon how fatalistic you’d like to be) split in the Methodist Church from a number of angles–but no single thread (to mix my metaphors) can easily be untangled from the others.

The report of the Commission on a Way Forward has beed released–though not officially by the Council of Bishops as translation has not been completed. I’ll discuss that in a separate post.

For now, I want to talk about the legal landscape, particularly in Texas, and what that might mean if the UMC does split after the General Conference in February. I’ll try not to get too much into the details (though feel free to post comments or send me a message and I can point you to some resources) and to keep things on a relatively-plain-English tone.

Preface and Disclaimer

This post is for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice. I make no claim to be familiar with the current state of law regarding church property disputes in its entirety–with ongoing litigation across the nation, such a comprehensive approach would be extremely time-consuming at best.

This post is instead meant to provide some background information to support the exhortation and conclusion that follows.

Lessons from the Past

In a recent opinion from the Fort Worth Court of Appeals (Episcopal Church v. Salazar, to which I’ll return shortly), the Court noted that “church property disputes [and schisms] are as old as any church.”

Recent memory has given us the split in the Presbyterian Church and the Episcopal Church (over similar issues to those currently facing the UMC). As the styling of the case betrays, Salazar involves the dispute between The Episcopal Church and local parish churches arising out of the split within that denomination.

Salazar is emblematic of the cost of church disputes over property that spill into the courts for resolution. The initial litigation in the Salazar appeal began in 2009! The most recent opinion in the case (given in April of this year) is on the second appeal from the trial court–the case was heard by Supreme Court of Texas in 2014, the United States Supreme Court declined to hear appeal from that court, and the case returned for new procedings in the trial court before being appealed again (resulting in the opinion to which I’ll refer in this post).

That alone is indicative of the cost–in money, time, effort, heartache and reputation–that has accompanied the Episcopal Church’s litigation in the aftermath of its split. Nine years without a decisive resolution, the attorney’s fees quickly stacking up against the value of the properties in dispute (though, given the number of properties involved in this case and a lack of access to attorney billing records, it’s impossible to know exactly how much has been spent and how that compares to the value of the things in dispute). And Salazar is hardly alone; it is but one of similar cases tracking through the legal system across the country.

Why Does the Episcopal Church Example Matter to Methodists?

The answer here is relatively simple: both the Episcopal Church and the Methodist Church have, within the documents that constitute the church law of each, a “trust clause” that essentially indicates that the local churches hold their property in trust for the greater denomination. In the Episcopal Church’s case, the diocese in which the church sits; for the Methodists, the conference of which the church is a member.

For reasons I’ll describe below, the Episcopal Church’s trust clause makes for a simpler legal case than the Methodist clause–though I do not dare say that it is a simple case for the Episcopal Church, as the breadth of litigation clearly demonstrates.

The Law of Decision – Up for Grabs

The nation’s courts tend to be split between two approaches to handling church property disputes. The first is called the neutral principles of law doctrine. Under this approach, the court looks solely to state property (and business/trust) law and secular records of ownership to determine the “rightful” owner of any particular property. Currently, this is what the Texas Supreme Court has determined is the proper approach.

The alternative approach, given various names but which we’ll call the deferential approach, is a result of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Under long-established First Amendment principles, the Courts must refrain from interfering in or determining the internal affairs of a religious institution (this itself called the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine).

Under ecclesiastical abstention, a Court must not take any part in a dispute that arises out of doctrine, theology, internal matters of faith or leadership and governance issues within the religious organization, because doing so could be the state “establishing” a government-sponsored religion by approving one side over the other. This is, rightly, I believe, a core component of freedom of religion in this nation.

The important thing to understand about the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, and thus the deferential approach, is that it means that the court must defer to the determination of the higher denominational authority as the deciding factor in disputes where the court’s involvement would infringe upon First Amendment rights. Essentially, this means that the denomination gets what it wants when there is a dispute with a local church. In the case of trust clause litigation, it means that the denomination wins issues of property ownership against local churches nearly every time.

As an aside, I should note that we’re only discussing matters of civil (as opposed to criminal) law here–the legal history of criminalization (or not) of religious behavior is another long story best kept discrete from this issue.

For the neutral principles of law approach to be applicable, a Court must determine that the dispute does not involve the sorts of internal religious matters that require obeisance to the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.

Other cases resulting from the dissolution of the Episcopal Church will be heard by the Supreme Court in the near future (though probably not before the UMC’s called General Conference). While this should provide some guidance for the resolution of future church property disputes, that also means that the ultimate decision will be determined in part by the current politics affecting SCOTUS. With the loss of Justice Kennedy and his likely replacement by a staunchly conservative judge, I think it’s likely that the United States Supreme Court will favor the deferential approach, though the opinion that comes down will ideally also include guidance as to when the netural principles approach may be safely employed. Of course, I have no crystal ball, and my own legal practice does not involve the close tracking of Supreme Court politics, so this is merely speculation.

The bigger issue (for local churches, at least) in the case of the Methodist Church is just how much our trust clause seems to mandate the deferential approach.

Comparing Clauses

The Episcopal Church’s trust clause (known popularly as the Dennis Canon) is a mere two sentences that simply states that local churches hold their property in trust for the greater Episcopal Church. This plain language allowed Texas courts to apply the neutral principles of law approach to disputes over property ownership without fear of First Amendment infringements (though it should be noted that the courts have abstained from addressing certain subissues briefed by the parties because they do involve internal church affairs).

The United Methodist Book of Discipline’s trust clause (Paragraph 2501) describes our trust clause as “an essential element of the historic polity” of the UMC and a “fundamental expression of United Methodism.” These phrases, along with the rest of the language of the UMC trust clause, quite firmly push our property ownership issues into grounds of doctrine and polity that may not be interfered with by the courts.

It is one thing to say that this simply means that the greater UMC will win against local churches in property disputes, but it also means that the courts will only reluctantly interject themselves in the dispute at all (though when they do, if my assessment is correct, they will ultimately side with the enforcement of the trust clause).

Thinking About Salazar

When I was first made aware of the Salazar case, it was described to me as indicating that “Texas had found the Episcopal Church’s trust clause to be unenforceable.”

That is partially correct, but only partially. The steps go like this: (1) The Court determined that the neutral principles of law approach applied. (2) Turning to Texas trust law, the Court determined that only the settlor (the grantor of property to a trust) may establish a trust relationship–a declaration by a putative beneficiary of the trust (as in the Dennis Canon) is not alone sufficient to create a trust relationship. (3) Thus, the Court stated that it must look to the language of the deeds conveying the property and to the governing documents of an intermediary non-profit organization that held some of the property to determine if a trust relationship had been properly created under Texas law. (4) In some cases, the Court determined that it had and property was awarded to the Episcopal Church; in others, the Court found no such trust relationship and awarded property to the local church(es). (5) In giving the Salazar opinion, the appellate Court did not reach certain additional issues that might change the distribution of property after the initial legal determinations described in (4). In particular, the Court did not reach teh Episcopal Church’s argument for constructive trust, a remedy that a court may apply under the right circumstances to deem that a bad actor, though having legal title to property, is really holding that property in trust for the plaintiff as matter of equity, thus transferring ownership to the plaintiff.

So, the following points are important to consider when we Methodists look to Salazar and other Episcopal Church litigation in trying to determine the future in the tragic event that our own church splits: (1) The issues in the Salazar case have not been fully litigated. (2) The U.S. Supreme Court has not yet weighed in. (3) The UMC’s trust clause is likely different enough than the Episcopal Church’s trust clause to lead to a different result. (4) In the event that the neutral principles approach is applied to the UMC, then additional factual determinations must be made to reach a conclusion (i.e. what is the language in the deeds to church properties?).

Conclusion

There is one thing that is certain from all of this. If the UMC splits–and I would urge that our current focus should be on finding a just and theologically-sound way to prevent a split rather than on any of the above–any legal conflict over successorship, use of names, and property ownership will be prolonged, expensive, and–most important–an extremely poor witness for Christ. Thus, should that situation present itself, laity and clergy alike at all levels of authority in the UMC must be willing to make sacrifices for and compromises with one another to quickly resolve such disputes without a need for litigation so that we can all keep our focus on making disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

 

Is Sin Phenomenal or Existential?

In Matthew 5:28, in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: “‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.'”

That’s a tough statement, especially given the following advice that if a body part is causing us to sin we ought to cut it off.

But let’s take a step back and think about this on a level deeper than the surface–and the shock that goes along with it. I’m a firm believer that many times when Jesus says something that seems very condemning, what he’s doing is simply laying out for us how the world works and what the natural consequences of a thing are. For instance, when Jesus tells us that, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” in Matthew 19:24, he’s not saying “God condemns rich people for being rich and no one should be.” Rather, I think, he’s saying, “The money and power that go along with wealth–and the accompanying desire to hold onto that money and power–make it very difficult to focus on what is good and true and righteous, because the love of power is seductive and addictive. Be wary that such things do not make you see the world in the wrong way, but keep focused on the way that I have told you to see the world.”

Likewise, in Matthew 5:28, while Jesus does say something that, if we’re being honest with ourselves, reminds us all of our sins, I think that his purpose is less about shaming us and more about telling us about the very nature of sin.

And that’s why this post is titled, “Is sin phenomonal or existential?” If you’ve read many of my other posts, you already know where I fall on this issue, but I’d like to develop the idea a bit more specifically.

When I ask if sin is phenomenal, what I mean to ask is whether sin is a matter of discrete and observable actions, specific behaviors violative of what is righteous. When I ask if sin is existential, I’m asking if, rather than being a matter of specific and easily-identifiable behaviors, sin is a condition or state of being.

The real answer, of course, is that it’s both of these things at once. What the question(s) really seek to answer is whether it is particular actions that lead to a particular state of sin or whether particular actions are the result of a state of being. Again, the best argument is likely that there’s a dialectic between these two things–bad acts make it easier to choose bad acts in the future, deepening a state of sinfulness, but without some existentially sinful condition, there would never be any sinful action, so the influence of one on the other must be mutually reinforcing. So, what should we focus on as primary when dealing with and discussing sin–actions or a state of being.

In Matthew 5:28, Jesus appears to be arguing against the legalism of the Old Testament law (here making specific allusion to the Ten Commandments) and instead showing us that sinfulness is a matter of mindset, perspective (compared to the objective, I mean to intimate no relativistic thought here), paradigm.

There are two quotations I prefer (and have used on the blog before) to encapsulate this idea, which is central and fundamental to existential thought. Having been a professional student and scholar of the Renaissance and early modern periods, both quotations are derived from that most elevated and rarified literary era.

First, some John Milton, from Book I of Paradise Lost: “The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”

Second, Shakespeare: “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2.

Following existential thought in general, and Paul Tillich (my favorite theologian) in particular, we argue that humans, as a matter of course and necessity, make meaning in the world. We do this by relating things to one another in their existential aspects and phenomena, creating those relationships through storytelling. The “secular” existentialists see this as the fundamental cause of “existential angst”–we fail to detect any inherent and objective meaning in the things which we observe and with which we interact. But the Christian existentialist takes this farther, first positing that there is ultimate and objective meaning that comes from God, though we may detect such only through divine revelation; and, second, marvelling at the great opportunity, pleasure, power and responsibility we have been given in co-creating with God by establishing meaning through our own narratives, big and small. This process, as a fundamental aspect of man’s existence, is clear from the beginning of Creation–is not Adam creating meaning and relationships by naming the creatures of the Earth?

Upon recognition of this divinely-granted human power, we must immediately recognize the source of sin–the creation of meanings and relationships that are not in line with God’s plan and intentions. Put bluntly, seeing and thinking about the world in the wrong way.

And this is what Jesus warns about in Matthew 5:28–it’s not sin only when you take action to commit adultery; if you have created a mental concept of existence that sees women merely as objects of your lust, that permits infidelity and betrayal for the most fleeting of passions, you’re doing it wrong and you’re already in a state of sinfulness. It’s not enough to refrain from the comission of the action; you must change the way you think about and see the world and how all the things in it relate to one another.

When we compare this concept to other moral teachings of Jesus, we find great support for it. Jesus usually seems to be less concerned about specific actions and more concerned with the ideologies, social structures, theologies and existential states that lead to those actions: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” When we think about sin existentially, sin becomes about relationships, results and intents, not arbitrary restrictions. This comports perfectly with the Greatest Commandments.

Just as the plain language of Jesus’s words make clear, this is a higher standard of morality than avoiding the consummation of unrighteous intents; it is war on unrighteous intent itself. And it makes perfect sense; if you fall into the trap of lusting after people in your mind, that objectification likely affects more than just the questions of adultery and fidelity. In many ways, such thought is about a reduction of the humanity of a person into a personification of of desire and temptation, an indulgence of the self by the self that only needs the other person as a tool of that self-indulgence. Once we’ve stripped such a person of their humanity, however small a slice we may cut away at a time, we will treat them differently, and not in a better way, though the injury to the person may be so subtle as to go generally unnoticed without deep introspection or close observation.

But to focus on just how fallen the idea that sin is existential and caused by our own ordering of our idea of Creation makes us is to miss the point. The strong implication, as Milton shows us, is that just as unrighteous narrative and mental/idealist/idealogical relationships make us sinful, righteous ones bring us closer to God. Every time we shift our conception of the world closer to God’s intention for those relationships as demonstrated in Jesus, we are both personally participating in the Kingdom of God and, as we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer, working to bring the Kingdom of God to Earth.

In simpler terms, Jesus is implicating here that we create our own reality. Again, not in some relativistic way, because God’s intention for Creation establishes objective truth, but in the way we personally interact with the world and believe it to be. We have been given an astounding power of sub-creation inherent to our free will, but we are also called to use that power to seek righteousness, to become, as Jesus later calls us to become in the Sermon on the Mount: Perfect, as our Father in Heaven is perfect.

The scope of the Sermon on the Mount is not a collection of warnings and prohibitions; it is a call to participate in the infinite joy of existence as a child of God by seeking to create the kinds of narratives and mental conceptions that God would have us create.