Saturday, October 24, 2015

In Defense of Swearing

When I was younger, I didn't swear.  Nope.  I was Mr. Conservative Christian.  And my motto was that there is never any need to swear.

But nowadays I do swear.  I'll use it for emphasis or because I'm angry or to tell people that my mother's favorite curse word is shit-damn-fuck.

Some Christians think you shouldn't swear.  And they're welcome to talk in any manner that pleases them.  But they're also welcome to shut the fuck up when it comes to educating others on what the Bible says about it.

Does the Bible say anything directly about using curse words?  Nope.

Does the Bible say anything ... kinda ... indirectly about curse words?  I don't think so.  They would disagree.  But I think they're wrong.  Here we go.

First, what we're not talking about.  We're not talking about swearing oaths.  We're not talking about taking the Lord's name in vain.  Moving on.

Jesus did tell people not to call someone 'raca', or 'fool'.  I think it would be understandable to carry that over to curse words.  I don't think you should call people names, whether they are curse words or not.  And I don't think you should swear at people.  Near, yes.  At, no.

In Ephesians 4 it says to not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouth, but only what is helpful for building others up.  Clearly, this does not mean that every word out of our mouths must fit this guideline, or it would become very difficult to ask for directions or talk about the weather.  It's an admonition to not tear others down, and it has nothing to do with swearing.

In Ephesians 5 it says not to use obscene language or make crude jokes.  And this comes the closest to making me think twice.  But I have to wonder what is obscene?  I don't know that language should be considered obscene just because you throw in a 'shit' or a 'damn'.  I think language is much more obscene if guys are talking about their sexual conquests or people are slandering others or throwing about racial epithets.  That, to me, is obscene.

Studies have shown that using a swear word at the right time is healthy.  It releases tension.  Something in our brains feels like it has accomplished something or got something out of our system, so a few moments later we can start to relax.  You know what doesn't have the same effect?  Fake swear words.  Those same studies show that when people say 'Darn it all to heck!' instead of 'Damn it all to hell!', it doesn't have the same positive effect in the brain.

So I'm going to keep swearing.  In moderation.  Not at other people.  Mostly in private when my computer is being a pain, but sometimes in front of others, when I feel strongly about something.

And because I fucking want to. (You know I had to end with that, right?)

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Resolving Cognitive Dissonance Issues in Theology

We all ascribe different weights to ideas based on where they came from or the circumstances around them.  We may believe things more or less based on whether we learned them from our parents or through personal experience or because the Bible says so.  I'm realizing that for me there's another category that adds weight to an idea - if it solves an area of cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive Dissonance is when you have competing ideas in your head that are at odds with each other.  If you wake up thinking it's still night but there's sun shining through your window, you may experience it for a moment.  And I've long had areas of theology where what the church teaches doesn't quite make sense to me.  Here are a few:

1. The God of the Old Testament seems to have a very different personality from the God of the New Testament, but they're the same person.

2. Jesus is 100% God and 100% man.

3. A loving God created people that He knows will burn in Hell for eternity.

Now, I've been a Christian all my life and I've heard all of the arguments on each of these.  Like:

1. 'In the Old Testament God treats humanity like a child but in the New Testament He's laid the groundwork so He can treat us differently.'

2. 'It's a mystery.  There are some things we're not meant to understand.  Embrace the mystery.'

3. 'God loves people so much that He will let them choose to walk away.'

These and other explanations are ultimately unsatisfying to me.  They don't scratch the itch in my brain.  I suppose some issues have been resolved along the way when someone has explained it in a clearer way.  But some issues remain.  And they nag at me.  It's like someone is telling me 2+2=5 and no matter how many different ways it's explained, it just doesn't add up.

So when I find an idea that fixes one of these problems, I give it weight.


1. God came to Earth as Jesus and was able to experience what it is like to be a human being, which allowed Him to fully understand us for the first time.  And this experience affected God so dramatically that it altered His tone or way of dealing with us from then on.

2. We use the word 'God' as both God's name and what He is.  What if we separate them out?  Think of it this way.  My name is Matt and I am a human being.  If I were to step into a transmogrifier that turned me into an ant, I would then be Matt the ant.  I'd be the same person, but a different type of creature.  Back to God.  Let's separate those into Jesus the Deity.  Jesus the deity gave up his deity and became a human being.  So he remained the same person, but became a different type of creature, 

3. The love of God is so great that everyone will come around eventually, in this life or the next.  For some, it may be after a period of time in Hell,

Each of these ideas resolves a conflict for me.  But! you say, what if the idea contradicts the Bible?  Yes, that would be a problem.  If something clearly contradicts the Bible, then I need to take a step back and rethink some things.  But I don't think any of these do.  Some of them may appear to contradict the Bible at first.  But I've experienced time and again that the Bible doesn't always say what the church says it says.  Don't get me wrong - I'm not advocating twisting the Bible around to fit your own taste.  If you know me, you know that's not like me.  If anything, the Bible rings truer to me because there are things in it that I don't like or struggle with - it doesn't placate or condescend to me.  I think the problem is when people in the church decide what the Bible means and then try to interpret it in that way.

I'm not going to explain all of this theology right now.  But here's an example.  The Bible says people will be thrown into hell for 'eternity' or 'forever and ever'.  But it shouldn't.  It didn't used to.  That used to be translated as 'eons' or 'ages'.  Which would be a very long time, but not into infinity.  When the Bible says God's love is 'everlasting', that's a different word (aidios) than what's used for the long period of punishment (aeonios).  So why did the translations change?  Maybe because the church decided on a doctrine and then skewed the text ever so slightly to make it agree.

Not everything is so cut and dried.  On many issues the Bible seems to argue both sides.  Both free will and predestination people have verses they can point to and argue over.  But if I find an idea or a theological construct that solves the cognitive dissonance in my head and I can back it up in the Bible to a reasonable degree, then that weight will tend to sway me.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Trying to be Bigger

I really am a very small person.  In the sense that I hold grudges and grumble and want to hurt people back when they hurt me.

Case in point.  As I've previously mentioned, I have one regular customer in my Ubering.  He lives a couple of blocks from me and I pick him up most mornings at 7:45 and take him to Hollywood.  It's a nice way to start my shift because it's a decent fare which drops me into a busier area.

Thing is, though ... I don't think he cares about me much.  Here we've been riding together for a couple of months now, having mostly surface conversations, but a couple of more medium depth.  And it's not like I expect us to be best friends, but I would think he'd care a little.  But I don't know that he does.

Example #1: One rainy day I hit a puddle as I was hitting the brakes and skidded forward, almost hitting the car in front of me.  I said, 'Sorry about that'.  He responded, 'It's not my car'.

Nice, right?

Example #2: Uber has a new thing where if there's a surge price in effect, it will tell the customer how long that pricing period will last, after which it may go up or down or stay the same.  One day he was few minutes late, and I was slightly bummed because the surge pricing had dropped from 2.1 to 1.4.  Not that I said anything.  But then he told me that he saw the price and decided to wait to call me.

This one really bugs me.  He made me wait and then I made less money because of it.  And it's not like he's paying for it - his company pays for it.  And I wanted to ask him what he would think if I saw him hailing me and ignored it and waited until the prices went up?  I mean, most days I let several hails go before he hails me.  That day, I could have had a 2.1 fare  So, to me, this is a real dick move.

Example #3: Some days he doesn't need a ride.  His wife will be going that way or he's taking his kid to the doctor or something.  And usually he doesn't let me know until the time when I would usually pick him up.  Doesn't sound like a big deal - why can't I just get another fare?  Yeah, but I've learned that if I'm going to work mornings, and I don't have a guaranteed good first fare, I need to start earlier.  Most days when you start at that time, you get stuck with several short trips and the end result is I make about half as much for the morning.

Yes, I've asked him to notify me earlier.  But he never does.  On one hand it's understandable - he just forgets.  On the other hand, it's further evidence that he just doesn't think about me.

There's the setup - I know, it took a while.

So, last week, I pulled up at his place and after waiting longer than usual, he showed up next to my car and explained that he forgot to tell me that he wouldn't need a ride that day.  Which was the final straw.  I got small.  I started thinking nasty things about him.  And the next day, I was merely polite as I drove him.  No attempts at conversation, no looking at him.  A mostly silent treatment.

Did he ask if something was wrong?  Of course not.  Either he didn't notice or didn't care.  But this situation was untenable.  I really didn't want to drive him in silence every day.  So I thought about how to proceed.  I fantasized about how I could make him feel bad by telling him the ways in which he's been a dick.  Of course, when you're indulging a fantasy like this, you have to make yourself out to be pure and just and the victim of the other person, even while you're plotting how best to make them feel emotional pain.  Right?

I had the whole weekend to grouse about it.  And during the weekend I had a couple of other situations come up where I found reasons to feel put-upon or under-appreciated or the victim of some slight.  

But there got to be too many.  And while I am often a very small man, I do not like feeling small.  I do not like feeling like I am ruled by pettiness.  And I read again about St. Therese, who was a terrifically unimportant person but who made it a point not to be small.  She looked at others to whom it would have been easy to be small at, and instead chose to be large.  Her compassion was large.  Her kindness was huge.  She didn't do a lot, but the little things she did, she did them with big love.

I want to be more like that.  So, I decided not to confront my regular.  And I decided to smile and make conversation and generally let go of my pettiness and anger.  And who knows?  Maybe that's what he really needs - someone to just accept him as he is and to smile and be nice to him.

But I'm pretty sure it's what I need.  For my own good.  And the last couple of days, I've felt ... a little bigger.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Maybe God Doesn't Know Everything

Interesting tangent in my men's group last night.  We're studying Romans, but got sidetracked into discussing Adam and Eve.  One question that came up was whether free will inevitably led to sin.  And the idea that followed was that perhaps it was all part of God's plan for us to sin and then to redeem us later.  Because, after all, if God knows everything, surely He knew that Adam and Eve would sin.  Right?

I'm not so sure.  Maybe God doesn't know everything.  Maybe God knows everything that it is possible to know, but there are things that can't be known, because they haven't happened yet.

I mean, are we saying that God, before anyone had sinned, had already imagined mass murder and violent rape and shooting up heroin and every other ugly thing you can think of?

I think maybe God knew that with free will there was the possibility of sin.  But God, being holy, may not have known what that would look like until people actually did the bad things.  So many times God comes across sin and seems genuinely surprised by it.  After Adam and Eve sin, God seems perplexed.  When Cain kills Abel, God seems shocked at the discovery.  So many times with the Israelites, God feels like he's tearing His hair out, trying to figure out how these people can keep doing these awful things.

So maybe He didn't know what sin would look like.  Maybe it took sinful people to create sin first.

Some may respond that God is outside of time and therefore knows everything.  Yeah, well, that's a trendy, fairly new way to look at how God operates, but I'm not convinced that God hasn't maybe confined himself in some way to operating within time.  But that's a debate for another day.

Maybe we SHOULD be a Chipotle Church

A friend of mine posted this article on Facebook: Chipotle Church and the Problem of Choice.  What it boils down to is that we're a consumerist culture and in a world where we can order our burritos (or sandwiches or TV shows or what have you) to be built any way we like, catering to our own personal tastes, we expect the same of the church.

The article takes the tack that this is a bad thing.  Because church is not only about getting our needs met - it's about showing up to spend time with God.  And if the church doesn't suit us perfectly, then that's a good thing because it will stretch and challenge us.

I can see how our culture has spoiled us a bit, so we then expect the church we choose to be more to our liking.  Certainly there are a lot of whiny Christians lining up to tell their pastors what they do and don't like and expecting the church to conform to them.  And that's not good.  

But hold on. Didn't Paul teach us to be all things to all men?  If the culture has changed, shouldn't we change with it?

I work for a church plant in Santa Monica.  It's in an area where 95% of the people have never gone to church.  And to attract those people, we've tried to make ourselves into a church that would appeal to the people in that area.  So we meet in a theater, not a church.  We do artsy stuff like having guest artists during the service and having gallery events.  We do community outreach stuff like collecting clothing for the homeless and cleaning up the beach. 

Still, we're not growing very fast.  We have a handful of dedicated people and then a bunch of folks who drop by once or twice a month.  What gives?  Why aren't people sticking?

On the other hand, when we did Coastal Cleanup Day, lots of people showed up.  When we do artsy events, people show up.  People who don't normally show up on Sunday mornings.

I keep hearing about how traditional churches are losing people.  So we're not alone.  It's not like we're doing something wrong, exactly.  But the same old thing isn't working.

Maybe we need a paradigm shift.  Something new.  Or something old that's tweaked to fit new circumstances.

Here's what I'm thinking.  What if the church didn't meet every Sunday morning to hear a message and sing songs?  What if we tried to be a bit more like ... Chipotle?

So here's what I see.  You've got one group that meets every other week to do artsy stuff, like painting and drawing and so on.  You've got another group that meets once per month and plans social-justice related activities around the prevention of human trafficking.  You've got 2-3 regular Bible studies, each doing their own thing.  Maybe a game night every other month (but that's just me).  A group that only talks about deep, serious theology.  Another one that volunteers at an animal shelter.  And each of them finds a way to make it holy.  The artists discuss what it means to be a Christian and an artist.  The social justice people put together a prayer chain.  The Bible studies ... study the Bible.  And so on.  And then, once per month, there's a bigger meeting where there's a message and singing and everyone comes together at once.

It's Chipotle.  Choose the parts you like.  Go to as many or few as you like.  Wanna start something new?  Great.  Find a partner and put together a plan and run it up the flagpole.

What's that?  There's not enough prayer?  Or time in the word?  Or fellowship?  Or whatever?  Then bring it up.  Make it happen.  Start something new.  Besides, I believe all of life is holy - it's just about taking the time to acknowledge God in our midst.

Is it practical?  Maybe not.  Maybe it would be too hard to support a whole full-time staff.  But maybe that would be a good thing.  Maybe people need to step up and not expect professionals to do the work for them.  Talk about something being challenging and stretching.  How about we expect people to do more for themselves?