Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Before Christmas; After Easter. (And the Virgin Birth)


            Let’s be honest. Most of us smile, knowingly, when we think of the virgin birth. I mean, you don’t have to have been taught Ontario’s Sex-Ed curriculum to see the problems here. Even Mary understands. She says, “How can this be, since I am a virgin.”

            It’s much the same when we think about the resurrection stories. Luke says that when Mary—yes, the same Mary, Jesus’ mother—when Mary and some other women told the disciples that the grave was empty, the disciples thought it was an idle tale and did not believe the women. 

            So, a virgin birth. A dead man walking. Either way, “How can this be?”

            It’s a big, serious question. And so, every Christmas and every Easter, in liberal churches like mine you will hear sermons about how Bethlehem stories are a metaphor for the possibility of new life; and you will hear that empty grave stories are, well, a metaphor for the possibility of new life. 

            Meanwhile, in more conservative evangelical churches sermons will argue for the literal truth of these stories. Preachers will explain how, after not breathing for three days, Jesus gasped, wiggled his toes, and then walked out of his grave without being a zombie. 

            I don’t say so to mock either liberal or conservative Christians. Like I said, “How can this be?” is a weighty question, a teeter-totter sort of question at the heart of our theological playground. We ought to toss this question around, from time to time.

            And yet I want think we focus far too much on such questions of historical fact. In fact, if we become too preoccupied with, “how can this be,” we might miss the rest of the story, the heart of the story, the bulk of Jesus’ life. My best friend, Nick, pointed this out to me. Nick is interested in the philosophical challenges surrounding the writing of biographies, and how this relates to the gospels. In that connection, Nick recently recalled an event that many of you will remember.

            It’s like this. You will remember, the Nixon White House tapes. President Nixon 
Rose Mary Woods demonstrating how she allegedly
erased 18 1/2 minutes of Nixon's Whitehouse tapes.
recorded all of his conversations on a tape recorder. Later, these tapes became evidence for the Grand Jury that was investigating Nixon for the Watergate break-in. The tapes were damning conversations about Nixon’s ruthlessness, his disregard for the law, and so on. 

            What really led to President Nixon’s resignation, however, was not the tapes themselves, but an 18½ minute gap in the tapes, during a conversation between Nixon’s chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, and Nixon himself. At the very moment where Nixon was most likely to confess how much he knew about the Watergate break in, the tape goes silent. Rose Mary Woods, his secretary, took the blame for erasing the tape, but Nixon took the fall. He resigned soon after.

            It’s not the beginning and end that matter most, in the Nixon Tapes, but the missing piece in the middle.

            And, before Christmas and after Easter, it sometimes feels to me that much of what really matters, everything between Jesus’ birth and death, has been erased from our Christian consciousness, and we are far poorer for it.

            It is the same in the Apostle’s Creed. The Apostles’ Creed describes Jesus’ life this way: “I believe in Jesus Christ, his son, who was born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried.”

            Nothing is said here about Jesus’ baptism by John. Nothing about the parable of the Good Samaritan or the Lost Coin. Nothing about Zacchaeus in his tree or Mary Magdalene forgiven or dinner at Mary and Martha’s. Nothing in the creed about riding a donkey into Jerusalem as an argument against conquering Roman emperors who rode their war horses into Rome.

            The Apostle’s Creed moves from Bethlehem to Golgotha as if Luke chapters 3-22 don’t exist. It’s an 18 ½-minute—no an 18½-chapter gap—which, if we read it, would convict us, but in an entirely different way than the gap convicted Nixon. 

            So, let’s move beyond controversies of beginning and end, about how such things could be, about whether or not Mary was a virgin, whether or not wise men came from the East, whether or not there was a census while Quirinius was Governor of Syria. Let’s consider the whole gospel, and especially everything between the beginning in Bethlehem and the end at Golgotha.

            You will find there, in the missing 18 ½ chapters, that Jesus says, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.”

            You will find there that Jesus also says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

            You will find there, in the excluded middle, a divine longing to heal the sick, to bind the wounds of the broken hearted, to call out hypocrisy; a longing to forgive people who messed up and to live for the love of your neighbours.

            You will find there, in the missing chapters, that Jesus prays, “give us this day our daily bread.”

            You will find there, that Jesus says, “Do not worry. Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. . . But seek first the kingdom of God and these things will be given to you as well.”

            You will find there, in the middle passages we have erased mostly through neglect, that Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to them.”

            It’s beautiful stuff, as moving as ant star in the east or manger filled with straw.

            A final, concluding thought. I have to laugh sometimes about the movement to put Christ back into Christmas. I suppose, at some level, I get it. Santa Claus and his pretty elves in their scarlet miniskirts sitting for pictures in the mall, and Season’sGreetings, and Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer and Jingle Bells playing on an endless loop, and of course, the “ka-ching!” of our credit cards getting their annual workouts—it is all a bit too cute, too hollow, too distracting. It can be hard to focus on Jesus when so much is going on.

            But actually, we shouldn’t blame our culture for doing what it wants to do, and we shouldn’t feel guilty for joining in on the fun. Jesus wasn’t a killjoy. But, if we really do want to focus on Jesus, like the first Gospel of Mark, we actually don’t need any of Christmas or much of  Easter. In fact, instead of worrying about taking Christ out of Christmas, let’s try to think, instead, about how to bring the missing 18 ½ chapters back into the rest of our year.


Monday, December 10, 2018

God Is not a Celestial Toll Taker


            Years later, I wonder about this.

            It was the first day of class. The course was, “The Doctrine of God.” Our professor, Neal Plantinga, was ill, so I thought the class would be canceled. 

            However, Plantinga had arranged for a guest lecturer, his brother. I had never met Alvin Plantinga before. He was known as a fine teacher and world-famous philosopher. He has since won the Templeton Prize, along with such luminaries as Mother Theresa, the Dalai Lama, and Canada’s Jean Vanier. 

            So, there we sat. Plantinga stepped up to the podium. And then, for what seemed like an hour but might have only been a minute, he stood there, silent, looking at us. Finally, he spoke. To the best of my recollection, he said something like this:

            “Class, today we step onto holy ground. We are about to pit our small, fallible human minds to the task of knowing God. This ought to fill us with fear and awe. After all, who can know God? Who can take the measure of him?”

            “Thus, I begin with a warning: to be flippant or sloppy in speaking of God is blasphemy.”

            “So, let’s being this class with prayer and ask our God to give us the gift of humility as we presume to speak about the one who gave us tongues.”

            I thought “Woe is me! I am lost! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5).

             I was deeply moved. Plantinga’s simple words and pious manner pierced my complacency about being in seminary, about wanting to be a minister, and all that. He invited me to a deep curiosity about God. I’ll always be thankful for that.

            Years later, however, I’m wondering about that day.

            I’m still happy that my complacency was pierced. I mark the beginning of my interest in theology—a spiritual playground, to be sure, but a lovely one—to that class. 

            But I’m not so sure, anymore, that Plantinga approached this from the right angle. He seems to me, now, to have been too focused on God’s honour and potential vindictiveness, than on really knowing God.

            God’s honour. It’s a medieval concern. It imagines that human worries about rank and power must also be God’s, in a most anthropomorphic way. It used to be the case that if you dishonored someone above your station you were in deep trouble. So, you don’t speak back to your lord if you are a peasant serf—at least if you want to keep farming. You are nice to ladies if you are knight. You bow before kings, or go to prison. That sort of stuff. Human rights were not a big deal back then. Anselm (c. 1000) was so preoccupied with honor that he argued that Jesus’ death was necessary because we humans had offended God’s honour by sinning. 

            Sure, the Reformers backed off the honour argument some, emphasizing another strand of Anselm’s thought, namely that Jesus’ death was necessary not so much because we offended God’s honor, but because eternal damnation was a just penalty for our sins (for any single sin, in fact. One strike and you’re out). What the Supreme Court might call cruel and unusual punishment.

            I wish Christians would move beyond this. 

            Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that we ought to be flippant when we speak or think of God. That sort of attitude is merely impolite. It doesn’t do justice to the complexity and wonder we feel when we try to engage mysterious divine matters.

            But Plantinga’s underlying, if unspoken, sense of God as a being to be feared, a being concerned about his (or her) honour, about the real possibility of tit for tat punishment, often connected to guilt we somehow bear for the sins of a mythical couple, just doesn’t seem very credible. It’s a “just so” story. Didn’t Jesus teach us about forgiveness, turning the other cheek, giving the coat off of our backs, after all? Should we suspect God of less? 

            I understand that there is a kind of internal coherence to Plantinga’s—and most of orthodoxy’s—theorizing about God. I get that you can parse scripture in a certain way to make it come out in this way. 

            But I’ve moved on. I like how John Caputo puts it:

God is not a celestial toll taker who charges a fee to undertake a spiritual journey. In short, God is not a Big Deal or Big Dealer, not the Omni-being who overwhelms our finitude with a plan to reward His (sic) friends and punish His enemies (sic, even sicker), which does not sound much like the Sermon on the Mount. (Hope Against Hope, 112)

            You’ll have to read Caputo’s book for the cultural, philosophic, theological reasons Caputo says such things. But ultimately, he wants a God who calls us “back into the toils and troubles of everyday life,” a God who does not so much exist as insist, not a being so much as a small quiet voice that whispers (prays!), “love, forgive, do justice, be merciful.” God depends on us to make all that come true. If we don’t, we don’t. But we can.

            Even if, once upon a time, we daydreamed through a class on the doctrine of God.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Preaching Climate Change


            One Friday, before Joe left for work downtown, he opened his Waze app and typed in “work” as his destination. Waze continuously tracks all of its users while they drive, and by doing so, maps out the fastest route to any destination. Along the way, Waze uses the electronics, algorithms, street maps, computer code, and even geography to do so. It is a very cool app. And so, though Joe didn’t understand the engineering or science behind Waze, he loves how it saves time, every day. He trusts it.

            This morning, Joe’s drive was not without incident. He listens to Radio 590, The Fan. But Joe accidentally hits a button on his steering column, and his kid’s rap music comes on. So, Joe takes his eyes off the road to change the station back, for just a second, and in that moment, a car in front of him slams on its brakes. Joe would have hit that car except that his car automatically slammed on its brakes too, sensing that an accident was imminent. Joe didn’t even know his new car had an accident avoidance system—but this morning the engineering and science behind it saved him anyway. Joe was impressed.

            At work, early, Joe booted up his computer and surfed over to 23andMe, a genealogical research lab that reads your DNA and compares it to the DNA of other people who have sent theirs in. A few months ago, Joe sent 23andMe some saliva in a tube. Joe is an adopted child and has never been able to connect with his birth family. This morning, Joe’s results have finally been posted. He discovers three likely second cousins. Joe doesn’t know it yet, but later that month, as a result of this DNA matching, he is going to meet his birth-grandparents. The science is way above his head, but he trusted the biologists enough to give it a whirl. 

            That afternoon, Joe knocks off early. He’s going to fish for brook trout at his cottage with his buddies. Joe doesn’t know this, but forty years ago, his lake nearly died due to acid rain. When scientists raised the alarm, Ronald Reagan and Pierre Trudeau enacted a series of laws to reduce Sulphur emissions, so that Joe’s lake and many more like it are now full of fish. In fact, thanks to those scientists, he’s always counted on catching them.

            Joe buys and sells bonds for a living. He has a good life. Between algorithms he doesn’t understand, the engineering in his car, nuclear DNA and mitochondrial genome science that is way over his head, and governmental action on Sulphur and ozone emissions, science has made his life a lot better. He’s also a two-time cancer survivor, thanks to MRIs, radiation treatment, and new chemo drugs. He never doubted that his doctors were the best, and would use the best techniques to heal him. And now, he hopes to live a long, happy life.

            Modern sciences: math, engineering, biology, chemistry, have made our lives better. Joe hardly thinks to thank the Nobel prize winners, GM engineers, 23andMe biologists or Sunnybrook doctors for all this good stuff, though. He takes it in stride. He expects it. We all do. We hardly ever say prayers of thanksgiving for these gifts—unless it’s under our breath, as when Joe muttered, “thank god,” when he avoided an accident. We trust today’s science and the scientific method it uses, and depend on it for the most comfortable lives humans have ever lived.

            Anyway, Joe and his buddies go to the cottage. They catch a lot of fish. And at the end of the day, they light a fire down on the beach, pour themselves a scotch and talk. Of course, they do. It’s the good life.

            Eventually the conversation turns to climate change. A new government has come into power. It has cancelled several environmental programs. A new leader has publicly expressed doubt as to whether or not climate science can be trusted or whether anything can be done about warming temperatures, anyway. 

            “Yah,” says Joe. “I don’t believe in it either. How can they know? Do these scientists think they’re gods? Anyway, the weather changes every week, every year,” says Joe. “Two winters ago? It was cold. Water main burst in front of the house. Basement flooded. Don’t talk to me about climate change. It’s a hoax. Some pointy headed guys in lab coats trying to get promotions. I’m with Ford and Trump and the pipeline companies on this.”

            Well, what do think? Is climate change a hoax or not?  Canyoutrust the overwhelming consensus of scientists when it comes to climate change? Like you trust your doctor or the physicist who figured out how to make MRI machines work? Or here is another question. Even if—and there isn’t, but let’s just pretend—even if there was doubt about the long- and short-term impact of climate change, would you dare take a chance on it? Cross your fingers and hope for the best, because that is easier than doing something about it? Like, would you drive your car if the brake pressure light went on? And for how long? How much are you willing to risk to leave the status quo alone?

            Look, we all depend on the findings and theories of science, every day, for every piece of our good lives. We trust the science behind auto radar and Waze, the science that makes computers work and that predicts tides and eclipses. We trust the science of DNA to find relatives and rapists, and we have, in the past, trusted scientists to clean our air and reduce acid rain and clean up the great lakes. 

            And now, scientists tell us that climate change—unless we act now—is going to transform our world so dramatically, so fundamentally, that our grandchildren are going to suffer serious harm to their living standards. It will result in massive movements of climate-change refugees unlike anything we have seen so far. Climate change will contribute to the largest extinction events since the dinosaurs. 

            Mind you, it isn’t a few lone scientists saying so. All of them are saying so—or, at least, such a high percentage of them that I wouldn’t want to bet a plug nickel on the tiny, tiny group of them that still question some aspects of these trends. The latest report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns us that unless serious efforts are made over the next ten years to change course, it will be too late. I won’t go through all the data here, since tons of it is at your fingertips. Read the report yourself. But I warn you that there are some groups out there, mostly funded by libertarian or very partisan industry organizations, that try to tell a completely different story to provide cover for a certain brand of politicians to deny, deny, deny. History will roundly condemn these short-term, me-first, see-no-evil, hear-no-evil leaders.

            Meanwhile, as a society we refuse to deal with more and stronger hurricanes, and rising sea levels, and dying corals, and plunging insect and amphibian populations, and droughts in Africa so severe that whole peoples are migrating to Europe, or drowning to get there. 

            Here in the West, our wealth and—to some extent—our geography, may protect us somewhat in the short term. But you just wait.

            The writer of Psalm 19 exalts God for the beauty of creation. But he, or she—the Psalmist was most likely a man—also warns his audience that when it comes to God’s laws, including stewardship of the beautiful garden of creation; when it comes to God’s laws it takes an act of will to abide by them and uphold them. You have to choose. The Psalmist warns us not to be fooled. He says:

            “Clear me from hidden faults. Keep back your servant from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.” And who are the insolent? I’d say those who, for whatever personal or financial or political reasons, would rather, for short-term gain, destroy the earth as we know it than make costly, sacrificial changes today.

            When it comes to climate change, false prophets are crying, “Peace, Peace” when there is no peace. And if enough Joes choose these prophets of all’s well instead of serious climatologists who dare to tell the truth in difficult times, you can be sure that ruin and defeat will follow for us as surely as it did for Old Testament Israel.

            So, what is it going to be? Are we going to go with our most comfortable, uniformed hunches, the ones that require no sacrifice, no changes in habits, no tax increases, no action on behalf of the planet or its creatures or our children? Or will we make big sacrifices, like our great-grandparents did during the depression, and our grandparents did during the Second World war—will we make big sacrifices in what we buy and how we vote, how we run our corporations and which ones we invest in—will we make big changes now, for the sake of—well, everything good that we have taken for granted for too long?

            An idyllic future will not fall into our children’s laps, from the heavens, regardless of the choices we make. Joe—who otherwise would never question the opinion of a single scientist, never mind a scientific consensus—Joe and the insolent politicians who have his ear are, biblically speaking, fools. Peace, when it comes to climate change, peace must be waged by us, now, tooth and claw, urgently, if we are going to turn the corner on this.

            The heavens may declare the glory of God, but right now the earth is crying in agony because of human idiocy. I wish I could say something more comfortable this morning. I wish I could say something more constructive. I wish I didn’t have to say anything about this at all. 

            But this morning, Joe is not going to have the last word, at least not here. We are in serious crises, as serious as that of the cold war or the bubonic plague. And, until we act, personally and as a society, to tackle climate change, you will not hear “peace, peace,” from me.


Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Are You Our Next Minister?


Lawrence Park Community Church (United, Unlimited, Unorthodox), where I am a minister, needs a second minister! He or she will be a co-pastor with me. The ad that we've put in the Christian Century and in The United Church Observer says: "This position will include preaching, pastoral work and team building with a focus on youth program leadership. The new minister will play a key role in helping us launch a new evening service which will explore the role of Christianity and spirituality in the modern world. It will be a service for believers and doubters. The new service will include the following elements: debates, Tedx-type speakers, meals, and secular but spiritual music. The bridging of traditional and innovative approaches will require a recruit with flexibility and vision as well as strong preaching skills."

Worship with the Brian Barlow Quartet, Easter 2018
Of course, there is a backstory. Our long-time minister of pastoral care. Eric Bacon, is (sadly) retiring at the end of the year. I will share pastoral care with the new minister--depending on our skill mix and preferences. And the new worship community we're planning to launch in September of 2019 is a big deal, a huge rock that we're working together as a congregation and staff to launch successfully. The focus will be on making Toronto a better place to live--and extending that to the world when we can.

Well, and there is our morning worship too. We have an unmatched choir that sings a wide variety of traditional and contemporary genres. We do an old-style, low-liturgy Methodist type of service that's tall on community and come as you are and coffee and other refreshments. We mix in jazz, themed Sundays (the church dressed up as the Emerald City from the Wizard of Oz, with Auntie Em's potluck after; or four weeks of music and choir on Les Miz). Our morning service is a going concern. But we want to extend our impact!

We have already hired a program manager with deep expertise in social media, marketing, and event planning to work this project (and others) full-time.

So, the new minister and I will sit down, figure out what we love and what we're best at, and split the difference! We're really keen to find someone who thinks outside of the box, who has an imagination, who has stage presence, and who is deeply engaged in making the world a better place. I'm easy to get along with!

We invite American citizens to apply if they are members of a denomination in official fellowship with ours, such as the United Church of Christ. We invite LGBTQ people to apply. We invite persons of colour to apply. We are inclusive and welcoming--and working on becoming more so.

This is an adventure job. An "I can't believe there is a liberal church trying this stuff" job. We'll make sure that you are remunerated in a manner that allows you to live in Toronto. When you arrive, you will find just about the friendliest, low-anxiety, high-fun church going.

If this sounds like it is for you send an email inquiry to Judi Pressman, and ask her for a position description and more background. Her email is judi@lawrenceparkchurch.ca

I want to hear from you!


Monday, October 8, 2018

Thanksgiving Nostalgia


       Rolling Stone magazine called this Beatles song the best song of the twentieth century. It goes like this:

Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away
Now it looks as though they're here to stay
Oh, I believe in yesterday

       Yesterday. Remember? Canada’s Happy Days. The Mounties were beautiful in scarlet and above reproach. Archie’s biggest problem was choosing between Betty and Veronica. 

       The past. Remember? Everyone who wanted a factory job had one at the Motors in Oshawa or GE in Peterborough. Women stayed home and wore aprons and the only people who said “me too,” were kids who wanted dessert.

       Yesterday. Remember? Expo 67. The Leafs won a Stanley Cup. Paul Henderson scored—not once or twice, but three times. Kids played baseball at the park and road hockey in the streets. Screen time meant The Brady Bunch or I Love Lucy.

       The best of times. Donald Trump misses them, so he promised to, “Make America Great Again.” During the presidential race he was asked by a journalist when exactly that was. Trump said, “well, America was great when Ronald Reagan was president!” 

       So, do you remember what Ronald Reagan’s campaign slogan was? You guessed it. “Make America great again.” We have always believed in yesterday.

       And lest we think that is just an American thing, don’t forget Doug Ford. He said, “We will return our province to where it belongs. Ontario will be open for business.” He said this when our unemployment rate was near historic lows and businesses are complaining that they can’t hire the help they need. 

       We believe in yesterday. Nostalgia is a worldwide phenomenon. Chinese president Xi Jinping calls for “a great rejuvenation of the Chinese people.” Russia’s Putin insists that the fall of the Soviet Union was a geopolitical disaster that he will help Russia recover from. After the Brexit vote, British politician Vince Cable said, "Too many were driven by a nostalgia for a world where passports were blue, faces were white, and the map was coloured imperial pink."

       Yesterday. Actually, the best of times, but also the worst of times.

        Not quite fifty years ago, mortgage rates were 18 percent and unemployment over 13 percent. More than 400,000 people died of starvation in Ethiopia. The Vietnam war raged. Residential schools sundered children from parents and tribes. Not long ago most cancers could not be beaten, the cold war filled us with fear, labour strikes were regular occurrences, and acid rain had killed many of our lakes. Looking a bit deeper into the past, there was WWII, the holocaust, the 1918 flu epidemic, as many as twenty million starved to death by the Soviets in the Ukraine, and we lived, on average, twenty years less than we do now. 

       Nostalgia has a sweet aroma, but as a plan for the future, it is poison. Our memories are very selective.

The truth is, as Calvin so aptly observes, when you think about it, our lives now are actually pretty nice. A lot of kids don’t have as good a home life as we do. We have a lot to be thankful for today. We can’t really complain.

       Which is not to say there are no problems. Our lives are always a mess of broken windshields and relationships and worries of deep concern about big worldwide problems. I write about those problems regularly. But we will never find a solution to those problems by idealizing a past that gave them to us. We must find solutions to those problems, in part, by seeing things as they are now.

       I’m a writer, and so perhaps I have an over active imagination. But I play an odd game with myself, sometimes, when I’m driving through town, by myself, at night. 

       I imagine that my great grandfather, Willem Suk, who died in 1909, is sitting beside me in my car. Willem died of lung disease from working in a cement factory after spending most of his adult life selling groceries door to door out of a dog cart. His family was left in heartrending poverty. Anyway, as I drive along, I describe for my grandfather wonders he could never imagine: jetliners landing at Pearson passing overhead, Audis and Buicks, electric street lamps and three-bedroom bungalows with in-door plumbing, air conditioning, and my groceries in the back seat. He would have been amazed that his own tragic life did not result in generations more of pain and poverty for his descendants, the same pain and poverty that was commonplace for his ancestors.

       Today is Thanksgiving. Let’s embrace how far we’ve come in order to tackle the problems we have.

       The truth is, our future can be even more bountiful, more life-sustaining than our lives are today, so long as we do not wallow in yesterday, but rather, roll up our sleeves, and with hearts full of gratitude, live by ideals worthy of the future we want for our own grandchildren.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Jordan Peterson Rule Six Redo: Strive to Improve the World While You Work on Yourself, Too


            Sometimes, perhaps too often, the Bible is read as if it was a casting call for what it takes to be a good Christian. For example, those readers who attend church have all heard preachers say things like we need to have to have faith as strong as Abraham’s, or passion for God as wide and deep as King David’s; we ought to dare to be Daniels and have the bravado of the Apostle Peter.

            Ironically, most Biblical heroes, including Abraham and David and Daniel and Peter, were actually deeply-flawed humans we really don’t want to emulate. I mean it.

            For all his faith, Abraham and Sarah both laughed at God when he told them that they would have a son. And, far worse, they sent Abraham’s eldest son Ishmael, and his mother Hagar, into the desert to die because Sarah was jealous of them. How’s that for a house in perfect order? Would you want to emulate Sarah or Abraham?

           When King David saw Bathsheba bathing, he knew he’d have to have her, no matter the price. And the price was steep. To hide his affair and her pregnancy, David had Bathsheba’s husband Uriah murdered in battle. That dysfunction set the pattern for the rest of David’s life. His eldest son Ammon raped his sister Tamar. Another son killed Ammon, and then staged a coup against David. Not a house in order. 

            And Peter? 

           Well it is fair to say that, at best, he had a rocky relationship with Jesus. That was never more on display, of course, than on the night Jesus was arrested. Peter screwed up the courage to follow Jesus’ armed guards to the High Priest’s house. Then, just inside the courtyard, by the fire, a servant girl asks if Peter was one of Jesus’ disciples. Peter replied, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” 

            When a second woman asks Peter if he followed Jesus, Peter doesn’t merely claim ignorance, he flat out denies Jesus.  “I don’t know the man!” 

            Finally, a whole group of people standing round the fire notice that Peter is speaking with a Galilean accent. They figure he just has to be a follower of Jesus and say so. This time Peter calls down curses from heaven. “He swore,” says Matthew. And then, hearing the rooster crow, Peter goes off and weeps bitterly. Some rock. Some model for what it takes to be a good person, never mind a good Christian. 

            Now, all of these Biblical heroes, and many more: Abraham, Sarah, Daniel, Samson, Gideon, Saul, David, Bathsheba, Solomon, Rahab, Jonah, Peter and the disciples stand as a warning against the idea of treating the Bible as a book full of heroes we should emulate. 

           Perhaps even more seriously, we can pass on trying to emulate Abraham or David or Peter because, in their failures we see ourselves. We are already like them. We are deeply flawed too. 

            Now, I am not going to pull out my former Calvinist doctrine of “total depravity,” here, and argue that we are all absolutely divorced from God and good. But I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater either. We need to be honest not only about our strengths, but also our weaknesses.

            All of us—every last one of us—no matter how good a dad or mom we are, no matter whether we’ve earned millions or accolades at work, no matter whether we’ve won awards from governments or boards or NGOs—each of us, like every Biblical hero, each of us is also deeply flawed. 

          We all need new beginnings. Our tempers are short. We take the easy or expedient way out sometimes, rather than stand on principle. We hold grudges. We’re addicted to cigarettes or cigars, porn or praise, alcohol or the internet. We refuse to be vulnerable with our kids when it comes to our weaknesses or emotionally available for our spouses when they need us. We fudge on our income tax. We speed. We get angry too fast and apologize far too infrequently and slowly. We engage in petty white-collar crime. Not everyone of us does all these things, not by a long shot. As it is with most Biblical heroes, none of us has our house in perfect order, either. This just is the human condition. 

            It can be very depressing. But this is where Christianity can help us. Jesus freely offered an antidote to the reality of our flaws. The antidote is grace. In the big, cosmic picture, the gospel message is this: Try to be like Jesus. But when you or I sometimes fail, as we undoubtedly will, don’t give up, don’t freeze, don’t think of yourself as worthless. God, after all, is not keeping a scorecard. God always welcomes your new beginnings. 

            Jordan Peterson, on the other hand, says, “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.” And what I’d like to know is this. Who has ever set their house in perfect order? This “perfect order,” is a high bar. No one in the Bible, excepting—maybe—Jesus, has ever met it. 

            And yet. Abraham and Sarah managed—at least according to the myths—birth a nation. David made that nation an empire that eventually gave us the Law and Prophets. And Peter and his pals not only criticized their world, but went on to build a church that has now existed, for better or worse, for 2,000 years. None of these institutions or nations were or are perfect; but all have also made great contributions to human well-being through the centuries. These institutions, like the people who founded and support them, are flawed and need grace but have the capacity to do great things. 

            The thing us, we can criticize the world, and in fact (and even better), work to make the world a better place, even if we are flawed, because the grace Jesus preached, the clean slate we have with God or the cosmos or karma or whatever you want to call it—the grace Jesus preached is an invitation to keep trying to love neighbour, even when you fail; to keep striving against the injustices of the Roman Empire or the Religious Establishment, even if you are a coward. The grace Jesus preached is an invitation to new beginnings even when last year (or last night) was a bit of an embarrassment to you. Grace is your endless well of motivation to strive for better rather than worry about setbacks. Grace isn’t salvation from sin, it is rather, as John Caputo would say, God haunting our souls with the desire to do better; God whispering in our ears that our families, our churches, and our city and world—all of it deserves our best, if flawed, efforts. Grace is God’s prayer to us to give being God’s hands and feet a whirl, again and again.

            So no, Jordan Peterson, I don’t think it is “set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.” It should be, rather, “Strive to improve the world, while you work on yourself, too.” Working on ourselves and the world together is a single project. Grace makes doing both—working on the world, and working on yourself—plausible and possible, an antidote to our flaws. 




Monday, September 3, 2018

Not Really About Jordan Peterson #5: Let Go But Don't Withdraw from Your Adult Children


            Jordan Peterson says, “Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.” It has a nice ring to it, and on the whole, Peterson makes some sense in this chapter—if you are talking about young children. 

            Mind you, what Peterson writes irks me sometimes. I don’t like what he says about hitting kids. He’s generally not for it, but makes exceptions. I disagree. I don’t like what he says about single parents, either. He thinks single parenting is a bad idea, while I think it’s a different idea with its own unique challenges and rewards.

            But Peterson is writing about parenting little kids, and when I was done the chapter, as a father of adult children myself, and as the son of an elderly parent, I wondered “but how does one parent adult children?”

Jordan Peterson doesn't write about older parents and
their adult children
            You know. These older kids are in their thirties or fifties. They are still tied to you by cords of love and affection, but those cords can fray and strain under pressure. You know what I mean.

            For example. Let’s say Peter and Joyce love their son Joe. What is more, the three of them share great memories together of Joe’s early years—memories of camping trips and dinner discussions, of hockey tournaments and family Christmases. Peter and Joyce gave Joe a close to ideal childhood.

            But then Joe grows up, goes to university, gets married—very happily—and he and his wife take a very different approach to dealing with life than Joe’s parents took. Joe lets his kids stay up all hours without supervision, until they fall in their tracks, exhausted. Joe and his wife don’t cook and feed the kids mostly pizza and McDonalds and Chinese take-out. Joe uses physical punishment on his children that he himself never experienced. Joe also turns out to be a poor money manager, and so he and his family have to live in a small apartment while juggling huge consumer debts. And yet Joe and his wife somehow find the money to drive a new Audi and take annual vacations in Italy or the Caribbean. Joe, unlike his dad, doesn’t dress for success, doesn’t go to his parents’ church or gym or barber anymore, and forgets his parents’ birthdays.

            Joe is a dramatic case, but he’s also a good example for how love does not solve every practical issue or potential arena for disagreement between parents and their adult kids. And while Joe is a sort of bumbling example of how children can choose a very different path than their parents did, it is also true that there actually are lots of potential areas of disagreement between older parents and their adult children. They can disagree about things like personal loans and their repayment, or not; different ideas about estate planning or charity; health and mental competency issues; how-close-to-live-to-each-other decisions; and even about the level of honest, emotional disclosure and sharing between older parents and their adult children.

            As I thought about this large reality, I also realized that there is very, very little—perhaps nothing—in the Bible about how parents should treat their adult children. There are some stories that involve the two. King David’s adult son Absalom staged a military coup against his father, and when Absalom died, David was so heartbroken and paralyzed over his rebellious son’s death that his loyal supporters were angered. An old prophet and priest named Eli had two sons, Hophni and Phineas, who stole from the tabernacle offerings. Eli didn’t know how to handle it so God took the priesthood away from Eli’s family and made little Samuel his next great prophet. King Solomon once threw a spear at his son Jonathan, in anger. Not a great role model. 

            The story that seems the most likely candidate for addressing the relationship between parents and their adult children is the parable of the prodigal son. The barely-adult child, here, asked for his inheritance and wasted it. When he came home a pauper, his older father received the foolish son back with open arms.

            But honestly, this parable is not about parents and adult children. This parable is about the shocking quality of God’s love. Because, you see, no parent of adult children would ever be as gracious as the divine father. That’s the whole point of the parable. Beyond this, there isn’t anything in the Bible explicitly meant as instruction for parents on how to parent adult children.

            In a way, this isn’t a surprise. During the Roman Empire era, it is estimated by demographers that of children alive at age ten, half would die by the age of fifty. There were many, many fewer older adults with adult children in Bible times than now; and even those elderly parents lived, on average, much shorter lives than we do. We sometimes forget what a profound impact modern medicine has had on our lifespans.

            So, how do we do it? Or better yet, since every situation is different and unique, are there at least some principles that we can use as guidelines for how we should parent adult children? I think there are—at least two of them. My Peterson-type rule would be “Let Go but Don’t Withdraw.”

            First, let go. Do not pursue your children. At marriage, “A man shall leave his father and mother and be united to his wife.” While I’m not a literalist about such things, in general, parents should let go of their children, whether into marriage or into coupledom of another kind, or into adult singleness—children must be allowed to truly leave their first home behind. 

            And once they are gone, let them go. You raised them to become independent, you must risk letting them be so. Don’t pursue them. Don’t hover over them as if you were quarterbacking a powerplay. Don’t offer unsolicited advice about finances, about when to have children, about where to live, about how to treat siblings, or about how often to visit. Don’t nag your kids to get the results you want—don’t nag them about vacation locations or visit frequency or what they feed their kids or how late they stay up. Don’t compare how well you did at their age to how they’re doing—by any measure: financial, number of children, happiness, marital age. Don’t make snarky ironic or sarcastic remarks about their dress or jobs or cars or bank account or parenting. In Galatians 5:15, Paul says, to church members—the family of God, and so somewhat applicable to biological families too, “Don’t bite and devour one another. Take care that you are not consumed by one another.” Let them go. 

            This means, by the way, that you must also let go of the inevitable discomfort and even anger you will feel as your children reflect on whether or not you were a good parent in your day (and believe me, you were not perfect). Kids of all ages will always judge their parents, often with a very myopic view of their own parenting. Wise parents, in response, let it go . . . they don’t get angry or defensive; they apologize if apologies are asked for; and they continue trying to be good parents.

            Paul also says in Galatians 6 that we are “called to freedom.” Paul is referencing, here, the freedom we have in our hearts to follow Jesus no matter what governments or friends or employers or emperors or parents might say about it. This is the same freedom belongs to your children. Don’t pursue them beyond what their freedom to let you in invites.

            So, don’t pursue your children, but second, don’t withdraw, either. Love one another, says Paul, applying what Jesus said about how we should treat all people to how we should treat people who sit in the pews with us, and what certainly applies to how we should treat our adult children, too. Don’t use the letting go, the freedom, as an excuse to indulge yourself by letting go so completely that the love is no longer tangible. Let go, but don’t withdraw.

            Withdrawal is a refusal to nurture your relationship with adult children, and in extreme cases a decision to sever the relationship, to wash your hands of them. What does withdrawal look like? It is rarely or not ever inviting your kids into your life socially. It is a refusal to be there—as you are able—to help with things like doing renovations or a short-term loan or celebrating a promotion. Withdrawal is making shared arrangements for babysitting or visiting or birthday gatherings so difficult and opaque for your adult children to arrange so as to suggest you are really not interested. It is to keep secrets about your finances or wills or power of attorney wishes so that your children do not know your intentions and are forced to live in the dark, where mistakes are made and things go bump in the night. Withdrawal is to evince a total lack of curiosity about your children’s lives, their hopes, and dreams. It is to refuse to answer the phone; it is to go away without telling the kids where; it is to keep secrets about your health, or your relationships, or your problems, or your depression, so that kids who would help if asked, are never asked. 

            Listen—letting go while not withdrawing requires older parents of adult children to walk a fine line. I do not want to suggest for even one moment that knowing my two principles are a cure all for all the practical problems that older parents face with their adult children. And I have said nothing at all about the adult children’s responsibility in these relationships. Some adult children withdraw or cling unhealthily, no matter what their older parents try. But that is another blog for another time. 

            So finally, if you are in doubt about the fine line between letting go but not withdrawing, consider trying, at least, to talk to your children about it. Tell them you want to let go but stay in close touch. Sit and listen carefully as you give your children time to reflect on what you are saying, and respond. But as an older parent, be up front. Be open. Talk about it together, if you can. You are, after all, all adults.