Saturday, November 14, 2015

Garbage Out, Garbage In (or "Meet Lugh")

Celebration Pic for Lugh's 2-Month Anniversary
in His New Home
Lugh is my newest canine companion. I met him at Free Spirit Siberian Rescue (where I volunteer). He was so calm, sweet, and passive. His unique blue merle coloring and big brown eyes won me over quickly. When Loki first met him, I think it was brotherly love at first sight. So, December 19th, 2014, he came home to be part of the family.

He was really nervous in the new environment. All Loki wanted to do, of course, was play. Lugh was okay with that, up to a point. He wasn’t as fit as Loki, so I had to make sure he had plenty of down time.

On that first night, I also discovered that Lugh did one of the most disgusting things I’ve seen a dog do: He ate his poop. All of it if, I would let him. (And, no, I didn't.)

At first I thought it was probably because he was hungry, and I theorized that this was how he supplemented his meager diet while in his kennel in California (before he arrived at Free Spirit). Indeed, he was skin and bones when we met.

Then, when a friend of mine was watching the dogs while I was out, Lugh threw up on the floor. In a non-threatening manner, my friend went to stop him from lapping it back up. He told me that Lugh scurried to a corner and cowered. My theory had now changed. I suspected that he had learned to clean up after himself to avoid punishment in his last home.

After about a month, I thought I may have figured out why Lugh ended up at the shelter. Eating his own poop wasn’t the only issue he arrived with. He also ate paper. His (extremely) high energy can lead him to become destructive as an outlet. He escaped from a kennel. It’s likely his previous owners didn’t know what to do with him.

That’s the story I tell myself, anyway. In fact, I don’t know anything about his past. It’s all guesswork based on his behavior in an attempt to make sense of it. I am trying to understand him, and there is nothing wrong with that. And telling myself this fictitious story has been beneficial. By feeling like I had a sense of why Lugh was behaving as he did, my sense of empathy made it less likely that I would become upset and more likely that I could come up with a reasonable solution to the behavioral problems before me.

Working with him in this way would only be problematic if I didn't accept that "Lugh's story" was fictitious. If I believed that I had actually deduced for certain the particulars of his past, then we would have problems. Like a deluded charlatan, I would be making a diagnosis based on fantasy, and then prescribe a treatment that could potentially be dangerous. But I know that I don’t know Lugh's story before we met, and I know that I will never know it. That doesn't mean I can't help him. Rather, it means that in my quest to help him overcome his behavioral issues, I have to focus on what really matters: his behavior. So, as I have worked with Lugh, I have worked with the dog that actually lives in our house, not some creature of conjecture that never existed.

Unfortunately, in popular dog training circles, fantasy often trumps fact. We see this a lot in "Alpha" training (or "traditional" or "balanced" training). The one who goes through a door first is the pack leader. The one who eats first is the pack leader. The one who sits highest is the pack leader. It's all fantasy. Yet, charlatans prescribe treatments based off of it that often leads to abuse. For example, when dogs who are showing clear signs of anxiety they are often accused of trying to assert their “dominance.” The solution is generally a form of violence that really only serves to increase anxiety, which can lead to a higher chance of violence out of the dog. By accepting the fantasy as fact, damage ensues. 

While unfortunate, it is perhaps not surprising that dog trainers do this. After all we often do this with other humans as well, especially when it comes to issues near and dear to our hearts. Consider how the northerners seem to see southerners are racist pigs. Consider how non-fundamentalists seem to see fundamentalists as hate mongers. Consider how democrats seem to see all republicans as homophobes. In all theses cases, the assumption is that the narrative offers an infallible insight into why those others do what they do. If we allow existing narratives to define others--and therefore determine how we relate to them--then we are choosing to live in a way that embraces an egotistical fantasy, one in which we achieve supremacy by dismissing the reality of the other. By choosing to dismiss the humanity of another, we do a disservice to humanity itself; we become part of the problem, rather than the solution.

I don't want to continue the problem of fantasy-based destruction, so I try not to fall into that trap. When I come home and Lugh jumps up on me, I think of how faux-trainers say he’s trying to dominate me, trying to become the pack leader by asserting himself. Punishment is generally prescribed. Some would say I should knee him in the chest, and others might say squeeze his paws. I choose to ignore that insanity. Instead, I look at Lugh’s body language and see that he’s just trying to happily greet me. He is showing me affection, indeed love. To respond to his love with violence would truly be a tragedy.

So, I don’t know why Lugh eats his poop. I do know that I don’t want him to do so. Therefore, I give him a positive alternative. When he goes to the bathroom in the yard, I cheer him on. When he is done (before he gets a chance to lower his nose into the potential snack), I call him over to me. As he runs over, I “click” with a clicker (or say “yes!”) and give him a treat when he arrives. Now that he is away from the spot, I go clean it up.

By focusing on the dog that actually exists in front of me rather than some fantastic conjecture, I have been able to find a non-violent, loving way to modify his behavior. He chooses to run to me because it’s preferable; he would rather come to me for a treat than eat his poop. This has worked very well for him. (Except for that time in which he seemed to confuse “come” with “bring it” and dropped his poop at my feet. Ewwwww.) It has been a joy to watch him heal throughout the months he has been at my side. 

This isn't about dog training. This is about how we humans can deal with perpetuators of injustices in the world around us. As I stand for equality, freedom, and reason (especially in the spiritual/religious sphere), I have to remember that those who exclude or abuse others based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or any other criteria are doing so because, according to their stories, it's the right thing to do. I also have to recognize that I don't know what those stories are, and it would be a mistake for me to make fantastic substitutes up for them. My focus needs to be on identifying the errant behavior, explaining why it is wrong, and offering alternatives that are more beneficial for all those involved.

The question I pose to others out there who seek justice as well is this: Is this possible? Can we focus on behavioral issues rather than accepting preconceived narratives of others? Is it possible to harness love in a similar way to positive dog training in order to bring about positive change in human society as well? I certainly hope so.

Bonus Video: Loki and Lugh playing in the leaves a month ago.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Abraham's Faith and Divine Psychosis

It has been a while since I've done a sermon. This is based on the lectionary passage for June 29th, 2014 (which is when I originally planned on posting it): Genesis 22.1b-14. It is the story of Abraham offering his sacrifice to God. As one of the most controversial passages in the Hebrew Bible, it is a tough one to preach. But, here goes.

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Sunday, July 06, 2014

What the Hell do We do with...Hell (Part 4)

Having already taken a brief look at conservative and moderate theologies of hell, the last episode began an exploration to a revisionist approach. In that episode, I asked whether we had better language for dealing with the same issues that hell addresses, and I chose to work with language of "justice".

Justice has boundaries. Crossing those boundaries leads us into injustice. Now it is time to ask how the language of justice helps us to deal with such transgressions.

I argue that there are different understandings of justice, which is largely based on where we are emotionally or developmentally. When I talk about divine justice, what I don't mean is "retributive justice." For those who want to learn more about the issues around retributive justice, I recommend reading works by Rene Girard. He is an anthropologist who explores the place of violence in cultures and the dynamic of "scapegoating". Also, consider the work of Walter Wink, with his emphasis on non-violence.

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Sunday, June 29, 2014

What the Hell do We do with...Hell (Part 3)

Whereas the first and second episodes in this series offer synopses of a conservative and moderate/traditionalist perspectives on hell, this one introduces us to what I consider to be a "revisionist" approach. The goal of the revisionist isn't to preserve the Christian tradition or to retranslate it. Rather, the goal is to reinvent Christianity for today.

Reinvention isn't simply making things up as we go along. Rather the process of reinvention takes seriously that which has gone before. It looks at previous theology in context and it tries to understand "why" the theology is as it is. It asks: What is the theology trying to do for its adherents as they make sense of their lives? Then, it asks: Is there a way to linguistically meet that human need in a way that is culturally appropriate today? So, while while approach recognizes and respects past Christian articulations, it doesn't privilege them.

Because this is the overall perspective I promote, this episode and the next will focus on a postmodern, revisionist, reinvention of "hell".

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Friday, June 20, 2014

What the Hell do We do with...Hell (Part 2)

In this four-part series, I explore various contemporary understandings of hell. Last episode looked at a couple of conservative evangelical approaches. This episode looks at a more moderate approach.

Those whom mainliners consider to be "moderates" (I prefer the term "traditionalists") are often very similar to evangelicals who consider themselves to be "progressive". Moderate traditionalists and progressive evangelicals struggle to maintain what they perceive as historical authoritative doctrine, while at the same time recognizing a certain disconnect from today's scientific worldview.

What we see is a desire to retain the traditional language, but they do so with a twist. The traditionalist approach is about "reinterpretation."This reinterpretation allows traditionalists to maintain a sense of continuity with the past, presumably to preserve their sense of historical authenticity, while seeking to be more relevant. As a result, the primary shift from a conservative to a moderate understanding of hell seems to be a focus more on the here and now than the afterlife.

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Sunday, June 15, 2014

What the Hell do We do with...Hell? (Part 1)

My impression is that many (if not most) progressives don't believe in "hell". This whole idea that a God who is love would consign someone to eternal torment just because they didn't say the magic words, didn't sign up with the right group, or did bad things is downright absurd to us. Even within Evangelicalism, we see a progressive contingent moving toward this position. Perhaps this is reflected most fully in Rob Bell's Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.

In this four-part series, I want to look at three different ways of dealing with the problem of hell: conservative, traditionalist, and revisionist. This part looks at the conservative approach. Many conservatives (primarily fundamentalist) simply accept that hell exists, simply because they believe the Bible says it is so. Other conservatives, however, struggle with the seeming incompatibility of hell and a loving God. So, they have come up with their own solution that retains, but modifies, the concept of hell.

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Commenting Policy

I approach virtual space the same way I do personal space. I don't go into someone else's space and disrespect the host. I expect the same respect of anyone who comes into my space.

Before commenting, remember this blog serves a specific function. It is meant to resource those who are genuinely interested in exploring a progressive or revisionist approach to Christianity. I hope those who want to discuss this will chime in. However, those who come here with an intent to argue, convert, or discredit will not be tolerated. General "trolling" (such as inauthentic questions or comments) will be removed. Arguing is not likely to lead to their restoration. If anything, it will verify the accuracy of my assessment.

Second, I expect those who participate to use language that is respectful of all others participating. Any flaming or questionable commentary will be removed. Restatements will be allowed, as long as they take a more appropriate tone.

In sum, my expectation is that those who come into my space is simple: behave respectfully toward myself and others. I don't think it's too much to ask.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Reflection on Ash Wednesday

From dust, to dust
While in seminary, four of us students set out to walk the outdoor labyrinth at Sinsinawa on Ash Wednesday. Actually, the trip was a mistake. We scheduled it on Ash Wednesday because we forgot what day it was. We decided to go anyway, and it was the best worship experience I can remember from my time there.

We entered the walk path one after another, giving enough space between us. I was the last to go in, which made me last to reach the center. I remember sitting in silence with the others. It was a slightly brisk night, so I wore a windbreaker. The sun had set, and the path was lit by torches. The time and space felt ordinary and sacred all at the same time. It was as if the two worlds had collided and truly become one. Sitting in the dust in silence, with the slight wind chilling me, I experienced the most powerful Ash Wednesday to date.
From dust you have come, and to dust you shall return.
Those are the words typically used during the imposition of ashes in the sign of the cross on foreheads in liturgical services.
Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.
Those are the words typically used a funerals.

There is a reason they sound so similar. We are all born, live our lives, and then die. That is the common thread that defines mortality. It is the pattern of existence that we all share. What we don't share are the details that make up our individual stories.

Many people consider Ash Wednesday to be a morbid holy day. The service can be heard as an echo of a funeral. The hymns sound like dirges. We are told that we are all going to die. And the silent procession moves through a darkened room. And (I suspect usually) the emphasis in the end is on how the eternal life of Christ overcomes the darkness of death. Indeed, we don't have to die; we can live eternally through Jesus Christ. It's no wonder many Christians don't highlight the evening on their calendars.

As for me, Ash Wednesday is actually my favorite holiday. There's a good chance it's because of the wannabe-goth in me. But I would prefer to think that it is because my spirituality has become more "human" through the years. Indeed, I believe my yearly Ash Wednesday reflections have contributed to my human-centric spiritual perspective.

The problem with the standard Ash Wednesday service is the way it portrays life. By focusing on a hope of eternal life through Christ, it takes our mortal life and makes it secondary to the "real" life that is to come. Today becomes nothing but a transition into tomorrow. It is as if this life is mainly to be endured until we are liberated from it and launched into something far better. This theology simply doesn't speak to where I am in my spiritual life any more.

I have come to experience Ash Wednesday as not a dismissal of, but a celebration of what it means to be a mortal human being. Yes, the grim reaper will come, but that's not really the point. While it might be the "end" of our story, it is the end of a story that creates the story's meaning. It is our awareness of the end that causes us to reflect on what is really important in this life. It nudges us to ask ourselves what it might mean for us to live vitally. As a dramatic celebration of human existence, it draws us into contemplating how we are part of a larger whole that is humanity itself, an identity that extends well beyond our own personal time and space.

Exciting as that interpretation is, however, I think I may have started to pass through even that.

I love Annabelle (my cat) and Loki (my dog). Later this month, we will celebrate Annabelle turning nine years old and Loki turning one. This will surely affect my evening meditations as it will be our first Ash Wednesday together. I will ponder the mistakes I've made with them. And I will relive our successes. Our life together has truly been filled with ups and downs. My fantasy would be that our time together would never ever end. But, the truth is that the end comes, whether we want it or not. If I were to estimate the odds based on age, Annabelle will die first, then Loki, then myself. The thought of losing either one of them pains me. But it also helps me to remember that I have a chance to give them a shot at amazing lives.

This is where I think I am growing. No, Annabelle and Loki aren't human. Regardless, together we form a household. They are like family to me. And they are helping me to realize that Ash Wednesday isn't about our mortality; it's about mortality itself. It isn't about that which makes human life meaningful; it is about that which makes all life meaningful (which includes cats and dogs). Just as the end of a story makes the rest of it significant, death claims the mortal life that we experience as mundane and transfigures it into the most sacred part of our existence. I feel as though the human-centric spirituality that I have embraced is changing into something else. Life is meant to be truly lived, whether it is human or not.

I'm not sure how this shift is going to affect me yet. And who knows, maybe I will return to where I have been after some time. This is all yet to be seen. Regardless, may we, and all creatures around us, live life to its fullest. And may we humans contribute to the fullness of life around us wherever we can.

Image source