Sunday, September 03, 2017

Sermon: Listening to the Cry of the Heart

Puppy Loki at about 7 months
after getting a hold of packing paper.
I was invited to preach at Atonement Lutheran Church in Beloit, WI. This sermon was preached publicly on 3 Sept 2017. It is fueled by Exodus 3.1-8a and Romans 12.9-21. Of course, I rarely miss a chance to talk about my dogs, so Loki makes an appearance. (I admit that he was a tough one to raise. It was all worth it, though. He has become a fantastic four-year-old dog.) Overall, the main phrase I wrestle with is "let love be genuine." What is "genuine" love, and how do we learn to do just that?

I previously mentioned that I have a Podbean channel. Since then, I've decided against it. I will keep up my basic account (which has reached its storage limit), but I will continue to consider other options. Meanwhile, I'll only host my podcasts on this blog. 

Friday, June 10, 2016

Podcast: Rule of Faith, Rule of Love, Rule of Hope

And now for something completely different. 

It's time to go back to podcasting. My friends of The Fringe hooked me up with great theme music. I asked for an "ambient gothic" sound, and it's perfect.

I will not be hosting the podcasts directly on here. You can find them on my new ECF-Net Podbean. I will, however, announce arrivals of sessions here, with a description of what's new. (Note: If you download the PodBean app, you can subscribe and listen to me on the road.)

Moving on to Episode 1

The first question I tackle with the podcast is "What is an 'authoritative' understanding of Scripture?" Historically, various factions of Christianity have answered differently. For some, it's what the church authorities declare to be authoritative. For others, it's what you read plainly on the pages.

My approach comes from a deconstructionist perspective, which prevents anyone from saying that they have the one, single "authoritative" reading that will enlighten everyone else. Rather, I use Daniel Migliore's three "rules" by which we can measure an interpretation for its legitimacy. These rules give us the opportunity to ask questions while we engage the text. They help us to question our very selves and keep our egos in check. What they don't do is reveal the kind of definitive answers that we all too often seek.

So, it's about a certain set of questions that lead to even more questions. But questions are good. They may be uncomfortable, but they are a sign of growth.

This session is in three parts. Skip through the links below to listen in.

The Rule of Faith, the Rule of Love, the Rule of Hope

References from the Podcast

In Episode 1, I mention Daniel Migliore's Faith Seeking Understanding. Here is the link to the work I referenced. 

In Episode 3, I talk about my video on Progressive Christian Hope. It's on my YouTube channel

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.

Because I don't like the way Google has integrated YouTube and Google Plus, I have deactivated comments on the YouTube page. If you would like to say something, please do so on my blog or Google Plus page.