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Archive for June, 2010

Sick

Yesterday my son woke up with a fever of 101.5 and a raspy cough.  He’s nearly twenty-two months old and this is only the second time I remember him having fever.  We gave him some Motrin, and his fever was gone, but he never got up to his usual intense level of play all day long.  This morning when he woke up with a fever again, we took him to his pediatrician.  They did a strep culture and a couple of other tests.   No strep, no ear infections, nothing.  It seems to be a little virus he’s picked up somewhere.  For some reason, Gabe was inconsolable in the doctor’s office.  He was relatively fine all day, just kind of fussy and lethargic, but at the doctor he just sobbed the whole time.  I think the poor guy was having vaccination flashbacks since the only time he ever really goes there is to get a shot.

Anyway, that’s the reason there hasn’t been any exciting posts lately.

By the way, if you were enticed here by the title of this post in the hopes that you were going to see disgusting and disturbing images and/or an overly descriptive and tasteless narrative, I’d just like to say go away and freak someone else  out, you weirdo.

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Suffering

There’s a scene in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 where the main character, Yossarian, is pretending to be a dying soldier so that a family can pretend he’s their son and brother, who died before they arrived, and say goodbye to him.  It’s a pathetic scene, and you really get a feel for the how pitiful, heartbroken, and sort of confused the family is as they try to desperately deal with their loss.   Heller’s masterful juxtaposition of humor and grief only seems to deepen the emotions that come with both.  The parents keep calling Yossarian by their dead son’s name while the brother continually corrects them long after Yossarian has stopped, and the mother leaves him with her final motherly advice to wear something warm in the afterlife.

But it’s the father’s parting words that stick with me.

Towards the end of this scene the father makes a statement that sums up his feelings, and seems to me, to sum up the feelings of all those who wonder how a good God can allow so much suffering on his world.  In a book filled with laugh-out-loud moments, the punch of poignancy lands that much harder.

The father continued solemnly with his head lowered.  “When you talk to the man upstairs,” he said, “I want you to tell Him something for me.  Tell Him it ain’t right for people to die when they’re young.  I mean it.  Tell Him if they got to die at all, they got to die when they’re old.  I want you to tell Him that.  I don’t think He knows it ain’t right, because He’s supposed to be good and it’s been going on for a long, long time.  Okay?”

I’ve never struggled much with this question, and I think there are a couple of reasons for that.  The first is that I’ve never directly experienced the sort of suffering that makes you question everything you believe in.  I’ve been blessed with a wonderful life, and so I’ll admit up front that any ideas I have about God and suffering  are drawn from purely intellectual means and not from experience.  I have, however, seen suffering.  I’ve been to Nicaragua, Honduras, and Belize.  I’ve seen an orphanage in Honduras for handicapped children whose parents didn’t want them.  If you think an orphanage in the United States is a bad place, you need to see one in a developing country.  I’ve seen a refugee camp in the middle of Managua, Nicaragua that looked like every tent was made from big, black trash bags and they stretched as far as the eye could see.  I’ve been to places in Belize where running water and electricity were intermittent at best and some places where they were nonexistent.  So I don’t come to this totally ignorant of what some people in the world have to endure to survive.

The second is that I believe very strongly in free-will and random chance.  While the freedom of humanity to make it’s own choices is never explicitly granted in the Bible it’s implied in every story from Genesis through Revelation.  Why did God put those two trees in the Garden of Eden and then tell Adam and Eve not to eat from them?  He wasn’t trying to tease them, and he didn’t have to include them.  He wanted to give them a decision to make.  He wanted them to have a choice.  Why did Jesus and the Apostles do all of that preaching and teaching in the New Testament?  Why did Paul write letters to churches urging them to change their ways?   It’s because people had choices to make.   This existence of free-will is necessary for the world to also include things like love and joy, or for that matter hate and pain.  You can’t have one without the other.  If we didn’t have free-will, we would all be just going through the preordained motions of either a manipulative God, or, for the atheist who takes a stance of determinism, causal natural forces.  Nobody really likes either of those ideas (or lives as if they believe them), or we wouldn’t get angry when someone committed murder because, really, it wasn’t their fault.  They didn’t make the choice to kill that person they were destined to do it because God, or the collisions of atoms, made them.

It’s my belief that pain and suffering are mostly the consequences of humanity having choices and that freedom to choose for ourselves is the greatest gift of a good God.  We always say, how can a good God allow so much suffering, and it’s true that an all-powerful God could stop that suffering at any moment, and certainly when we are the ones suffering we want him to.  But if stopping all of the suffering in the world meant doing away with free-will, we’ve lost something much greater.

I also believe that some pain and suffering comes from the existence of randomness in the universe.  Sometimes bad things just happen.  God isn’t in direct control of every little thing that occurs.  He doesn’t care if I roll double sixes twice in a row in Monopoly.  Or if he does care and he did control it directly, I could never tell the difference between his act and random chance anyway.

I acknowledge that these reasons for the existence of suffering aren’t very helpful if you are actually suffering.  I would never show up at a funeral and tell a grieving widow “Hey, at least you still have free-will, right?”, or I wouldn’t go up to someone screaming out “Why, God? Why?”  and say, “Don’t blame God.  It was just random chance that your puppy happened to be standing where that meteorite was going to land.”.  These aren’t comforting words, but they are how I’ve dealt with the question in my own mind.

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Fiction

I’m trying to decide if I want to enter the Memphis magazine fiction contest this year.  I did enter once a couple of years ago, but I haven’t felt like I’ve written a short story good enough to compete since then.  This year it’s possible I’ll have one that I at least won’t mind sending, although I’m pretty sure I’ll never have anything to send with any confidence.

The one time I did enter I didn’t win, but on the form letter I received was a hand written note from the contest coordinator that said “Jeff – I liked your story – “Falling” – keep writing – MS”.  It’s the single most encouraging thing I’ve ever gotten in response to my writing.  They may do that for everyone, but if so you can keep that information to yourself.

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Remember a couple of weeks ago when I called my two and a half hour doubles match in the Men’s Consolation finals epic and exhausting.  I didn’t know what I was talking about.  If you totaled up the time on court for every set of all four matches that I played it would still come out less than the Isner vs. Mahut second round record breaking match at Wimbledon.

These guys are my new tennis heroes.

I watched most of the fifth set off and on yesterday.  Mostly on, especially as that fifth set game count grew and grew and grew.  I was afraid that I would miss the end since I was teaching this morning, but it didn’t take long for me to find a live stream.  We all watched the final match point together.

How does Isner possibly play his next match?

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Here is the devotional I ended up giving tonight, expanded slightly.  Thanks to Smokey for the idea.  Also I’m pretty sure I stole the next to last line from him, but it’s a good one so I know he won’t mind.  Probably I should have gone with Brian and just told everyone ‘When a problem comes along, you must whip it.” and sat down.

Our Sunday morning class is reading and studying The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  It’s a great study on what it takes to truly follow the teachings of Jesus; something that a lot of us profess to do, but really don’t all that well.  Last evening about 25 people, mostly from our Sunday morning class, met at the Church to go clean up a vacant lot for Habitat for Humanity (on a side note, I think in the actual devo tonight I called it ‘Habitat for Humanities’ as if they build a bunch of museums and not homes).  There was an old house on the lot that had been bulldozed and the debris left behind.   For two hours we filled a giant dumpster with the remnants of the old house and got the place closer to ready for the new house to be built on.

Our class is reading and studying The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  It’s a great study on what it takes to truly follow the teachings of Jesus; something that a lot of us profess to do, but really don’t all that well.  Our service project yesterday grew out of that study.  As we’ve been talking about the sorts of things people who claim to be Christian need to be doing, people started bringing in ideas for various projects.  Last week in class we spent maybe five minutes talking about the book and the Biblical text and the rest of the time planning out actual ways to live it out.   What we’ve realized as a class is that this is a natural progression of God leading us.  This is how Church should work.  Sure you need to study, and be taught, but you also need to get out there and actually do something to help some people.

Here’s how this works in the Bible

In chapters 5,6, and 7 of Matthew, commonly referred to as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches his disciples what it means to be a disciple.  By chapter 10 he sends them out, not only to preach, but to help the needy as well.

The early church illustrated this perfectly.  Yes they met together to worship, sing, eat, and pray, but in Acts 4:32-35 we see that they also sold their homes and land, pooled the money, and distributed it to the poor and needy of the Church.

Paul traveled all around the Mediterranean preaching everywhere he went, but in Corinthians we find him lobbying heavily for a monetary collection meant exclusively for the poor Christians in Jerusalem.

James summarizes it best in chapter 2 verse 17:

So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

This isn’t to say that our Sunday morning class has suddenly evolved into super-Christians, following Jesus perfectly in all we do.  Far from it.  God has just helped us realize how much more we could be doing.  Actually it’s not just what we could be doing but really it’s what we should be doing.  We had 25 people yesterday and we moved a house in two hours.  In our congregation in Beebe we have about 250 members on Sunday morning, give or take a few.  That’s ten times the number that was out working yesterday.  If everyone worked we could accomplish so much more good in our community.  Our congregation does have some great programs.  We help with Children’s homes.  We have the Summer Food Pantry where we fix a meal and give food to eleven or so needy families every other week.  We have a group going to Belize this weekend and staying there to work for a week, and we have another group going to New Mexico later this summer on a mission trip.  There are several ways to get more involved in helping the poor and needy, but if everyone helped we could not only grow the programs we have and run the more efficiently, but we could do much, much more.

We need to start, naturally, where the early church started.  With our own brothers and sisters.  Frankly if there is a member of our congregation – our family – that is hungry, or needs clothes, or gas money, or  help in anyway at all and we aren’t doing everything we possibly can to meet that need including selling off our worldly possessions, then we have failed as a church.  We need to take down the sign out front and change it to the Church of something else, because Christ isn’t accurate.

The book we are reading is about the cost of discipleship, which means that to be a disciple of Christ it has to cost you something.  And the word cost doesn’t mean giving some extra money you don’t need (although anyone working for the benefit of the poor would gladly take that too), it means sacrifice.  It means digging deeper.  It means going without, so that someone else can benefit.  It means you give up your wants and desires for Jesus’s wants and desires.  Not just sometimes either, but all the time.  Faith has a cost.

If your faith doesn’t cost you something, you aren’t doing it right.

Let’s stand and sing.

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Devo

I’m supposed to give the Wednesday night devotional at church this week.  It’s a five minute-ish talk on whatever seems like a good idea that week, but nothing has really jumped out at me.  

The Wednesday night devo and I have sort of a sordid past.  A couple of years ago, I gave a devotional on how it’s okay to question anything; that questioning is the only way we can learn and grow as Christians.  I gave it as a response to an article that appeared in our Sunday bulletin that seemed to imply that anyone who questioned doctrines and traditions lacked faith and would one day be riding the final down escalator.  I took exception to this.  When I vocalized my misgivings from the pulpit, a few members (and maybe an elder or two) took exception to me.  Specifically, besides a vague bad feeling about the topic itself, they didn’t like the comments I made about the bulletin article, or that I ended with a blatantly sarcastic comment about the only people who don’t need to question being those who know all of the answers.  I didn’t learn this right away.  I received nothing but positive comments afterwards.  I assumed that some people would take offense, but I wouldn’t know for sure that there was a problem until a couple of other things happened.  

The first was the devotional on the following Wednesday.  A friend of mine gave it, and he talked about how some interpretation of scripture is unavoidable, and that nobody can take everything perfectly literally (eg. Jesus tells us to cut off our hand if it causes us to stumble, but we either still have two hands, or we lost one or both some other way than taking an ax to them ourselves).  The same segment of our congregation that was fuming over my devo now got shocked again, and this, apparently, was too much.   

The next occurence was on a Sunday morning not long after that Wednesday (maybe even the next Sunday, but it’s hard to remember this far out), when one of our Elders walked to the front, announced out of the clear blue sky that we would no longer be doing Wednesday night devotionals, offered no more information than that, and sat back down.  

After that, things got interesting.

I don’t say all of this to deliberately open old wounds, or to mock or belittle those who disagreed with me, so I would appreciate if there were no comments along those lines.  I bring all of that up, just to say that we’ve only been doing Wednesday night devotionals again for a few months now, this is my second time to give one since they were reinstated, and my choice in topics has become a little more…well…delicate.  I won’t shy away from the truth, and I’m not really interested in a lesson done just to appease certain people, but, in the interest of devotionals continuing for a little, I need to be a little more discreet.  So I need a topic that is relevant to everyone and true without seeming too controversial to specific groups.  

Any ideas?

I do want to apologize to anyone who found this blog mistakenly believing they were about to read a post on eighties music sensation Devo, performers of such classic hits as ‘Whip It’, and…some other stuff.

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A JMC Film

I think this may have been featured on Blogjammin’ in it’s former life, but I thought I’d include it again.  I’d actually forgotten that this was on YouTube until last night.  JMC films has actually made a couple more ‘films’, but out of respect for Smokey I won’t post them.  It’s a crime to deprive the world of his acting brilliance, but we’ll suffer through somehow.  So, without further ado…

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